Sunday, 16 January 2011

Saigon and the Mekong Delta

There are two distinct and very different sides to central Saigon. (Only Government officials and a few people in Hanoi seem to call the city by its official name: Ho Chi Minh City). The old colonial centre is the glitziest and most westernised place we’ve seen in Vietnam, with wide boulevards, an imposing cathedral, opera house and other grand French-built buildings, interspersed with shopping centres and trendy restaurants. At times, strolling amongst the designer boutiques and smart hotels we could have imagined ourselves in Knightsbridge rather than South East Asia if it hadn’t been for the constant torrent of motorbikes on the roads and the 30 degree sunshine.

In smart, modern Saigon there’s no sign of the ancestor worship that we saw further north – where all houses had shrines prominently displayed, and shop owners burned incense and made offerings every night outside their premises. Life is much more hidden from view here than it was elsewhere in the country, with fewer street traders and street-side cafes, and swanky wine bars rather than road-side fresh beer.

This side of the city reflects Saigon’s long-held position as the economic powerhouse of the country. French colonialism was established much earlier in Saigon than elsewhere in the country, and the history of the city and its surrounds have been heavily influenced by foreign trade and engagement, in contrast to the more isolationist North. Also, unlike the North, it has only been Communist only since 1975, and with economic liberalisation starting less than 15 years later, the city was well placed to take advantage and re-establish its thriving economy.

Just a 20 minute walk away though, in the area now dominated by backpacker cafes and tour agencies is a much more familiar Vietnam which, while certainly shabbier than the colonial area was also – to our eyes – much more appealing. Here, amongst the narrow, labyrinthine alleyways we found small cafes, tailors, laundrettes and other “mom and pop” businesses operating out of the front room (complete with ancestral shrine), and living quarters above.

Steve and Janet left us in Saigon after a fantastic two weeks. We are so glad and grateful that both sets of our parents have joined us for parts of our journey, and have loved seeing them and being able to share some of this year with them.

The “American” War seems much more prevalent in Saigon than elsewhere, perhaps because it was here that the Americans and other foreign forces were stationed, with museums dedicated to the war, and war-memorabilia (pens and knick-knacks fashioned from old bullets, flak jackets, and zippo lighters bearing US Army insignia) on sale at market stalls. The War Remnants Museum was one of the more interesting we’ve been to, containing harrowing accounts and photographs. Although an understandably one-sided presentation of the conflict, the museum succeeded in making plain some of the horrors inflicted upon the country and the civilian population.

A particularly poignant section of the museum focused on the damage caused by Agent Orange – the chemical sprayed from the air by the US Army in order to reveal Communist supply lines and deny cover to potential ambushers. Almost 80 million litres were sprayed over 2.6 million hectares, leaving much of Central Vietnam deforested and contaminated. Yet the impacts were not just environmental or immediate: people who lived or fought in affected areas have since given birth to tens of thousands of children born with serious birth defects, often without eyes, limbs or organs, or with oversized heads or serious mental disabilities. We subsequently learnt that shockingly, while compensation has belatedly been paid to US servicemen whose families have been affected, no compensation has yet been paid to any Vietnamese victims.

As the other museums we’ve visited, it was disappointing to see no reference in Saigon made to the Vietnamese who served in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, the army of South Vietnam). Instead, as elsewhere, the museum presented the “official history” that the North saved the South from its imperialist masters, and gives the impression that the ARVN was entirely made up of foreigners. In fact, throughout the war, there were more than twice as many South Vietnamese fighting as Americans, Koreans, New Zealanders, and Australians combined. After the war, tens of thousands of them fled the country, while many of those who remained were placed in “re-education camps,” and they – and their children – allegedly continue to face discrimination from the ruling Communist Party.

While in Saigon we also visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, an incredible 250 kilometre network just 60 kilometres outside Saigon that formed a key site of resistance against first the French and then the Americans. The tunnels served not just as escape routes and ambush points for the guerrilla fighters, but also as dwellings for up to 10,000 people, with additional rooms for use as small factories, kitchens and classrooms. The original tunnels were tiny, designed to be too narrow for Westerners to enter and must have been extremely claustrophobic. For the benefit of tourists, several sections have now been enlarged, so we could take turns squeezing ourselves into the earth and crawling along sections of the network. After hearing more about the horrors inflicted during the War, we were somewhat surprised to be offered the opportunity to have a go firing M16 and AK47 assault rifles. While we found this slightly distasteful and gave the opportunity a miss it was clear that for many of our fellow tourists this was the highlight of the trip.

We’ve spent a very peaceful final few days in Vietnam exploring visiting a small part of the enormous Mekong Delta. In contrast to so many of the places we’ve seen, the Mekong feels incredibly lush and fertile, with bright green paddy fields, and wooded areas of bananas and palms separated by large rivers and countless small waterways. Yesterday we spent the morning on the water, setting off while it was still dark to watch the sunrise over the river before visiting a couple of floating markets where enormous quantities of vegetables and fruit were traded between boats (which advertised their wares by tying them to the tops of tall bamboo canes). Other small boats sold meat or served as small floating cafes serving cooked noodles and other snacks.

In the afternoon we hired rickety bikes and cycled through tiny lanes alongside some of the narrow canals, over wobbly bridges and past small villages. It was a landscape both beautiful and tranquil yet as elsewhere marred by constant littering in the waterways and alongside them. With heavy traffic on the main roads and large scale construction going on across the Delta we worry about the environmental damage being wrought on the area by this rapid change and the long-term impact it will have on the area and its inhabitants. Tomorrow, after a fascinating and very enjoyable four weeks, we’ll leave Vietnam, travelling by boat further up the Mekong to Cambodia.

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