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"We still call it Saigon"

VIETNAM | Monday, 26 June 2017 | Views [90]

Saigon (Ho Chi Min City), Vietnam

Ho Chi Min, previously called Saigon, is known to be a very busy city. I was a little less than thrilled to stay in another big city. I stayed in a hostel again, the small sacrifice of privacy doesn't out way the free breakfast and cheap room.
The itinerary included eating Pho, a tradition Vietnamese soup, visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, the War Remnants Museum, and a few other smaller attractions.
I started with a full day tour just outside of the city. The Cu Chi Tunnels are an extensive network of underground tunnels made by the Viet Cong during the American Vietnam War. The tunnels had three levels where women, children, and soldiers lived. The main purpose of the tunnels was for tactical warfare by the Viet Cong. I won't go into to details of the war but briefly it was war fought between the years of 1955-1975 between North Vietnam and their allies in the south (Vietnam Cong) and South Vietnam with the United States. The United States military involvement provided assistance to South Vietnam to prevent a communist takeover by the north. My tour guide walked my group through well cleared paths in the jungle explaining the elaborate tunnel system below our feet. Entrances in the ground floor could be seen as well as air holes made for breathing and ventilation. The visitors were allowed to squeeze through a 100 meter of a portion of a tunnel. Some people could not enter solely due to height and weight limitations. The walls were tight and walking was defined as a crouched position shuffling your feet creating a deep burn in the thighs and gluteal muscles. At times we kept descending, increasing my anxiety and disbelief that I was only on the first level of the tunnels, and there were two more levels below! Given the physical frame of the Vietnamese people and their uncanny ability to crouch with their entire heels touching the ground, maneuvering through the tunnels was not a challenge. The same cannot be said about the bulky Americans and their inability to launch a defense was nearly impossible. Another disadvantage for the Americans was the jungle terrain. As I walked on the cleared paths in the outdoor museum I tried to peer into the wooded jungle and image the American farm and city boy soldiers introduction to this tropical world. The densely packed trees and vines, stifling humidity and heat, monsoon downpours and wet gear followed by endless attacks by mosquitos, all without acclimatization, just thrown into the thick of it. I was further disturbed by the most brutal encounter, the traps. Most consisted of dug out holes in the ground with various constructs of stakes designed to impale the torso or drive into the feet or stakes on a swing that fell from upper tree branches. If the traps didn't kill them then the deep wounds created an avenue for infection. The only offensive that could be made here for the U.S. was air raid bombing because walking into the jungle was a death sentence. The exhibit ended with a propaganda film showing the death of the innocent village people by the "evil" Americans. I nearly walked out but stayed and kept some perspective.

The following day I visited the the War Remnants Museum. The museum covered the differing political agendas between the north and the south, the U.S. intervention, the political outcry from a multitude of nations around the world, the escalation to war crimes, and the ultimate withdrawal and communist takeover. The big draw that most visitors to skip to was the graphic photos showing the fallout from the use of Agent Orange. The chemical gas crop dusted entire villages and areas of the region. Instantaneously it caused severe burns on the skin and respiratory tract. There is an iconic photo of a young girl running down the street naked after having just been fully covered with the chemical, she appears to be screaming from the unfathomable pain. The museum showed many pictures of significant physical deformities and cancers that developed, similar to a nuclear plant fall out. Contaminated grounds and thus reproductive organs even up to this day still plague these Vietnamese people of this region. As mentioned, most people started and finished with this display. The room also portrayed many photos of water boarding and other forms of torture and humiliation. Multiple historical accounts posted on the walls discuss mass killings of villages including women and children by U.S. troops. I wondered how these once "Leave it to Beaver" boys could transform into these type of killers. As brutal as it may have been, it seemed like more than just anger and revenge of the enemy for their comrades and friends they lost. There were no rules in this war, I can understand that, but to take what appeared as pleasure in killing was difficult to understand. At one point during this exhibit tears started to role down my cheeks and when I reached for a tissue I realized I wasn't the only one. I left feeling hopeless because these repetitions continue today and the outcries from the world go unheard.

That evening I walked home after a nice bowl of Pho. Pho or noodle soup is a traditional dish consisting of a bowl broth with noodles and choice of beef, chicken, or shrimp. The soup comes with a heaping plate of basil, been sprouts, sometimes cabbage or block hoy, and a slice of lime. It's quite delicious but I'm not how they can eat this meal for breakfast, most tourists will eat it for lunch or dinner. After noodle soup, I noticed a park between two major busy streets. Flanked by two busy streets the park provided a social sanctuary amongst the harsh humming and honking of city. It wasn't large and had very little green spaces but there were many people engaged in various activities. I initially wondered over because I heard a very fast paced workout style music. I came upon an area of women of mixed ages and workout clothes doing some stationary exercise/ dance moves. They pumped their hips back and forth while shaking their arms and head to the same beat, then the beat would change and so would they. One fit woman was leading the group and with every change in the dance move the women were either slow to catch up or just oddly uncoordinated to follow along. Another section of the park had two bad mitten courts were mixed teams of men and woman skillfully keeping a volley back and forth. The teenagers played a modified badminton using their feet to kick the birdie around just like the American hackysack game. Another area had a group of mixed age and gender people dressed in black martial art uniforms succinctly practice drills lead by an instructor's grunts. People walked briskly around the small lotus filled pond in the middle of the park or sit on benches taking and watching. The whole scene reminded me of NYC, people just lived in the chaos, not letting it dampen their spirits, finding creative ways to live within the city jungle. And it is a jungle, like any other jungle. It's a people jungle that can be admired just the same as a green forest jungle. The beauty is in the energy that lives and breaths. Before the night ended, I just happen to smile at three Vietnamese teens as they walked by and without hesitation they stopped and asked if I wanted to talk, help them practice English. We sat and spoke for about an hour sharing our lives, past, present, and our dreams of the future yet to come. I appreciated their enthusiasm and amusement in me as some sort of rare creature although I'm most likely not the only one they hunted at this park. These cities can be deceiving. Upon entering they look like a mess of traffic, quick changes from nice to dirty areas, and loads of people. A leisurely walk around can be frustrating as people whiz by bumping shoulder and a few elbows. Sometimes the best thing to do is start with the basics: settled in with the lodging, orient yourself briefly with a map, feed yourself, then wander out and find a place not too crowded, like the park, and sit and watch. I feel it helps makes the city sounds less deafening, your heart a chance to feel the energy before diving in, and allowing your eyes the ability to see how it all functions.

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