Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Saigon kick -1

As expected, this thing begins at the very end of the trip. One always thinks about what one has seen and done at the very end, mostly while sitting at the airport. One can't help it. So as my travel companion struts away to a much needed foot massage at the airport, I trudge to what I think I need most - quiet time with my computer. Just so you know, I can see the "spa" from the corner of my eye, and can spot more men walking to the place than women. Women are always blamed for their indulgence, but I love the way men manage to peddle their indulgences as "need". "I *neeeeed* this" doesn't quite sound the same as "Oh well, maybe I should buy myself a new bag". You would find a guy wistfully staring at a piece of art which doubles up as a gym trainer and a rocket launcher (a.k.a an iPhone) he so badly *needs*, when you know and I know it doesn't even match the furniture.

Anyway, one is attempting a travelogue about their recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. And all you kind people should encourage me. For info, it's logical, not chronological.


Ho Chi Minh City nestles in a spot in the south of Vietnam which if you stare at the map long enough, looks like its wrist. Formerly officially known Saigon, it was named HCMC after the city was captured by the North Vietnamese forces at the end of Vietnam war. It is still informally called Saigon by the locals. All on that in wiki, if you're keen.

I was ashamed of how ignorant I was about the intricacies of Vietnam war till I actually visited the city and felt the vibe of a place which can perhaps never forget. The words "War veterans" and "Agent Orange" is thrown around a lot for anyone's comfort, and yet the details seem to have slipped right through my history lessons. For those who don't know and don't care, and to cut a very long story short-

Vietnam was occupied by French after the Second world war. The Geneva Accord of 1954 which kicked the French out and essentially divided it into two states ("pending national elections"): - The North ( Democratic Republic of Vietnam controlled by the communists) and the South ( Republic of Vietnam controlled by, well, what the vietnamese call a puppet govt placed there by the US). To prevent the communist forces from rising to power (and to harness the mineral resources in the area) US entered Vietnam.. The North vietnamese army (Viet Minh) led a conventional war, however there was a guerrilla operation run by VietCong against the anti-communist forces in the south.

If you find me a little biased in the above paragraph, it's only because it is hard not to emote after seeing a city which has assimilated war into its identity. I will try to sound more indifferent from now on.

Hold on!
Back to the beginning -

So, soon after we landed, after an early morning budget flight which made toast out of us, we had to bite into the morning traffic jam. As expected, despite what we thought was smart bargaining, we got nearly looted by the taxi driver, like tourists often do. It's the fate of a tourist - however cautious one is, however much one reads the stuff online and prepares - printouts et al -- one almost always gets cheated on the first ride from the Airport to the hotel.

Once we reached the hotel, we realized that time travel had given us an extra hour that day, we asked the kind lady at the tour desk downstairs, to take us to the Cu Chi tunnels.
Soon enough our friendly tour guide arrived, shoved us into a van, handed us a bottle of mineral water each, and decided to give us our money's worth by not letting us sleep through the ride. Going by the name Romeo, he spoke good English, and gave us, the clueless two, trivia about the country and her people and their superstitions. He didn't stop till the van did.

The Cu chi tunnels, which are roughly two hours away from the heart of the city, were built by the VietCong during the war, and are work of wonder. Up to 10 metres underground, and having upto three levels these were mostly dug using shovels. The tunnels are for the petite and small ( read: size XS) "because they knew that it is impossible for the westerners to fit". It's hard to imagine how people lived down these rabbit holes for years, and how kids were born inside those tunnels which barely have any light, and were often infested with poisonous ants and scorpions. Sectors have been widened to fit the tourists, and lights been installed, but one still needs to crawl and it is still too dark and narrow and can get claustrophobic. It's barely a treasure hunt as you would imagine it to be.

The other highlights of the tour are the booby traps and other ingenious methods used by them using mostly the scraps from the enemy - scrap from shells used to make the weapons, rubber tyres used to make slippers, soldiers' uniforms to throw the "German" dogs off-track. There are B52 craters, unexploded bomb shells and broken tanks which were damaged by the land-mines. One does realize the uselessness of such massive brute-force type tanks and weapons (?) in a war, when they were up against short and quick and agile people using common sense and intelligence.

A day later we made our way to the Reunification Palace. A little after the US withdrawl from the Vietnam war, a tank of the North Vietnamese Army (dramatically) bulldozed through the main gate, ending the Vietnam War -- an event recorded as Fall of Saigon (wiki, if you please) and reunified the country under Communist rule. The p(a)lace itself is full of rooms full of furniture, which can best be described as regal or imperial, and collects all things stinking of affluence (read:wastefulness) of the (then South vietnamese) govt. It can get boring, but I guess it holds a lot of importance for the Vietnamese people. The interesting part here is the basement under metres of concrete which is like one of those "War bunkers" you see in movies - full of maps and old communication devices where the generals point with those long pointer things and plan their attacks.

A final stop on the War trail was the War Remnants museum (formerly known as "Museum of American War Crimes"). The "American" bit was dropped sometime in 1995 (and they perhaps had no choice but to) after they normalized the relationship with the United States. There are tanks and bombs and missiles and all tangible war remnants kept outside, and one can't help but wonder about the amount of money spent in shipping those things over halfway across the world. The inside of the museum tells us the tale of the war, and is replete with pictures. There is an temporary exhibition about the true remnants of the war -- pictures of victims of Agent Orange. It was a defoliant used by the American army containing a toxic (and banned) agent dioxin which poisoned their food chain and resulted in innumerable birth defects. Indifferent as I may sound while telling you what it is, the exhibition is not for the faint hearted. A gave up after walking through ten pics. I saw around twenty, and stepped outside as if closing my eyes and getting away would prevent all things bad from happening in the world. How I wish. All around me, people were walking with their mouths covered, in disbelief perhaps, that the most celebrated war veterans, the most celebrated presidents were party to such damage, such carnage, such mutilation of life.

Nothing, I repeat, nothing ever justifies war and a war like this. Nothing justifies death of people, even if it is masquerading as nationalism. The entire vietnam war left millions dead, (including ~50,000 americans, if you please). In Cu Chi area, of the 16000 people living in the tunnels only 6000 survived [to be verified], I am told. I don't even want to get to the amount of money which could've been put to better use, perhaps. Was it even worth it?

PPS: If there is one person who has read till the end of this post, and hence I get one comment on it, I will write the part two. Else, you miss the best parts.
PS: Art work -- my own.


Kartik said...

No comment. [Does this still count?]

Prasoon said...

Please do write the next part.
I would have asked for pictures had this been a trip to a happy-jolly place but...
Reading your blog, I feel - no strike that - I know I am ignorant about the past.

shub said...

I couldn't do it either, the pics. Chicken/faint-hearted/weak stomached/indifferent, whatever. I chose not to see the pictures.

You do art as well, now? Whoa.

Mo said...

Kartik - doesn't count. try again!

Prasoon - Will do. There are pics somewhere... You feel what?

Shub - I know. Was very very hard.
Yes, now I do everything :)

manuscrypts said...

ok extortionist.. post the second part now :)

Purely Narcotic said...

Marking my attendance.

Kaavya said...

Next one please...

fizz said...

i'm here too.

Ashwin said...

I saw Apocalypse Now! after visiting Vietnam. Ah, it was quite an experience! :-|