February 9th, 2019
If we’re being honest, I’m happy to leave to Hanoi. Beautiful, filthy, delicious, noisy, eye-opening, claustrophobic and caffeinated. It feels good to be at the airport again. The next adventure awaits. I grab a coffee with milk (as they say here) and a croissant. I thumb through my travel book circling my musts for my time in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon. I’m not pandering to an American audience when I add Saigon. Most everyone here says it just like that “Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon”. The announcement onboard the flight says “this flight is traveling to Ho Chi Min City or Saigon”. They changed the name but no one wants to let the old name to let it go. It’s a quick flight, under an hour. I’m sandwiched between a family. Grandma and Mom to my right, across the aisle, husband, uncle, and son. I assist in the passing of snacks, blankets, and messages back and forth. They never acknowledge me once. I’m just a vehicle for transport.
When I step off the plane at Ho Chi Minh City the first thing I notice is the heat. We cross through the arrivals gate into the sea of people. My hotel offered airport pickup for such a nominal fee, I couldn’t decline. Here I’d like to call special attention to the picture accompanying this paragraph. Truthfully this was my first time exiting a gate with someone waiting there holding up a sign with my name. And since I am already taking notes and snapping photos to convert to blog stories, I immediately whip out my phone and click. I love this photo SO much cause the girl holding the sign has a “he’s not…is he taking a photo of me?” question to her expression while her companion has a “no he isn’t!! this motherfucker is taking a photo!!!” look. And that is all I have to say about that. We have a short tense conversation. She seems deeply troubled I am traveling alone, puts me in the car and off I go.
Instantly Ho Chi Minh is exciting. Far more cosmopolitan with parks and trees and sidewalks and lights. It’s far cleaner, grander, more modern in every way. Every breath in is excitement. GK Hotel is fabulous! I’m so happy I am Risky Business-ing across the polished wood floors. Seriously, it’s the nicest hotel room I have ever stayed in. A large open room with high ceilings, state of the art modern conveniences and an entire wall of windows I can cover during the heat or pull back the curtain to peek out on the city. I settle in, shower and slip back outside in no time.
Walking on the streets of Ho Chi Minh city I take great fascination in the Communist Party propaganda posters. Growing up in the United States during the Cold War, how could I not? They are so pleasing to the eye. Bright, vibrant colors bringing pop art tableaus to life with messages of inspiration and unification, while deep in my being I eye the yellow sickle with distrust. If it’s Cold War confusion I crave, I’m heading for an overdose. Just a few short blocks from GK Hotel is the War Remnants Museum. My first outing in Ho Chi Minh City.
The courtyard is filled with American military equipment; planes, helicopters, tanks, and guns. Besides each fossilized weapon rests a plaque listing its manufacturer, practical use, maximum range, maximum speed, and firing capabilities. A carnival of emotions, gross and comical play out in the enclosure. I see young children playing on the warbirds, old men and women with solemn, pained expressions, a former vet crying, girls snapping sexy Instagram selfies and rah rah bros flexing in action poses. I walk through, read and absorb each relic. Some planes seem so much smaller, so much less substantive then I would have expected. Others tell intimidating tales of destruction. Being part of the generation that arrived on the scene just as the war ended, I’ve learned Vietnam through movies. I’ve seen all these weapons before but as I press my hand against the metal, they become more real. I feel awe, wonder, anguish, shame, pride, fear, sadness, solemnity. Moved by the experience, as I shift inside, it’s only just begun.
The War Remnants Museum is three stories high. Walking into the heart of the building is like entering a cavern. The museum is open-air, and absent of AC, just to make the experience more overwhelming. Strategically placed fans falter in their over-ambitious attempt to create airflow in the giant space. Excuse the flowery language, it’s balls hot. The first floor is a detailed timeline of the “American War of Aggression”, an exhibit on the war resistance (both in the US and abroad), and accounting of Vietnamese independence to cap the narrative. I’m humbled by displays of courage and conscience. A photo of two village women embracing and crying on the day of independence is a masterpiece. The museum is in every way from the Vietnamese perspective. A simple but sharp contrast to the lessons I’ve learned growing up in the US. The second floor is more history, with a weapon’s display. Things get a lot more real in the War Atrocities display. The color is drained from my face, pain in my heart, nausea in my stomach. It’s hard to convey what walking down the line and seeing photos of mutilations and descriptions of torture does to you. It’s worse than any stories I have ever read. Many visitors break down and cry. One boy just starts to scream. Otherwise, it’s total silence. The most horrific images are burned into memory. If you survive the War Atrocities exhibit, the Effects of Agent Orange installation on the third floor will finish you off. Now that you’ve seen the evil men can do, let’s look at the immediate, lingering and lasting effects of chemical warfare. If the photos of burned, disfigured and deformed Vietnamese aren’t enough, there’s the display of children’s art to topple your resolve. Seeing the kid’s drawings, clearly, a therapeutic technique used to help these young innocents grapple with their reality, I am undone. I fight my way out the hot, humid chamber of horrors, down the stairs and back out into the courtyard for air.
I find some air and a bottle of water. I take large gulps. It’s hard to explain why I am glad I visited the museum; why I felt I had to, especially when I exit with a tight chest and head swimming. Walking away from the museum I come across a pole covered in museum stickers. I peel off my own and add it to the instant street art. The white doves and blue trim spread, like adding ones to the list, we came and we saw. My stomach rumbles as I wander away. I return to my fascination with all things scooters. I hunt for lunch. I’ve been in Ho Chi Minh City for about four hours, already different than when I arrived.