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Old Sai Gon

Written on: Tuesday December 30th, 2008

Christmas in Nha Trang turned out to be fun, but the weather wasn't really cooperating and it seemed like every traveller suddenly had the same thought as me: let's get the hell out of town.  Consequently, the busses were booked for days to come.  But I found a berth on an overnight train to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) if y'all wanna be PC.  Based upon my last train rides in China, I was not looking forward to this one.  So I checked into my four person berth to find that none of my three bunkies spoke English, as was expected.  Having been down this track before, I headed for the dining car.  Here I was delighted to see two well-dressed Vietnamese couples eating snacks and drinking beer.  Having sat down nearby, it took just a few seconds before I was engaged with friendly questions...which were asked in English!  Woo hoo.  So we chatted, ate some snails and washed them down with a couple beers.  Turns out one of the fellows was an architect from HCMC, and they were returning home after spending Christmas away.  It was great fun to pass the time chatting with well travelled, professional people.  Don't get me wrong: 20-something backpackers are great, but a change of pace is always welcomed.

The night came and went quicker than expected.  I slept well.  Soon I found myself a little groggy on the streets of HCMC, not really sure what I wanted to do in the mere six hours I had in town.  With my leaving Vietnam so soon, my only real regret was not being able to travel to and visit the city of Phan Rang, where my father served for one year during the war.  Fortunately, he spent the majority of his time away from the action, or I might not be writing this today.  But his descriptions of time spent there always intruiged me, and I had hoped to visit the city and take photos that we could discuss upon my return.  But it was too far to visit by motorbike from Nha Trang, and taxi prices were insane.  So I merely went past the town on the train, unable to stop and explore. 

All that being written, I decided that I wanted to dedicate my time in Saigon to the war.  And the first stop was the War Remberance Museum.  Just approaching the building sent an erie chill down my spine.  It felt ominous.  It felt scary.  It felt familiar.  And I felt guilty.  And I wasn't even born at the time the 'conflict' began.  Maybe it was the knowledge of my father having been there; maybe it was a past life thing, and I actually died in the war; maybe it was the reality that I was about to witness very graphic accounts of what happened.  Whatever the reason, I entered the gates in the most somber of moods.

Tanks and jets immediately caught my eye, as the retired transports were positioned immediately inside the complex.  Turning to the closest building, I toured a photographic, historical account of the war.  Displayed were war facts, figures and images, from early Vietnam when the French hand their fingers in the pie, right up to the end of the Vietnam War in '75.  It was interesting.  I don't think that I had ever so thoroughly read the captions on all the photos that graced a museum wall.  Exiting the building I continued on to a real life display of the "tiger cages" where prisoners of war were kept, and usually tortured.  This, too, brought goose bumps to my arms as I explored. But soon the photographs of the effects of torture caused me to quickly leave the area.  It is amazing how brutal humanity can be.

The next building housed munitions, including a vast variety of hand held weapons, various grenades, bombs that were dropped by planes, and examples of chemical warfare, highlighted by the infamous agent orange.  Also included in this building were actual photographs of the effects of these items.  It is difficult to describe the feelings that these photographs create in a sane person who is unexperienced in war.  I felt...sick..and sorry...and ashamed that I am part of the same race that did this.  Not because it showed Vietnamese victims of American tactics; it could have been reveresed.  But to think that people can hate so...effectively, and care so little about human life; quite frankly, it disturbed me beyond anything I had ever experienced.  I left the exhibition twice to control my sobs.  I did not think that I would be so affected by this.  I had heard that it was graphic and that it was gruesome, and I thought I could view it with neutral and distant clarity.  I could not.  This should never, ever be done to anybody.  Anywhere.  For any reason.  With this in mind, I have debated on whether or not to post photos of the photos being shown in this exhibit.  I have concluded that the choice, really, is not mine to make: the museum has already displayed them; I am simply providing free advertising.  Please note that they are not pleasant, although I have only posted a few and there were worse things on display here.

On an optimistic note, I left the museum by way of children's art work, displaying hope and joy for a future of peace.  It helped, if only a little.

Regaining my composure, I walked a few blocks down the road to Reunification Palace.  This was the private home for the former President of South Vietnam during the war, as well as the the final hold out location before surrender to the North Vietnamese.  It was apparently sealed off at the time the war concluded, on that momentous day, April 30, 1975.  Now it is open for tours, and anybody who wishes to experience it can see the map rooms, meeting rooms, presentation rooms and radio equipment that was considered state-of-the-art back in the 70's.  In fact, it reminded me a bit of my childhood, with similar decor existing in my home, as well as America in general.

The time had come to head to the airport.  What an intense few hours.  I was glad that I came here and saw the things I did, and can only hope that such atrocities never occur again.

PS: To answer a question posed in the last entry's 'comments', I DO read the comments that are written by others in my blog.  The feedback is something that I very much enjoy.  I would like to encourage more folks to share their thoughts and feelings in this manner.  Thank you to all who do!