Sunday, July 22, 2007

Saigon

It's a miracle that we even made it to Saigon. We had all been out at Finnigans the night before, finally winning quiz night, to our astonishment. We took the $100 prize money, thinking that we'd come into some real wealth. But they failed to inform us that quiz night winners are expected to buy pitchers for all the other teams. So we didn't really win much of anything, save the immense satisfaction of finally beating all the Wankers.

Needless to say, none of us were pleased to be woken up at 6:30, and a few of my companions seriously considered sacrificing the trip in return for six more hours of sleep. But with a little prodding, we all made it out of the Bao Khanh.

We landed in Saigon and drove through the city to the Happy Inn Hotel. Saigon's streets are wider than Hanoi's but there are almost no trees. Instead, chaotic webs of black power lines line the roads. Saigon is also more commercial. The buildings are plastered with endless advertisement for Japanese electronics, and there are far more new towers housing banks or five star hotels. Nevertheless, I didn't sense that the average person is much wealthier than their Hanoi cousins.

Pyramids of lychee berries on the sidewalk

By the way, I've decided to call the city Saigon, rather than the official Ho Chi Minh City. I found that most of the locals refer to their city as Saigon, rather than HCMC, which is a mouthful. Saigon was the scene of some of the most traumatic events in American history, and as an American, it feels appropriate to call it Saigon. Plus, Saigon just sounds cooler.

After checking in, we set out to see the sights. We at a quick lunch at Loteria, a fast food burger chain that's much more common in Saigon than in Hanoi, and then arrived at a huge traffic circle beside an indoor market. We watched Adam insist to the wily saleswomen that they in fact didn't have any shirts that would fit him and we got on our way, dodging book sellers and lightermen to reach a glimmering square with a Louis Vuitton shop and a French opera house.

Further down the avenue, we came across a statue of Ho Chi Minh tenderly holding a child, in front of an impressive municipality building that's now eclipsed by a new HSBC tower. In general, I've found that major French buildings are well maintained in Vietnam. Instead of letting the relics of colonialism crumble, the government keeps them in mint condition, although this may have something to do with France, which gave a whopping $13 million to repair the Hanoi Opera House. In Saigon, we may have seen this money in action when we came across a team of painters repainting a French building. They used long, flexible bamboo ladders to rope themselves up to the higher windows.
Tim, Adam, Me, Mark, Duane, DJ E.J. Hicks

We moved on to the Reunification Palace, the modern name for the behemoth that formerly served as the headquarters of the French and then South Vietnamese regimes. The facade was a standard, unappealing 1960s lattice grill, but the interior was strange and eerie. It's an undefined mixture between a museum and a government convention center. Sections were roped off because some conference was in session, while other wings were left open for tourists to navigate their way around vacuous, unmarked corridors.

In the basement, there were concrete command bunkers with a few sample maps and American-made communications equipment casually left around to stimulate what it would have been like in the tense war era. The upper floors were much more luxurious. Marble reception rooms were filled with stylish couches and post-modern paintings. The building was a monument to 1960s and 1970s hedonism. On the rooftop, next to the helipads, there was a wooden performance stage, which must have once been crowded with jazz bands. I could picture the place in past evenings, crawling with corrupt generals, white-gloved wives and friendly American diplomats.



On April 30, 1975, the party ended. Communist forces stormed the building, capturing the South Vietnamese leadership and ending three decades of war. From the rooftop, I had a nice view of the gate which Communist tanks knocked down as they overran the compound. Tank 390, the first through the gate, was on display not far from the momentous scene.


That evening we took a cab out to a French restaurant, but were dismayed to find that we couldn't have eaten there without a reservation. That mistake cost us almost two hours and a lot of angst. We drove to another restaurant listed in the guidebook, but it simply didn't exist. Frustrated, we walked around a traffic circle that was in the middle of a bustling set of cafes. The cafes were huge, lively places, many seating at least 500 people, all Vietnamese. We went around to each and asked to look at the menus, but astonishingly, they didn't sell food. We looked at the tables, and only saw drinks. It was scandalous. What type of mega-cafe doesn't serve food?! In despair, we ordered a taxi to the one place in Saigon we knew for sure would have food--an Italian restaurant that we'd walked by earlier when we were near the Opera House.

By the time we were done it was almost 11 and we decided to go to Vietnam's most famous nightclub. We pulled up to Apocalypse Now and were eyed by several unfriendly security guards. Inside, people were sitting at densely packed tables sipping cocktails. There were groups of Chinese businessmen, Vietnamese socialites and solitary Westerners, but not a single Western female. Swimming around these islands of men, were hundreds of done-up Vietnamese women. It was immediately clear that this place was a massive front for prostitution. We left before too long and went to bed early.

The next morning we were taken to a tourist bus rendezvous and forced to wait for our bus to the Cu Chi Tunnels. As we stood on the sidewalk, we noticed a guy in a nearby bar dancing wildly with two Vietnamese girls. It was almost nine in the morning, and this guy was rounding out his evening. I started taking pictures and the guy came out to talk to us, or, in his mind, party with us. He posed with Tim for a while and then introduced himself as Keith, whipping out a business card for a sports bar...

Kieth Halterman; Director; The Office and Boardroom


He told us to come to The Office that evening and hang out with him. Since his night was obviously much more interesting than ours had been, we considered it. He took off with his companions. An attractive woman started peeling off Kieth's friend's shirt in the middle of the street. We later found out that she was a transvestite.

After a bumpy van ride into the countryside, we arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnels complex and were led by an old, jovial guide who had fought in the South Vietnamese Army. He showed us around the grounds, the site of an elaborate defense network that defied American and South Vietnamese forces for years. At varying points along the trail, there were exhibits to show visitors the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Viet Cong. One hut displayed a dozen types of ferocious booby traps. Another showed Viet Cong manequin models making land mines out of unexploded American bombs.
Other exhibits were more hands on. In the middle of a clearing, there was a shoebox sized hole in the ground representing the entrance to one of the many underground tunnels. It was barely big enough for me to squeeze in. Further on, there was an actual stretch of tunnel, and with great difficulty we were able to crawl through the narrow, pitch black passageways. I was happy to get out after five minutes and did not envy the soldiers who spent weeks in there as bombs shook the ground above them.

As we made our way through the displays, the distant pop of automatic weapons grew louder until we reached a break stop, where the violent blasts were strong enough to make me jump. We'd reached the firing range, where tourists pay money to shoot period weapons. At $1.30 per bullet, I was not about to try it out, but several of us got to shoot automatic machine guns, AK-47's and M16's. I was incredibly struck with how loud the guns were. I've fired high caliber rifles, shotguns and pistols, but always with earmuffs. And I've shot an AK-47 without earmuffs, but the bullets were very small, so it wasn't too loud. These guns all used very large cartridges and the blasts were so violent that I could feel the destruction from a few feet away. Each time I forgot to cover my ears, I regretted it. I can't imagine what it would be like to be on a modern battlefield with hundreds of these fearsome things go off at once, especially if many were pointed at me.


Having acquired a more intimate sense of what the Vietnam War might have been like, we went back to Saigon and I decided to take a solitary walk down to the river. The walk to the river took me through a casual residential neighborhood with wide streets. I stopped at an Internet cafe and paid six cents for the privilege. Later, I spotted a young girl reclining in front of a shop, writing a text message.

After a few blocks, I reached the edge of the minor river that is the traditional southern border of Saigon. It was less than beautiful, because the entire river district was one long, construction sight. On the other side, there were tiny restaurants and shops among piles of trash and old produce. The entire area smelt like old fish.


Understandably, the neighborhood was not a tourist destination, so I drew some attention. One group of old men invited me to take a sip from their red bucket. It was a cold mix of ice blocks, soda water and something else. I passed by a group of women practicing some sort of traditional medicine and they were happy to chat with me. One women sat with small glass cups stuck on her back so that she looked like like the dressing mirror in an actor's studio. The woman behind her yanked off the glasses one by one, leaving purple welts, and then warmed the cups with a small torch before sticking them back the other's back. The patient told me that she was feeling sick and that this would help. I don't see how.


I rounded the bend where the small river empties into the larger river which forms Saigon's eastern waterfront. The area became a dreary business district with few pedestrians. Restored French hotels were sandwiched between hideous Communist buildings, which seemed to be all but empty.


I had expected the Saigon waterfront to resemble Shanghai's Bund, a lively riverside commercial district built up by Europeans and Americans in the beginning of the century. But hardly anyone walked around the pathetic park that buttressed the brown water from the main road. The reason, undoubtedly, was that the opposite shore was not very appealing, consisting mostly of old rusted factories and bilboards.

I made my way back to the hotel through the busier heart of the city. Unlike the riverfront, it was crawling with tourists and busy shops. At one corner, security guards waved red wands to attract shoppers into a new electronics store. Special arrangement were made for the hundreds of motorbikes that showed up to the opening sale.

This time, we were prepared for dinner and made reservations at a small outdoor French restaurant, which was delicious. Beside us, a French women chatted with an old Vietnamese man in rapid French.

We decided to go find Keith at The Office, which turned out to be large and new-looking. We found Keith upstairs, fooling around with some of the bar girls. Amazingly, he remembered us and was happy to hang out. Over the course of about an hour he revealed that he was actually a high functioning person. Or was. He had had an extremely successful business career in New Zealand, owning magazines and other business. Three years ago, in what must have been a major mid-life crisis, he came to Saigon and opened three bars, of which The Office is one. He still lives in New Zealand with his wife of 25 years but spends a good deal of time in his new kingdom in Saigon. That night he was wearing a newsprint-motif shirt that was at least four sizes to small for him. He went around the whole night, dancing in place like someone who missed the glory days at the Whiskey-a-Gogo. Keith had been rolling Ecstasy nonstop for three days.

On Keith's suggestion, we all went to Lush, an awesome one-room club in the middle of the city. Huge murals of graphic art decorated the tall walks and they played international techno. We met a group of girls visiting from Toulouse, and hung out with them for much of the night. Unfortunately, their respective English abilities were inversely proportionate to their attractiveness.

We decided to leave Lush at about two and Keith came out after us babbling about some other place that didn't sound appealing. He had a fit when we decided not to go with him and he started off on foot toward the morning, moving in bizarre gyrations that only made sense to him. We ended the night at Q, a bar/club where it was difficult to hear the French girls jabber on about their travels.

The next early afternoon we went to the War Remnants Museum, which began with an amazing outdoor display of tanks, aircraft and various other heavy American weapons. Adam complained that Americans should be allowed to bring them back to the United States. Tim stared at the massive mobile Howitzer that had a range of 20 miles and wondered aloud, "How did we not win the war."


Inside, there were exhibits of gruesome atrocities commited by American troops. It was truly sickening what we, as the supposed guardian of freedom, did in an effort to "free" Vietnam. Nevertheless, I was disappointed, but not surprised by the narrow scope of the museum. There was no attention paid to the Viet Cong attrocities and mistakes. Nor was there any indication that the Americans were even targetting the Viet Cong in their horrendous bombings and security sweeps. One would have thought, leaving the exhibit, that the Americans came to Vietnam simply to exterminate the Vietnamese people.

But before we left, I noticed that we'd missed part of a part of the museum housed in two side buildings. I went in and found the walls covered with famous photos of American troops holed up in Khe Sanh or pinned down in villages. They effectively conveyed the pain of the American presence in Vietnam, the fact that both sides had suffered immensely.

It was as if a Holocaust museum had a devoted a wing to the plight of ordinary Nazis in the Second World War. It impressed me. All countries build museums dedicated to various national tragedies. But how many of these museums comment on the suffering of the enemies who brought about the terror? Well, I suppose if I've learned anything this summer it's that the Vietnamese are no ordinary people.