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Andy’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 10 Feb 2007

Location: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam


Every asian country has a variation on the rickshaw theme. In Vietnam it's the cyclo. Imagine sitting in a slightly upturned wheelbarrow with a bike attached to the back and an old skinny man powering the contraption with legs of steel. That is a cyclo.

We hailed one vehicle each and hopped in for the short journey to the Reunification Palace. So began our first journey on the suicidal roads of Vietnam.

In other forms of rickshaw it's not always possible to see where you are heading (a blessing trust me - its usually in the direction of an oncoming car) but in a cyclo you are exposed, essentially forming the front bumper of the vehicle. Hence you are the first part of the vehicle to pull out onto a street of speeding cars, the first part to smash into the back of a bike that broke too suddenly, and the first part to scream when you cross over into the wrong lane and hundreds of modpeds are steaming towards you. Driving down the M25 in an armchair is the best way i can describe it.

Built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam's presidential residence, the Reunification Paalce is now a museum full of historical exhibits. The building itself is also of interest. On 30th April 1975 it was towards the palace that North Vietnamese tanks rolled as the city was caputred; an event called the Fall of Saigon in America, and the Liberation in Vietnam. The palace has been left just as it looked that day - though the gates have been fixed.

The palace looks like most other buildings constructed in the architectural madness of the sixties. What induced people to think concrete was beautiful? The palace exterior is thus plain, uninspiring and grey. The interior however is an eclectic blend of styles, from the modern, lurid colours, patterns and furniture in the Meeting Room, to the forty five fine traditional Vietneame lacquers in the Presenting Room, and the spatial awareness of Feng Shui. When the North Vietnamese finally unified the country, distinctly communist flourishes were added
such as the deep red curtain and bright yellow star in the conference room; instantly recognisable iconography that was mirrored in the political posters that dot the city.

We were shown around the palace in what Louis described as a fancy version of Cribs. In place of the unidentifiable celebrity pointing out the obvious ("This is my kitchen") we were taken through the palace by an informed guide; the state function rooms, the living quarters and so forth. The command area was one of the most interesting, full of original war maps, old phones and equipment of chrome and plastic with comically futuristic names such as the teletypewriter.

It was fascinating to hear the guides choice of words. Terms such as 'American interferer' and 'liberation' (of South Vietnam) made clear her worldview. Language frames reality, it provides the horizons of meaning within which people, events and processes are interpreted. The slightest linguistic alteration can change the entire narrative of the war, from protecting a population under siege from external communist aggression, to an indigenous insurgency defending itself from the imperial ambitions of France and the United States. The latter is probably held by most Vietnamese, and this is not the result of government 'brainwashing'. Vietnam has a rich cultural tradition of fierce independence ever since they won full sovereignty from the Chinese in the mid-tenth century.

Lastly we were taken to a room full of pictures from the early 20th century and war years. Most detailed American atrocities such as US soldiers herding people into concentration camps and American chemical posion destroying the living environment. One of the worst pictures was of a Vietnamese girl pleading with a soldier not to kill her father, her face was heartbreaking, desperate and wild. Was this all propoganda? No. The atrocities committed by the American forces are well documented. The Vietnamese have every right to put on display the logical outcome of the United States' intervention. The exhibit was no less ideological and skewed than many of the narratives and exhibits presented in the United States.

We walked home through central HCM rather than risk another journey on a cyclo. We passed though a neighbourhood of very trendy and chic clothes stores. Hanging ironically above one of the stores was a red flag with the yellow hammer and sickle on it. The juxtaposition of the flag and Vietnam's answer to Covent Garden perfectly illustrated the state of the country in the twentieth century. In 1986 the Communist Party of Vietnam implemented a series of free-market reforms commonly known as the Renovation and which is credited with GDP growth hovering persistently around the 8-9% rate and Vietnam's listing as one of the "Next Eleven" economies. Officially the state remains committed to an indigenised form of Marxist-Leninism but the ideology is increasingly moribund in the economic sphere. Politically however, Vietnam remains a one-party state with Communist control firmly established over the organs of government.

So despite the political paralysis, as some commentators have noted, did America actually win the war it lost? On every street corner are budding entrepeneurs serving food, fixing bikes, selling postcards and opening stores. Capitalism reigns supreme on the streets of Siagon, risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the 'Fall'. As the journalist Mary Riddell puts it - "The Cu Chi tunnels, once a conduit for Vietcong fighters, have been widened to accommodate fat Western bottoms. Visitors can buy fake US dog tags, drink B52 cocktails at the Apocalypse Now club and haggle with children for pictures of Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old fleeing naked, her torso seared by napalm. Everything has marketing potential here. No commodity, agony included, lacks a price."

That evening we sat in the street, outside a popular bar, and played Ring of Fire before accidently stumbling into a whorehouse for a drink (we seem to hunt them out!) and then joining the rest of the tourist crowds heading to Apocalypse Now to further increase the spin of Ho Chi Minh in his grave.

We finally snuggled into bed at six in the morning, with one hour before we had to wake for a trip to the Vietcong tunnels.


New country, new rules:
In other southeast asian countries a massage involves a women in a store. In Vietnam massage is mobile - men on bikes shaking rattles will stop on the side of the street to soothe your aches and pains. I didn't see one woman offering massage. Vietnam would seem to be much more conservative than its neighbours to the West. Even in our hotel Ruth and I had to pretend we were in a relationship and Raymond and Tony weren't even allowed in the same bed. The influence of Catholicism in the country perhaps?