Tuesday 27 January 2015

Days 246-7: Ho Chi Minh City - Inappropriate selfies

The soviet-built NVA tank that stormed the Palace gates in 1975
Hello Ho Chi Minh City, named for the communist leader of independent Vietnam.  Hello also to MacDonalds, Burger King, Subway, KFC, Starbucks, oh and there's another MacDonalds just over there.  But hang on a moment - the Americans lost the war and the free market stayed away from this country, right?  Hmm.  Perhaps the capitalists should just have waited a few decades; they certainly seem to be doing okay in Saigon now.  That's not to say you can't still see socialist propaganda posts - there's a shop full of them, for tourists to buy as souvenirs, just across the road from our hotel.  But first, I'm in the market for a whole steamed tilapia and the best Pho (noodle soup) in Vietnam at the Five Oysters (which we highly recommend, by the way).

Motorbike parking dominates at the war remnants museum.
This communist [sic] city badly needs public transport!
Joking aside, you can't go sightseeing in Saigon and ignore the Vietnam War.  For more information we headed to the War Remnants Museum, which was deeply shocking.  The pictures of those affected by Agent Orange could be nothing else, of course - tormented, agonising and too-little-recognised - but there were ways in which I hadn't expected to be shocked.  For example, what kind of people stand grinning in front of tanks (in which many people died horribly and unnecessarily in the Vietnam War) so they can have their picture taken?  Worse, what kind of parents encourage their kids to do this?  As a venue for the world's most inappropriate selfies, this museum is well up there.

Leaving the selfie-takers to their macabre entertainment in the museum courtyard, we headed to the museum's interior which was informative, earnest, distressing and, at times, gave a sense that it was trying almost too hard.  Most people consider the American invasion of Vietnam to have been a bad idea or something far worse.  So loading the text with heavy adjectives and condemnations (as though you're trying to write propaganda when actually you're making a widely-accepted case) seemed like a bit of an own goal.  But stylistics aside, the museum was definitely one to linger in the mind in the most harrowing of ways.

Bunker in the basement of the independence palace
Continuing the war theme, we visited the palace where the South Vietnam government (known here as the imperialists' puppet government) controlled its troops from basement bunkers then entertained its guests in some of the world's most tastelessly decorated rooms or in the rooftop bar and cinema.  (Notes on arrival for distinguished visitors; there's a helipad on the roof.)  Then we revived with coconuts followed by a steamed Mekong catfish, which Guy belatedly discovered is an endangered species.  Oops.

Saigon day two took us to a land of further inappropriate selfies and, worse, inappropriate gunshots.  'Come to the Cu Chi tunnels and shoot a gun!'  Yeah, yeah.  Shoot a gun in the place where so many civilians lost their lives at gunpoint.  Come on!  The selfie-takers lined up in front of captured American tanks again; the would-be marksmen lined up to pull the trigger; I felt sick and regretted coming.  But with the explosions behind us, historical interest started taking an up-turn in the form of re-created traps set by the Viet Cong for their American enemies; also sandals made of used car tyres (waste nothing in times of war) and of course the tunnels themselves.  They looked about a metre high and somewhat less width-ways.  It was claustrophobia hell.

Susan disappears down into the Cu Chi tunnels
"When the Viet Cong used these tunnels, there was only an exit every half a kilometre or so," our guide (who asked us to call him John Wayne) told us.  "You can crawl along them if you like.  See you in Cambodia!"

But false exits had been built every ten metres to help us pathetic tourists.  I managed about one metre before ducking out again.  On take two, I pulled myself together and managed twenty metres.  The boldest tunnel-crawlers managed thirty.  Yes, you have to be desperate to crawl for five hundred metres then another five hundred then another five in the mud and vermin and malaria and bullet-in-the-dark world of the Cu Chi tunnels.  After all our selfie anger, we were glad, in a pained way, that we had visited them.

US Army Chinook at the war remnants museum
American F5 fighter 
Some of the ordinance left behind by the Americans in Vietnam
Uncle Ho's photo dominates the independence palace
Meeting room in the independence palace
Guy's new office
Man trap on display at the Cu Chi tunnels
Exploring the Cu Chi tunnels

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