Ho Chi Minh City: War and Culture

Day two in Hi Chi Minh City was just as bustling and busy as day one. After a decent sleep, I woke up early, had pho and toast for breakfast and set out for what would be an exhausting and rewarding day.

After doing some research and reading the night before, I’d planned to visit the Reunification Palace (also called Independence Palace) and the War Remnants Museum, before going further afield to visit the Jade Pagoda, and maybe more.  Walking to the palace, I turned down several offers to hop on scooter tours, but deciding it wouldn’t actually be a half bad idea I stopped to talk to one man. We had a brief chat and discovering the price was only 200 000 VND (about $11.50), I hopped on and we scooted away. 

My visit to the Reunification/Independence Palace was subdued but powerful. I’d recently watched a documentary about April 30, 1975, and to now be standing on the same ground and walking the same halls where so much recent history happened was quite overwhelming.  The final removal of American personsel from Saigon was a dramatic and intense affair, ending with a final declaration of a united (and communist) Vietnam – thirty years after Ho Chi Minh first declared an independent Vietnam to end French, control, and twenty years after America installed itself in the country to attempt to halt the spread of communism. 

The Palace has been restored to its former 1960s architectural and design glory. The bamboo inspired facade and breezy walkways offer stunning views of the surrounding park and city. The furnishings straight from your grandmothers house, low, sleek and minimalistic, with chandeliers everywhere and a plethora of different wallpapers.  The self-guided tour brochure took me around every floor, except the first, which was closed for preparations for Vietnam’s National Day, September 2, marking 70 years of Vietnam’s self-proclaimed independence. There were helpful and informational signs for many rooms, and photos were allowed everywhere. The bunker in the basement was the last floor to visit and was quite startling in its maintained detail. Desks, chairs, phones and a ton of communication and transmission devices filled the rooms, even wartime maps of Vietnam, showing areas of involvement and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was definitely an eye opening glimpse into the past.   

 My next stop was the War Remnants museum. I think it used to be called the War Crimes museum, but the Vietnamese, in their seemingly unending spirit of forgiveness and acceptance, renamed it to reflect that the war is in the past. 
Starting on the third floor and working my way down, the few hours I spent looking at pictures and reading captions were pretty heavy. Starting with the end of French rule in 1945, the museum systematically chronicled the next 30 years of war in Vietnam.  As is the case with any national war museum, the story is told from the perspective of the country who’s soil you’re standing in. That said, it’s pretty difficult to rationalize American, French, Cambodian, Korean, Australian and New Zealand’s roles in what started out as a civil war.

Probably my favourite display, if one can favour an atrocity, was the second display, ‘Requiem’, a “collection of war documentary photos taken by 134 journalists from 11 countries, killed during the Indochina War”.  

The photographs are remarkable; sharing all sides of the conflict in black, white and colour. It’s really difficult to put into words how I felt, and still feel about this exhibit, and my experience at the museum in general. I did make a concerted effort, however, to look at every picture and read every caption; I figured it’s the least I could do for the privilege of being able to visit Vietnam.

Somewhat luckily for me, the museum closed for lunch before I had a chance to see the remaining floors. I got to take a break and a bit of a breather and explore further afield from the city centre. I headed next to the Jade Pagoda, and to be honest it was a bit of a let down. Very basic, and crammed between more modern buildings, it wasn’t particularly worth the trip, though whizzing around Saigon on the back of a scooter was pretty awesome. 

I stopped for lunch (bahn mi and Vietnamese iced coffee) and drove over the Saigon River on a bridge and then back across via the tunnel!   

Somewhere during lunch I had a discussion with my scooter driver to discover that the price of 200 000 VND was in fact only for a portion of the day, and so had to hastily renegotiate a deal to avoid getting even more gouged. I rarely fall victim to these types of scams, but it happens now and again – doh!

I arrived back at the museum and tackled the other exhibits, particularly the war crimes: imprisonment and Agent Orange. I won’t go into much detail, but will mention that a visit to the museum is a worthwhile way to spend half a day.

Needing a complete change of pace, I decided to get lost, my favourite thing to do in any city. I set a loose destination of a neighbourhood I though might be interesting (knowing I would never make it there) and started walking. I crossed busy streets and wandered down quiet alleys. Then I saw this:  

Actually the stall was full of all sorts of delicious looking sea creatures, and I knew it was time for second lunch. The two women who ran the little restaurant did not speak any English, my Vietnamese is limited to a garbled three words; I still made it clear that I desired to taste whatever it was that they were making, and laughing, they say me down at a table, and cooked me the delicious things I had pointed at, and showed me how to eat them. This scrumptious meal cost a whopping $4 CAD.   

 As I was enjoying, I espoused across the street a hair salon, and inquired as to the cost of a cut: 100 000 VND or less than $6 CAD. Even if they messed it up, at least my hair would be short again. 45 min and an incredible haircut later, I posed with my awesome new stylist and hit the street again, ready and revived to tackle more of Ho Chi Minh City.  


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