History Lessons in Saigon

“History is a myth that men agree to believe.”



Our collective history is the story of mankind by mankind and, as such, it has been fixed in mankind’s flaws.  It’s non-fiction full of fiction.  The histories I learned in school may differ from yours.  To know the truth of history is to recognize its ultimate fantasy.

I was nervous about traveling in Vietnam, about the truth of its history.  Vietnam is a country I’d heard a lot about growing up but knew very little of, aside from the ubiquitous images of war films.  I was careful to avoid questions of my nationality, hoping to navigate around our nation’s sordid histories – to avoid those topics from Hollywood movies.

I’d read about the battles and the retreat, but rarely the aftermath.  In the States, we learn a skewed history.  We focus on the protests and political unrest at home but not the details of the war.  We stew in the general disapproval of the American public but blow over My Lai or Agent Orange.

In Saigon, I sought to confront these histories and learn new ones written by a different author.  I was prepared for condemnation of my country on a massive scale, but I was not prepared for some of the histories I’d learn.

Saigon’s War Remnants museum was a morbid reflection on the war and its tanker-filled patio set the scene for a somber afternoon.  Its three floors housed a comprehensive collection of machinery, weapons, photos, and documentation of both the French and American wars, though the focus sat heavily on the latter.  Previously known as the “House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government (of South Vietnam),” then simply “War Crimes Museum,” the halls reverberated with understandable anger and a propagandist bent.  Yet, more than a stern lecture, the museum was a call for peace.

Floor one’s photo exhibit, Agent Orange, explored the lingering effects of chemical weapons on the Vietnamese people.

“According to US Defense Department data, from 1961 to 1971, the US Air Force sprayed 72 million liters of Agent Orange containing 170 kg of dioxin.  In a study by scientists at Columbia University published in Nature magazine, the total volume of toxic chemicals that the US sprayed over Vietnam amounted to approximately 100 million liters and the content of dioxin reported was double that of previously announced figures.  According to the study, 3,851 communes suffered direct chemical spraying and the chemical directly affected between 2.1 and 4.8 million Vietnamese people.”

Welsh Photographer Phillip Jones Griffiths spent years traveling through southern Vietnam documenting the aftermath of chemical exposure.  His jarring exhibit profiled the horrific birth defects that plagued the Vietnamese in the post-war years and the lasting effects these chemicals have had on ordinary citizens.

The US dropped Agent Orange to kill vegetation.  The dioxin was an accidental by-product that acted like a hormone, entering the cells of a developing fetus before the normal hormones and directing the cells to do bizarre things.  Many of the babies photographed suffered from encephalitis, with bulging alien heads and beady eyes.  Others, born with missing or deformed limbs, were photographed at orphanages, abandoned by their families.  The photographer argued that what happened after the war ended was more horrific than anything on the battlefield.

Phillip Jones Griffiths was the first Western journalist to enter Vietnam after the war finished and came back every year to further his research.  His shocking book of photos, also titled Agent Orange, spent years unpublished because it documented the extent of the damages in a way that was never previously acknowledged.  The exhibit opened in November, two years after his death, and will remain a permanent part of the museum collection.

The museum’s second floor paid homage to the international journalists who covered the battlefields.  This was the world’s first televised war and it was the heroic efforts of these journalists that put the grim realities of Vietnam into living rooms across the globe.

Further along, another room held the museum’s account of American war crimes complete with wall-sized photos of the My Lai massacre.  This exhibit was eerily quiet, especially around the jars containing preserved human fetuses deformed by dioxin.

The third floor’s photo exhibit documented the structural damage to the country with before and after style photos but I barely caught a glance before the five o’clock closing time when all lights were cut and visitors summarily kicked to the streets.  History lesson over.

In certain parts of the world, there is a slight shame in being an American.  We’re a big, bold country with enviable ideals of democracy, but we have made regrettable mistakes in the name of that very word.  The fear of communism blinded our leaders into supporting dictators and corrupt schemes and commencing wars which were not ours to commence.

Us Americans are not the most liked lot.  Any trip outside our borders will reveal that.  We have a bad reputation, not always unwarranted, but a bit unfair for the everyday traveler.  We’re thoroughly unexotic and terribly overrepresented by the trashiest elements of Los Angeles and the fear of Washington (a city whose layout bears a striking resemblance to circle-heavy Saigon).  I can understand why were not liked.  In Vietnam, I held back, assuming the people would hate me simply because of the country I was born into.  Yet, nobody did.  Nobody in Vietnam said a word.  When they asked where I was from (as they always do), most rolled off the names of relatives in the States or places they wanted to go.

The intervening years have not been easy.  Relations between our two nations normalized just fifteen years ago when the US embargo on Vietnam was dropped and diplomatic relations were restored.  In fact, in 2000, Bill Clinton became the first US president to visit northern Vietnam.

These days, Saigon is the city of the past, of the colony, and of the war.  Ho Chi Minh (as the city is now known) is the city of the future.  It is the commercial capital of the country and the site of rapid development.  As buildings burst skyward, the streets below grow textured in the way one expects of a major 21st Century city.  The scars of the past are everywhere, but so too are the signs of the future.  If the recent meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are any indication, a new, gentler history is destined to be written.

I (don’t) Hate Hanoi

I spend a lot of time writing about places I like.  It’s easier.  It’s much harder to defend yourself when you have nothing but complaints.  If I said I liked a place, you’d probably accept that at face value.  But, if I say I despise it (present tense, the feeling remains) then I have to answer the inevitable questions “why?  How could you miss ___, ___, and ___,” or, “maybe you didn’t understand the city, its people, its ways…  Maybe you didn’t give it time to sink in.”  But, sink in I did for two weeks’ time – more than any other spot on my travels through Asia, and I don’t wish this misfortune on anyone.

Therefore, I’d like to say in advance that I apologize to all who are offended by my comments or somehow disagree with me that Hanoi is a crowded, chaotic, soulless eyesore fouling planet earth – a city with all of the maddening theatrics of modern Asian megacities but none of the cutesy charm.  Hanoi festers, “I WANT TO PUNCH SOMEONE” feelings, traps pent up frustration and, quite literally, threatens you with death at every footstep.

I enjoy walking, it’s one of the most basic things we humans can do.  Perhaps, of all my grievances, this is the greatest: in Hanoi, it’s impossible to walk.  Then again, it’s impossible to drive either.  The city is just too big a clusterfuck to go anywhere.  Crosswalks, if present, are not observed and the pedestrian has absolutely no right of way.  What walking does occur is more like collective group pushing.  Maybe everyone’s smiling while they do it, but you can’t see through the masks they wear to keep out the thick smog.  Even the sidewalks, a normal haven for walkers, are overrun by eager motorbikers.  The streets of Hanoi are like Frogger level ten – the plucky music replaced by snarling horns and you have no frogs left for any mistakes.

Back in my university days when I ran out of Dining Dollars for the school cafeteria and wanted to avoid studying, I’d trundle up the road to Saigon Café.  It was my favorite restaurant in town.  The food was impeccable and the owner reminded me of a Vietnamese version of my Aunt Sally.   I loved that place.  It was the only place in town I’d splurge on an appetizer and a main course.  If Vietnam was like Saigon Café…

It wasn’t.

As it turns out, all the tasty food comes from the central and southern parts of the country (hence “Saigon” Café).  The north was cold Pho territory.  I was a fan of the Americanized Pho I’d had in the past, but the streetside real-deal in Hanoi was dog food (as in meant for dogs, not made from them…. we’ll get to that in a minute).  I’ve prepared tastier instant noodles in my microwave.  And the meat…

In Vietnam, my bowl movements took a turn for the unsavory.  After a chance late-night encounter with a green-looking sausage, I returned to my strict vegetarian diet (for the umpteenth time).   If you saw the disemboweled carnage on display, unrefrigerated and infested, you would too!  “Oh, and, by the way, we eat dogs and cats.”  Virtually every Vietnamese I met told me this in the first five minutes of conversation, like an icebreaker.  Several markets specialize in this kind of meat and eating out around town, well, you never know.

In Hanoi I took to self-catering, relying on my old travel companions Peanut Butter and Jelly.   Yet, it was a chore going to the supermarket, getting my food shoved in bags and thrust back at me with incorrect change and a stern frown.  “Here, I give you piece of candy instead.”  No, I want my change!

In every other Asian country I’d visited, I instantly learned to say “hello” and “thank you.” In Hanoi, I never learned those words – nobody used them.  By a ratio of ten to one, more people honked at than ever spoke to me.  I’m being bitchy I know, but that’s how this city makes you feel.


I got stuck in Hanoi; stuck in streets sludge and stuck in a conundrum.  Due to varying passport issues (a lack of empty pages) and Visa problems (the Indian Embassy in Hanoi balking at my request to just paste their visa over the one for Laos), I was to stay in Hanoi for two weeks.  The maddening part was that, had the comrade at the border used one of my half-used pages to plop the entry stamp for Vietnam, this problem could have been solved in one of Asia’s friendlier capitals.  But no, he used a brand new page, effectively incarcerating me in Hanoi.  Hanoi for the holidays.  The two weeks in every year that it’s best to be in a Western, Christian country.

Christmas came and went rather unspectacularly.  Yet, Hanoi was the perfectly insane setting for New Years.  This was the city’s first year embracing a full-on celebration of the Western Calendar’s brightest day, inviting international Djs to turn the streets around the Opera House into a flashy dance party.  Everything was unruly and exciting until the clock rang midnight.  We screamed, clapped, and then the Vietnamese ran home in observance of the midnight curfew.

Or, maybe they wanted to get a few hours of shuteye before their sunrise exercise class.  By 6:00am the next morning, the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of downtown were a frenzy of floppy hands and glittery track suits.  The lake was line-to-line jazzercise classes a la Richard Simmons with a boombox.  Those too cool for aerobics plunked a birdy back and forth playing badminton without a net (badminton being the favorite sport of the Vietnamese!).

Hanoi’s main attraction was its unpredictable hysteria – hysteria being both hysterical and frightening.  For example, the town’s two main sights were the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Ho Chi Minh Museum.  One was a capsule holding the body of the great leader swimming in formaldehyde, while the other housed a circus of many acts (a large scale model of fruit, a space room dedicated to the challenger explosion, Picasso replicas, Ho Chi Minh’s fan and hat, and a giant, bronze statue of the leader just waiting for group photos).  Trying to make sense of these things was far too tiring.  It was best to accept it as part of the greater hysteria, or at least that’s what my hotel receptionist Viet told me (his brother’s name was, quite seriously, Nam).

The worst thing of it all was that, by the end, I kind of came to terms with Hanoi.  Despite it all, the organization of the disorder fascinated me.  Crossing the streets emboldened me.  The messy, busy clutter slipped into the background and became part of the landscape, for better or worse.  Maybe I don’t hate Hanoi… but it hurts me to say that.  When, like a chameleon, I picked up on the rhythm of life and slipped into the mix, it thrilled me in a sinister way.

24 Hours: Border Crossing – Laos to Vietnam

4:00am:  I wake up in a sketchy guesthouse that, with crooked floors and hexagonal dimensions, better resembles a funhouse.

4:30am:  A gang of saber-toothed street dogs chase me through the dark alleyways of charmless Muang Khua all the way to the river.

5:00am:  Standing with two backpacks (big and small, front and back) I balance on a rocking canoe as I cross the Nam Ou in the pitch black of night.

5:05am:  The boat captain’s friend pushes me as I’m balancing, demanding money.  Am I buying into some illegal crossing?  Are we about to storm the Alamo?  I give him what he wants.

8:00am:  It’s light out and we stop, waiting for the dirt road to open in our direction.

8:10am:  I squat over a hole for my usual, early-morning bout of diarrhea while cursing myself for the mystery meat I ate the previous week.  Knees trembling, I vow a strict vegetarian diet.

8:17am:  I am invited to join four Vietnamese men for breakfast (Beer Lao and some rice whiskey).  We drink and smile while watching psychedelic music videos on the television.

8:30am:  I feel dizzy.

9:00am:  I get back on the bus and squeeze into a seat where I (small and thin) can barely fit.  To my right, men laze atop piles of rice as if on bean bags while, up front, women plopped on a mat primp each other’s hair.  The bus cum party chugs along.

11:00am:  On a dusty road that looks destined for the moon, the bus loses its traction, sliding backwards.  I scream, everyone laughs, and we continue forward inching closer to China than Vietnam.

12:30pm:  We reemerge above the clouds at the alpine border with Vietnam.  The guards are on a lunch break.  We will have to wait.

12:31pm:  But while we wait, a prim comrade leads us to a statue of the great leader Ho Chi Minh.  Do we know about him?  Do we know about the American War?  Are there any Americans here?  Would I like to know more about Ho Chi Minh or some destinations in Vietnam where I can learn about the atrocities of the war?

1:00pm: Everyone’s visas have been processed… except mine.

1:15pm:  I am free to enter Nam.

3:00pm:  I arrive in Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam after ten hours of travel.  We have gone approximately one-hundred kilometers, averaging an astonishing ten kilometers an hour.

6:00pm:  I catch an overnight bus to Hanoi sharing a pink bed with a mentally retarded man.  He smiles a lot.

4:00am (the next day):  I arrive in Hanoi, Vietnam with zero stampable pages left in my passport.  (I will be stuck here for a while!)