Vietnam’s cosmopolitan centre Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 is the country’s largest city. 13,5 million people call it home. On first impression, Saigon appears modern, clean and orderly, but spend a few days here and pretty soon the Vietnam will shine through.
The roads in Saigon’s downtown are wide and pretty, with flowered boulevards and green spaces all over the place. The parks are full of exercising Vietnamese in the early morning. The sidewalks have bars installed to keep the scooters off.
Don’t be fooled, those bars are dented from scooters driving right over and around them. There are more scooters here than in Hanoi, in fact twice as many (almost 9 million registered) and they’re moving much faster. The traffic lights are just suggestions, and you are allowed to turn both right and left on a red. At first it feels safer, but that’s an illusion. I witnessed one bad scooter accident, a woman lying prone on the pavement afterwards. I locked eyes with a local at the scene and he was crying, as was I. The traffic didn’t stop.
On a bus ride through rush hour I stopped counting at 14 ambulances pushing their way through the clogged streets. They are hoping to complete a subway network this year. Judging by the progress, 2030 is a better bet.
Why so many scooters? If these were all cars, the traffic would be a nightmare. To encourage scooters the government has imposed a 200% tax on imported automobiles.
The Vietnam War
Prior to this trip, my knowledge of the Vietnam war could easily be summed up in the lyrics of a few protest songs. If you can believe it, Ray was going to give the War Remnants Museum here a pass, and I dragged him into it. It was one of the best museums I’ve seen, and the culmination of my education on this war.
The museums in Vietnam are history as seen through the eyes of the victor. If there were crimes committed by the North Vietnamese Army you won’t find it here, but there’s less of an air of propaganda in Saigon than the War Museum in Hanoi.
I won’t regale you with details, you need to visit this place yourself. I’ll just try to paint the picture for you. Imagine by John Lennon is piped in quietly through the whole building, just the the same poetry sung over and over. “Imagine all the people, living life in peace …“
Of all wars, the latter part of this one played itself out on TV’s and newspapers around the world without censure. Some US soldiers themselves were secretly publishing photos (and even an underground newspaper) of the atrocities being committed by their own troops. There’s the story of the helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson who landed into the middle of the Mai Ly massacre and saved dozens of innocent people hiding in a hole in the ground. These men are celebrated heroes here.
Room after room are filled with photographs, newspaper articles and statistics. We read it all, it was addictive, it was the story.
I met a woman in the museum whose father served two terms here, one of them in place of his brother. She had tears in her eyes.
We gained perspective from a Vietnamese man we met who fought on the losing side. I can’t mention his name because even today he is still afraid of the consequences of his convictions. After the war he spent two years in a re-education camp. For years after, he would occasionally be politely invited to visit a police station, to discuss his views. He said it’s been quiet for the last decade, and he’d like to keep it that way. He would have been a member of the ARVN, the Army of the People’s Republic of Vietnam but that’s not an acronym he’s ever heard before. By the time he joined, the Americans were withdrawing and there were over a million local troops fighting the north. He was fighting for capitalism. He has continued to suffer, being black listed by the government meant no chance for a successful career.
In Hanoi we saw the prisons and the weapons, in de Nang the graveyards and the monuments of the mass graves, and finally here the first hand reports, statistics, photos and news articles.
The Mekong Delta
A quarter of all Vietnam’s food is grown in the Mekong Delta region of the country. The Mekong is the 7th longest river in the world, 4350 kms. It passes through 5 countries: China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam where it finally empties out into the South China Sea. It’s the silt and mud of this great length that accumulates south of Saigon, making the land so fertile.
We spent only one day in the region, but a tour company GetYourGuide, and specifically our guide Sally made it time well spent. We took a ferry across the river to Unicorn Island where we hiked through an orchard and sampled delicious exotic fruit, cycled through a coconut plantation and paddled a local boat through the narrow canals. It was a long, full day with a great group of travellers. It’s not the same as spending some real time in the region, but it was a great overview of the agricultural importance of the region.
Our time in Vietnam is over. We’re off to Cambodia. This has been a wonderful country to travel through, and a moving experience.