Sunday, July 30, 2017

July 28 – Museum Day in Saigon

We originally considered visiting the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Saigon, but after looking at the tour options and the cheeseball photos we decided against it. Another reason was that it was going to take up nearly the entire day and this was to be our only full day in the city, and we still had so much left to explore. Instead, we started off with a walk to the War Remnants Museum. Along the way we experienced a real master at work. As we were walking, we came upon a man carrying a large stick with two baskets hanging off each end, resembling a human scale. In the baskets were skinned coconuts that he sells as a coconut water drink. He didn’t initially pay us much attention, but after walking alongside us for a bit he says, “Where are you walking to?”

I said, “We’re just going for a walk.” Any time a local strikes up a conversation in a tourist area, they want to sell you something. I know this from experience, and this knowledge has not come cheap.

“You going to war museum, turn left up there.”

“Ok, thanks.”

He then motioned to the stick he was carrying and before I knew it he had placed it on my shoulder so that I was carrying it. Then Ana took a picture of me. Then he had the kids hold it for more pictures. Then we tried to walk away, but he handed me one of the coconuts. I handed it back, saying no thanks, just ate. He took his machete, chopped the top off, popped in a straw and handed it back to me. He had me. I asked how much and he told me 30,000 dong. I offered him 20,000 and he was happy with that. Yes, that is only worth just over a dollar, but that was an unbelievably good deal to see such a master in action.

The War Remnants museum was shocking, illuminating, nauseating, and intense. It was a visual exploration of the Vietnam War, focusing on the atrocities the US and its allies committed on the Vietnamese people during this horrible span of 18 years. Was the information one sided? Of course. But it was good to see it from the perspective of the Vietnamese people as opposed to the Western slant on things. The most shocking thing to me was the long term effects of the chemical weapons, such as Agent Orange, that they showered over the country and how there are still children being born with birth defects because of it. By the end of the war they had completely decimated the country, deforesting huge parts of it, destroying entire villages, and poisoning the people and the wildlife. And in the end, what did they have to show for it? The communists won, millions of people died, and many more have lived with the mental and physical scars of those horrible years. The whole conflict just seems so pointless, and so similar to the conflicts we see in the world today.

The kids looked through most of the images (though there were some that were so bad that Ana pulled them away) and got an idea of what had happened, but it’s very hard for them to understand how people could be capable of doing such cruel things. It’s hard for me to understand it too, especially after meeting so many locals in the countries we have visited and experiencing first hand their gentle, kind, and empathetic nature. But it has happened for all of history, is happening today, and will continue to happen, as long as humans remain human and we don’t keep our greed and arrogance in check. I think this museum affected me just as much as the genocide museum in Phnom Penh, especially when I noticed the group of young men working at the gift shop, all affected by birth defects caused by chemical weapons. One of the lads was born without eyes and sat there eating a bowl of rice, listening to the sounds of the people moving around him, smiling.

After leaving the museum, we spotted a nice looking lunch place called Modern Meets Culture, right across the street. Now 95% of the time, the restaurant across from the busy tourist museum is the second worst lunch choice you could ever make (the worst is the café within the museum). But this place was phenomenal – modern, clean, trendy architecture and furnishings, delicious food, and prices that made you scratch your head and say, “It can’t be that cheap.” We ordered pho, mushroom curry, and a ham and cheese baguette, as well as artichoke tea and fresh watermelon juice. The tab? Ten bucks for all of us.

The next stop was the Reunification Palace, but by this time Ana and the kids were more interested in hitting the market than another hot building so I went on a solo mission. I am very ignorant of the history of Vietnam, but I am learning more each day, and what I see astounds me. Any country that can bounce back from a devastating war to become a cultural and touristic hotspot is something special. They seem to have a pretty good social and political structure – communist government, but light on the communism, light on the religion, and heavy on the free market economics. They are, sadly, light on the environment too, but such is the case in all of the developing or recently-developed countries we have visited, so I think that will come in time, once more people are raised out of poverty.

The Reunification Palace reminded me very much of the Darwin-Martin house in Buffalo, USA. It was built in the 60’s to serve as a replacement for the presidential palace that was bombed out during the Vietnam War. A very modern design created by a Vietnamese architect was chosen, and it was constructed over a period of four years. The palace was only used for about ten years, after which the North Vietnamese communists ended the Vietnam War by driving two tanks through the front gates, sending a soldier up to the top floor to remove the South Vietnam flag and replace it with their own, and declaring Saigon fallen. Since then it has not been permanently occupied, and is only used for the occasional official government event and, of course, for tourism.

The palace itself was incredible – many huge rooms, straight lines, open spaces, and everything has been left just as it was in 1975, so it is like stepping back in time. I was thinking of my brother Curtis as I wandered through the enormous building, knowing that he would appreciate the architecture of this magnificent building. It was outfitted with all the bells and whistles of the time including a reinforced, underground concrete bunker, high tech communications equipment, a helicopter pad on the roof, a meditation/study area that was immediately converted into a ballroom and party floor, a games room, a theatre for 150 people, and a state of the art commercial kitchen.

I met Ana and the kids back at the room for a little chill-out session and then we headed back out for our final dinner in Saigon. Our plan was to visit a restaurant that my uncle Michael and aunt Anna had highly recommended, called Quan Bui, but once we got outside and realized just how many interesting restaurants we had within a two block radius, versus a 25 minute walk, we decided to stay local. We checked out the menus of several places and then decided on one that was very busy and had a long charcoal grill full of sizzling meats out front. We sat down, ordered drinks, and were handed an inch thick menu that we started flipping through and found many interesting dishes, such as snakehead fish gruel, duck tongue, jellied eel with tofu, curried frog with porridge, braised lamb heart, grilled salmon head, ostrich steak, and boiled pig intestines. The kids made an executive decision to move onto another place. We remembered a roti shop that had caught our eye earlier in the day, so we went there, and it turned out to be a Muslim restaurant, which was perfect. We ordered chicken curry, peanut encrusted shrimp, curry roti, banana roti, chocolate roti and a roti boom, which was filled with coconut milk, honey and sugar. It was all delicious and arrived in such quantities that we left with stomachs past the breaking point and food remaining on the table. And, amazingly, the cost of that meal was about twenty bucks. The value here is just incredible and continues to astound us with every meal.

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