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Saturday, March 24, 2012

19 in Vietnam

There's a song from 1985 by  British keyboardist Paul Hardcastle that's been on my mind during most of our time in Vietnam.  It's called 19, and it features the voice over from a documentary about the Vietnam War, along with audio clips from soldiers and some ABC TV news coverage about the war.  The main focus of the words is that the average age of the combat soldier in Vietnam was 19, compared with the average age of the World War II soldier being 26.  I had the song going through my head when we went to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.
Saigon was the final city on our itinerary during what would wind up being our 19-day stay in Vietnam.  Before arriving here, we didn't have a definitive plan on how long we would be there.  We were arriving in Hanoi on March 3rd, and we had to be in Penang by April 9th to get our flight to China.  During those 36 days, we knew we wanted to spend time in not only Vietnam, but also Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia.  The plan was to spend about 10-12 days in each country.  But once we got an idea of how much there was to see and do, we knew we would be spending at least two weeks in Vietnam.

The official name of the largest city in Vietnam is Ho Chi Minh City, and that's the name listed on bus schedules and most maps.  Most locals call it Saigon, so that's what we did during our four days there.  We originally planned to take the overnight train from Danang to Saigon, but on either one of the two nights that worked with our schedule, the train was sold out.  Fortunately, Vietnam airlines has several flights a day between the two cities, and we found one that offered a good fare at a time that didn't mean an early wake up call, and we were off on the voyage of just a little over an hour.

Karma came through again, as a woman in Cincinnati heard me on WLW when I phoned in a report from Hanoi.  She sent me a message on Facebook saying that her son works in Saigon and I should get in touch with him.  Turns out her son is a vice consul at the US Consulate in Saigon and had a three bedroom apartment overlooking the consulate.  He offered us up the two spare bedrooms and some great local knowledge for free.  

The consulate is in what our host, Joe, described as the nicest part of Saigon, with wide streets lined with trees and restaurants and shops.  The view from his 15th floor balcony was beautiful and stretched for miles.

Down on the street level it was a different story.  Motorbikes and scooters ruled the road just as they did in Hanoi, darting in and out of the busy traffic, and even speeding down the sidewalk during rush hour. 

Saigon is a very modern city, and for the most part pretty clean, much more like Singapore than Hanoi.  It still had plenty of Vietnamese flavor and we took advantage of some of the low prices to be found on shoes and clothing at some of the massive markets in the city.

The most famous one is the Ben Thanh Market which lived up to what we had read about it.  The market is packed with stalls which are separated by what products they sell and grouped together.  The pathways through the market are very narrow and at times you literally have to step over vendors sitting on little plastic stools at their booths.  After negotiating to buy some shirts and some other trinkets, we tried to navigate our way toward the sunlight coming from the busy Le Loi street.  Doing that meant running the gauntlet of some very aggressive vendors who emerged from their stalls holding up shirts and pants and shorts saying "Madame! Madame!" or "Sir! Sir!" We were very happy to make it successfully through that and back into the scorching heat of the streets of Saigon.

After spending most of our more than three months on the road talking to ourselves, it was nice to spend some time with Joe.  He took us out the first night to a restaurant called The Black Cat.  It was a unique place with some great food that features some monster hamburgers.  Annie had enchiladas and raved about them being some of the best food that she had on the trip.  The next night the kids stayed at home with some soup and macaroni and cheese while Joe and Annie and I went out for some pretty tasty Indian food at a restaurant that was a short walk away from his place.  Nothing like sharing some butter chicken and lamb Rogan Josh with some Naan.

Our final night in Saigon was a blast.  Joe invited some friends and co-workers over as he cooked some pasta with some yummy meatballs for a crew that immediately got along very well.  The people who worked with Joe at the Consulate talked about the transient nature of their jobs, as they moved from assignment to assignment every couple of years or so.  They took great interest in our travels and gave us some helpful suggestions of some potential locations.  The night concluded with some karaoke and an exchange of emails as we added to our stable of friends.
The fun of the evening helped wash away the somber mood we felt after visiting the War Remnants Museum.  The reviews we read before we went there spoke of the strong "anti-American" sentiment of the exhibits and displays.  After viewing the three levels of photographs and some of the weapons used in the war between the United States and Vietnam, we came away feeling that for the most part, it was a fair representation of the fighting and the damage done to and by both sides.  

Seeing the photos of the difficult terrain and the jungle setting that was completely foreign to US troops, I thought of a line from the classic book by Graham Greene, The Quiet American.  The setting is Saigon in the early 50s as the French are fighting the Viet Minh.  The author writes of the difficulty faced at that time by the soldiers from France:  "A war of jungle and mountain and marsh, paddy fields where you wade shoulder-high and the enemy simply disappear, bury their arms, put on peasant dress."

The museum focused a lot on the horrors of napalm and Agent Orange.  With that came a lot of pictures of victims of both and included some of young people with birth defects attributed to dioxin exposure from Agent Orange.  An hour or so that was pretty much all any of us could take, so we retreated to the outside and the relative safety of the displays of US war power.

After almost three weeks in Vietnam, I'm no closer to understanding the language than I was when we first arrived in Hanoi.  It remains a complete mystery, especially hearing it spoken.  It's a little disconcerting to walk down the street as I did in Hoi An, past a shop keeper who barked something to his wife inside just as I strolled by.  My hope was that he was saying something along the lines of "stop nagging me woman!" instead of "Honey, get me the knife-you know, the big one we use on the Americans!"  In reality though, we've had no threatening or uneasy moments here and most people have been very pleasant and welcoming. 

As our time here comes to an end, Annie and I have asked each other whether or not we would return to Vietnam.  Our immediate answer was yes, especially to re-visit Hoi An.  As much as we liked Hanoi, we would probably rather spend our time in the quieter, warmer southern city.  It's got a civility and mystery about it that was very intriguing and appealing. 
Our time in Vietnam was very fulfilling, challenging and invigorating.  The situations and people that we encountered are exactly what we hoped to come across when we planned this part of the trip back home in Cincinnati.  After three overnight train trips, two four-hour bus rides, a night on a boat, and a flight from Danang to Saigon, it's time to move on.  And while we will have left Vietnam behind, we will take amazing memories of it with us on the rest of our journey and beyond.

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