Monday, October 22, 2007
As our bus reached the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, the once and sometimes-present Saigon, the first thing I noticed as I pulled my eyes away from the novel I was reading was a lingerie shop. And then another. And then another. And then another. The entire street was lingerie shops, window after window of colorful silk negliges. And then the bus rounded a corner and we drove down an entire street of shoe shops, and then a street of pho joints. As the bus passed a major intersection, I glanced around and saw, in the window of a bookstore, Bill Clinton’s My Life prominently displayed, and, next door to that shop, a giant red-and-white life-size cutout of Colonel Sanders in front a store labeled Ga Ran Kentucky. Now, I’m sorry, maybe I’m unclear on the concept, but this is the communism we feared so much? We fought a war to prevent the spread of this? This is no bear in the woods; it’s a bear selling goods.
To find a hotel, The Duke and I wound through narrow back alleys full of women cooking, children watching TV, and dogs scratching themselves, feeling completely lost and overwhelmed, and surprised at every turn by a building where we least expected it—there is no sense to a map of HCMC; it’s just roads from here to there and back again, tangled and tossed in a 20-year development frenzy. We landed on the doorstop of the small $5/night hotel room that Lonely Planet had recommended, an establishment run by a shirtless old man, certainly old enough to have fought in the war, who, upon seeing our U.S. passports, grinned, gave us the thumbs up, and said, “U.S. OK!” We smiled back and told him Vietnam was pretty OK too.
Then, after dropping off our backpacks in our tiny un-air-conditioned room, The Duke and I decided to visit Dam Sen Park, an amusement park on the edge of the city. (I only wish there were a precedent for filling my resume with things like “Can arrive in a foreign city, without any ability in the local language, and right away not only find a hotel but also, relying only on a three-year-old photocopied guidebook and incomprehensible signs, find the right bus to take to get to a park 45 minutes outside of town.” Because, really, I’m far prouder of that than of most of my other resume-worthy accomplishments.) We thought, from the guidebook’s description, that Dam Sen was going to be a Central Park type of thing, but no—turns out it’s the Vietnamese Six Flags, complete with a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and blaring pop music. So we spent our first evening in Vietnam crawling through ice igloos, palaces, and life-size houses in the ice exhibition and looking at giant dragons and peacocks made out of hedges, China dishes, CDs, and vials of oil. Asia is so gloriously weird sometimes.
In a way, though, this evening was a good introduction to modern Vietnam: capitalism wins. Marx and Lenin and Mao and Uncle Ho can spout all the theory they want, but if Dam Sen Park, or indeed all of HCMC, teaches us anything, it’s that everyone really just wants to ride bumper cars and listen to Britney Spears.
Which is not to say, of course, that communism has no presence in Vietnam. At our visit to the Reunification Palace, The Duke and I were treated to a documentary of the American war in which, while displaying photographs of the North Vietnamese army, healthy and smiling, the narrator intoned things like, “To the American President: Sir, were you ever aware that when America wasn’t even on the map, Vietnam had over 1000 years of gloriously resisting imperialist invaders?” And, of course, much of our tourist activity was centered around the war fought over communism. We visited the War Remnants Museum, a very well-maintained museum with a well-maintained collection of, well, war remnants, where we posed awkwardly with partially exploded American bombs, American helicopters, and American B-52s (really awkwardly—I mean, do you point and grin, standing next to a machine that used to bomb the countryside?) and cried in front of the walls and walls and walls of photographs of American atrocities in Vietnam, from My Lai to Agent Orange (I use “we” loosely here—The Duke was a bit more stoic than I).
The highlight of the trip was also a war site: Cu Chi tunnels, a network of underground tunnels used by guerilla fighters during the war. Our tour guide took us down into the tunnels, and it took only a few seconds for me to want out: they’re about three feet tall and two feet wide, poorly ventilated, and totally dark. I couldn’t believe anyone actually lived down there, but they did, in hideaways connected by these tunnels that allowed them to set booby traps for the American soldiers patrolling the jungle. “And speaking of American soldiers,” our tour guide said cheerfully, after parading us past a set of murals showing GIs mangled by booby traps, “up ahead is the shooting range!”
The Duke and I looked at each other: a shooting range? At a major war site? We couldn’t resist, though, and I coughed up the money—a good $20, no less—for The Duke to shoot an M16 at a former Viet Cong guerilla hideout. Plenty of American 18-year-olds have done that, sure, but most of them didn’t pay for the experience.
And, speaking of which, I’ve never been to a place where I’ve felt so awkward about being American. Plenty of people hate us, but I can usually dismiss, or least downplay, those sentiments as semi-irrational: “No, Ahmed the Egyptian, the Jews are not a majority in America. No, Coca Cola spelled backwards does not say “No Mohammed No Mecca.” Yes, September 11 really did happen.” But in Vietnam, if people hate Americans, they have reason: thirty-odd years ago, we were at war. Thirty-odd years ago, The Duke wouldn’t have been the only American youth walking down the streets of Saigon in camo pants (an awkward choice, I know, but he had no other pants), and he wouldn’t have just been looking for a motorbike taxi. Thirty-odd years ago, the amputated, disfigured, and mentally retarded beggars we saw on the streets might have had their limbs and faculties intact. Thirty-odd years ago, Vietnam might have found peace.
All this makes it very strange that I didn’t sense any anti-American sentiment in the city. Everyone I talked to about the war—and I talked to everyone about the war—said they had put it behind them, that the country was pushing forward. When I asked if they hated Americans and thought the war was our fault, the answer was consistent: the government may have been evil and war-mongering, but that doesn’t mean the people were. Suspicious that people were giving me positive answers because I was so obviously a dollar-holding tourist, I asked a friend who lived in Vietnam whether had encountered anti-American feeling. The Vietnamese, he told me, have been well educated as to the protests happening in the States during the war, and most seem to have a firm grasp on the distinction between a people and its government—meaning, Lyndon Johnson probably shouldn’t a plan, but Petra and The Duke? Come on in! I had expected our trip to be, basically, the Tragedy Tour 2007, and finding such optimism amazed me.
And that’s partially why I capital-letters LOVED Vietnam. Or, to be specific, Ho Chi Minh City. Everything else I saw was cool--miles and miles and miles of rice paddies, enough to feed all of China if allowed; a floating market in the Mekong Delta; the tranquility of the Mekong, from a boat poled by a woman in a conical hat—but I’m an urban girl at heart, and maybe that’s why Saigon could steal it. Most cities I know only glow one color—the golden yellow of street lamps, or the white of houses—but Ho Chi Minh City sparkles in Technicolor, its maze of roads illuminated by signs in green, blue, purple, hot pink, any color you can think of. It feels young and energetic and bustling with activities and possibilities, and everywhere you look there are people buying, selling, talking, shouting, walking riding, standing, sitting, playing badminton, playing dominoes, avoiding the giant bundles of power cords hanging off each building and low over the street. It was hard for me to sleep during our few days there; I was on a HCMC high and I wanted, instead, to stand out on the balcony of my hotel room and watch and listen to the city all night, seeing the sparkle of neon signs and hearing the dull roar of the city’s crazy motorbike traffic—HCMC has, it is claimed, nearly one motorbike for every two of its 7 million or so residents, and at every intersection, you’d think that ratio is 1:1.
Cambodia was cool, and I’d like to go back some day, but Vietnam? I’d live there. In fact, if this whole grad school thing doesn’t work out, I’m planning on it. After all, I’d never lack for KFC.