Sun, 07 Nov 2004
A day in Ho Chi Minh City // at 23:59
Spent the morning walking around and around the backpacker area down near the river in district one, breakfast in an alley-side café. Breakfast seemed a long time coming, banana pancakes shouldn't take long to cook... we found out why when a girl on a scooter came flying up the alley and handed over the bag of bananas to the cook! Nobody seems to have anything at hand, they just run out and buy it from someone who does.
Into the war material markets; old stuff, new stuff, hardware, nails, screws, hats, clothes, gas-masks, instruments from 1970's aircraft, you name it! Then outside and into Saigon's equivalent of Elizabeth street, scooter repairers and scooter shops for miles and miles.
Hopped on a cyclo for a trip up to the Reunification palace, Jo sitting on my knee, the two of us in awe at the driver's legs! I guess our combined weight is still less than half what some of the other loads weigh. With impeccable timing we arrived just as the palace closed for lunch, so walked on around the block to the War Museum, arriving half an hour later as they too closed for lunch. Nothing for it but to sit in the park for half an hour, then follow the pricking of our thumbs to a café, Café Tao Ban, for a very tasty “point and nod” lunch.
Lunch over, back around the block to the Reunification palace for the official tour with a very helpful and knowledgable young guide. The whole building is a time-capsule of the 1970's officialdom, furntiture, drapes, light-fittings, decorations and gifts from other countries. Even the basements are full of the communications equipment of that era, looking suspiciously as if it could be switched back on and into service if needed! The tour started on the ground floor, wound up through the official chambers to tbe rooftop ballroom (with adjoining helipad), even the famous secret door to the stairs to tbe basement was mentioned — previously hidden behind a wall, now revealed in all its glory. At the conclusion of the tour we were free to leave, or to stay and watch a rather heavy-handed propoganda video of the history of the building and the country. We chose to stay, the video was interesting enough, but mostly because the room was airconditioned!
The War Remnants Musuem, previously known as the Museum of American and Chinese Imperialist War Crimes. A very sobering place. A new museum is under construction, the current one is a collection of small halls around the grounds, artillery and aircraft spread around between them. It was definitely easier to focus on the huge amounts of American military hardware and spent ammunition, than to dwell on the photographs and descriptions of the victims of the war, the American War as the Vietnamese call it. 540,000 US soldiers, hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs, huge numbers of birth defects. Even 30 years later, continuing health problems for large parts of the country and unexploded munitions in many places. Bush, Blair, Howard, shut up, come here and read the words, see the pictures.
A quiet and reflective beer afterwards. Images stuck in my head.