Noisy, vast and hot, we had reached Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a place full of history, vibrancy and of course bikes. Big cultural sights include The War Museum, Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral and just out of the city Cu Chi Tunnels. Beyond that there’s a vast indoor market, fancy bars and so much food!
Standing tall and proud, the palace is both a museum and a piece of history in itself. These are the walls that housed president Ngo Dinh Diem and the American officials. Inside you can see the way the Palace life used to be, from the war plans down in the basement, to the grandeur of the living rooms. Go in for an informative few hours, watch a film and see the views from the balcony.
The War Museum
What’s a capital city without a museum or two. Vietnam, like most the world, has a history of war and injustice. In the museum, I learnt of it’s war history, including the events that lead to the American War, and the details of what happened.
After getting my head around the politics -I think-, I went to the exhibition floor to face the wars images. Photojournalists took some heart wrenching photos of the brutality, and the everyday life of the people back then. Along with the photos are facts, plastered on the walls, bringing into perspective the scale of what happened. Being emotional and stubborn, I couldn’t help but cry. They were angry tears, that screamed at the soldiers, that burned for the children, that spat at governments. It scares me too, knowing what people can do to one another.
Agent Orange was a huge part of the war, and still is. It is the most toxic chemical known to man, destroying, incinerating almost, everything it goes near. Mangroves were sprayed, and won’t grown again for one hundred years. It was sprayed on people too, in an attempt to attack the impossible rebel army and force allied farmers out of their towns. It caused permanent damage, with deformity still present generations later:
“From 1961-1971, the US army sprayed about 80,000,000litres of chemical substances, and Agent orange… on 26,000 points and 25% of vietnams territory. More than 3,000,000 people became victims of agent orange.”
Those who they couldn’t trust we not only gassed, but murdered too:
“From 8-9pm on 25/02/69, a group of seal rangers, lead by lieutenant Bob Kerry, reached hamlet 5, Thanh Phong Village…They cut 66 year old Bui Van Vat and 62 year old Lui Thi Canh’s necks and pulled their three grandchildren out from their hiding place in a drain and killed two, disembowelled one. Then…shot dead 15 villagers, including 3 pregnant the women. One twelve year old survived.”
The atrocities grew:
“In one morning of march 1968, at Co Luy and Tu Chung Village… US troops killed 504 civilians, among whom were : 182 women (17 pregnant), 173 children, and 60 men and women over the age of 60.”
The museum taught me a lot, and made me look at the Vietnamese people in a different way. What do they know? What have then seen? What is going on today, somewhere in the world, that will scar that person forever?
The first day we went to the park, we didn’t know it yet but we were about to really get to know the locals. Big groups of ten to twenty people were massing in the park, chatting away. One woman with a neat bob and bright reddy-orange lips approached us and asked for a photo. I’d been getting a lot of stares and wasn’t all that surprised, they seemed friendly too so we snuggled in for their photo.
They then asked if they could practice their English with us. Being a linguophile, I was more excited than they were. The woman did all the introductions and then we were off. Where we’re we from? Do I have a pet? What do I think of Vietnam? Do you have any Brothers or Sisters? Some asked the basics, copied onto scraps of paper held in shaky nervous hands, eased out of them by the woman (clearly a sort of leader). A couple of them were a pinch too quiet, with beginners English, causing an awkward repeat it again please moment.**
Others were more confident, I talked at a steady pace, not going fully native but not being a textbook either. I could see them watching my mouth, listening carefully to the sounds of the words, the rhythms, making notes. They asked playfully about me and James, did I love him? How long were we together? Did he like Vietnamese girls? Where did we meet?
Selfishly, the most valuable conversations were with two guys with smooth English, simply because they were that; conversations. We spoke for longer than I’d thought -time flies eh?-, and I felt a little gutted when we said our goodbyes. I should’ve got a contact.
Ben Thanh Market
The market is pretty massive. It’s a vague rectangle shape, that brings some order to the otherwise endless chaos. Each row has a theme: clothes, electricals, grocery and materials. In the webs between are shoes, cookery, flowers, coffee, soap… brace yourselves for the groceries section, it quickly turns into meat, where a mass of flies have formed a nest and the rancid smell makes you recoil. Ahh Asia. We bought ourselves a new towel each because the stench of our old ones had finally reached the limit. Turns out Ben Thanh market is a great place to shelter from rain too. We got caught in a flood from the sky, which made road rovers a foot or more deep, and washed out all the shops. We later found out that it was the biggest rainstorm in three years.
**I was reminded of salsa classes with my mum. She used to take me every few weeks for a couples of years or so when I was a preteen, smuggling me in, we were among friends. She told me that a good dancer can dance with anyone, be it a challenge of a more advanced partner, an average regular, or a beginner with two left feet. All dancing is practice, for you and for them, and you never know who you might meet. Salsa, like all dancing, is a language of the body, something that should envelop everyone into its arms and invite all with its sensual hips. I thought of this as I strained to hear broken English, be patient, help them, open up your language like your salsa.**