This is Day 2 of my trip having arrived yesterday at 12:30am (Vietnam time). The flight was smooth, departed early, and Francis and I were at the best seats in the aircraft. We pre-booked them and I was in seat no. 1A and Francis in 1C. He figured that no one would take the middle one. But someone did—an Arab holding a British passport and talked incessantly as soon as he took to his seat. He was nice and actually gave out useful information. He was based in HCMC and knew the city well. But soon it was evident that he was quite tipsy—the smell of alcohol on his breath and his stories of banging his girlfriend for 6 hours a day and even having a boyfriend on the side. It would have been good conversation if it was a day flight and you’re bored as hell. But it was 11pm and the bendaryl I took to help me sleep was kicking in. A short pause gave me time to look to the window and close my eyes. He then turned to Francis who was reading a book and listened to him good-naturedly.
When we got to immigrations, there was no one there so we all trooped to the desk labeled “Land Visa.” The 2 Filipinos didn’t seem to know what to do either. When the officers took to their desks and the other passengers lined-up, I then turned to them and said, “We don’t need visa, right?” So we hurried off to immigration control. Apparently, we were the last flight coming-in so it was quick and the officer didn’t utter a single word.
Since we arranged for pick-up, we were spared from the usual taxi haggling. In less than 30 minutes, we were deposited to Kim Hotel. Thum, the boyish-looking guy who picked us up, rang the doorbell and out came the receptionist who opened the gate and let us in. “Hello!” she cheerily greeted us in spite of having been roused from her sleep at a folding bed on the small lobby. Since our econo-room ($16) wouldn’t be available till the next day, we were placed at a second-class room ($19) at the same price. We were in bed by 2 am.
Breakfast at about 9 am was Bahn Mi from one of the street vendors. It was a lovely Saturday morning and the first challenge of the day was to cross the street without being smashed by any of the 1,000,000 motos driving across the street. It was just unbelievable! I never saw so many motorcycles crammed in one area. And they were driving like they were on high-octane, cutting each other, beating red lights, going on counter-flows, it was almost cartoon-like. After a few attempts, we finally got the hang of it. The trick is to just walk slowly and deliberately while keeping a steadfast eye on them.
Music wafting from traditional instruments brought us to the Opera House where musicians, elegantly dressed in ao
dai were playing in a traditional orchestra at the top of the stairs. People in motos parked along the road listening. It was a lovely sight. Passing through the back, we reached the People’s Committee building with its beautiful and luscious architectural detail that seemed straight out of a fairy tale book. Formerly the Hotel D’Ville, it was not hard to imagine its grandeur when it was the grand dame of hotels during the French period. Too bad, the interiors are closed to visitors.
We stumbled to the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City by accident. We were on our way back to the People’s Commitee building when we saw the white neo-classical building. We paid D15,000 to see the exhibits. Each room had a different theme, mostly ethnographic though a few rooms tackled the Vietnam War. Formerly the Gian Lac Palace, the building even had an underground passageway. Unfortunately, the collection wasn’t very well-curated and some of the displays were simply left along the corridors. It kinda reminded me of the dilapidated state of Manila’s own National Museum. But it didn’t deter the 5 pairs or so of brides and grooms having their wedding pictures taken at the small front yard, at the balcony, on the sweeping staircase at the entrance, and all over. Some were resplendent in Western gowns and suites while some were elegantly dressed in ao dai. I liked the former more as the national dress was really lovely and colorful.
The highlight of the day was the War Remnants Museum. It is easy to understand why it used to be called The Chinese and American War Crimes Museum. All 4 permanent exhibits were dedicated to the wars that Vietnam had experienced with special emphasis on the American-led war of the north versus the south. The ground floor exhibit showed collections of photographs of the casualties and they were really disturbing especially scenes of torture and those of the victims of Agent Orange. there was even deformed fetus on display with a pair being co-joined on the chest and belly. It is one thing to be reading all about the war in history books or watching its dramatizations in movies and another to see it in your very own eyes through the photographs and words of those who were actually there. Powerful images taken by war correspondents showed civilians, among them children and women, gunned down on the side of the road. One powerful photograph showed a group of women and children huddling in terror. As the journalist wrote, he took the photograph just before the group was shot by American GIs. “Hold it!” he shouted to them. He took the photo, turned around to walk away and heard M16s being fired.
As I walked from one exhibit to another on the 2 floors, it is hard not to be emotionally disengaged. I increasingly found myself gasping for breath and my hair on the arms standing. There were so many people but as I looked around, everyone had a quiet and tortured looked. Everyone seemed to be saying to themselves, “Why? How did this happen?”
It was a relief to get some fresh air outside. But it wasn’t over yet. On another side of the compound was an exhibit on
the Phu Quoc jails. On display was the original guillotine brought in by the French and later used by the Vietnamese to execute dissident prisoners. There were also reproduced tiger cages. Most disturbing were 2 original cages made purely of barbed wire and were the size of small coffins in which prisoners were placed. There was just enough room for a person to lie down. Most disturbing were photographs of excavated bones of prisoners showing nails driven to skulls and heels. One photograph showed a prison survivor showing all his fingers and toe nails gone.
The museum was purely one-sided and had political overtones ringing all over it. But one cannot discount that its power was in its ability to make everyone think of the destruction of war and its senselessness. No matter what side of the fence you are, you cannot but help be disturbed knowing that so many of those killed were innocent.
The War Remnants Museum was in stark contrast to the joy and beauty of the Notre Dame Cathedral that we visited prior. Its 2 gothic spires rising towards the blue sky, it stood magnificently in a square. We ended the day at the Ben Than Market where I bought fisherman pants, more out of shutting-up the exhortations of the seller than of really wanting to buy it.
So that was all yesterday. Today, we were at the Cu Chi Tunnels and at the Cao Dai Temple.