Good morning, Vietnam!

(James) Em and I were up fairly early on Christmas morning but with Darren having only been in bed for a couple of hours and, quite frankly, being grumpy in the mornings at the best of times, we decided to let sleeping dogs lie and went out for a wander. Our flight to Vietnam wasn’t until the evening – as you may recall from an earlier post, politics mean that foreign registered vehicles are not allowed in Vietnam so we were going without bikes – which meant we had most of the day to kill. Over lunch, and with still no appearance from Darren, we decided that a Christmas day massage might be in order. It should be said that I’m not normally that interested in this sort of thing but in Thailand they do very good ones for neck and shoulders and with my old biking/sporting injuries, they really are quite therapeutic. We sat down next to each other at the usual place but then I was ushered upstairs, something that hadn’t happened before, and shown to a cubicle  where I was asked to change into a pair of pyjamas. This I did, somewhat nervously it has to be said, and few minutes later a guy came in and closed the curtains before asking me to lie on my front (this didn’t exactly do anything to alleviate my nerves – how lost in translation could things have got?!…) Without further ado, he started standing on the back of my calves with the balls of his feet (full body weight) and slowly walked along my legs, stopping every few centimetres to really press down on any pressure points. It’s difficult to describe how painful it was but suffice to say that within seconds, I was silently screaming, and desperately trying not to chicken out and give in. When we’d walked into the massage parlour just minutes earlier, we’d both enthusiastically ordered the full one hour service… something I was really starting to regret. It turns out I had good reason to. Over the next hour I was put through a seemingly endless series of tortuously painful  manoeuvres and contorted into agonising positions,  one of which found me inverted upside down above my masseur who, lying on his back, supported me in the air on his knees, forcing me to instinctively hold my breath (I wouldn’t have been able to get a new lungful had I exhaled) in a position the like of which I didn’t think my body was capable of attaining. In summary, at no point during that hour was I in anything less than total agony. But as I walked down stairs afterwards to find a semi-comatose Em sitting in a very comfy looking chair, it has to be said I felt absolutely great (although this may have been a form of euphoria simply because it was all over!)

By the time we got back to the hostel, the place was rammed with kids and playing in the middle of them, now totally revitalised, was Darren, the biggest kid of them all. It turned out that the hostel works in partnership with a children’s charity and each Christmas puts up a tour group of under privileged children from around the world; pretty cool. Picking our way through the piles of presents, we got our bags together (most of our kit was being left with the ever obliging hostel staff) and headed off to the airport. Before long, we were on our flight to Ho Chi Minh City, eating steamed fish and rice (Em: not the usual Christmas dinner then!) and just 90 minutes later touched down in Vietnam, country number 23. It has to be said we were really quite excited about the prospect of Vietnam (Em: the war movie quotes from James and Darren had been getting out of control…) and curious about what we might find there. I guess there’s always some sort of auto mindset that assumes that any communist country will be not only stern and oppressive, but that things will have ceased to develop or progress since the regime came to power, effectively putting the country into a kind of stasis where nothing has changed for decades. Interestingly, the first thing we found on our arrival was that although officially the city is called Ho Chi Minh, for the locals it’s most definitely still Saigon. It’s not surprising when you think about it – the name has a long legacy, both from when it was the capital of South Vietnam and as a key city of French Indochina before that. When the south finally fell to the communists at the end of the Vietnam war, it was renamed after Ho Chi Minh or ‘Uncle Ho’, the late communist leader who had died (of natural causes) over five years before the end of the war. It was a classic case of state endorsed propaganda, designed to leave those in the south under no illusion as to who was now in charge (after all they didn’t rename Hanoi, the north’s capital, which would surely have been the greatest tribute). Either way, to the locals it’s still Saigon, so for the purposes of the blog we’ll now refer to it as Saigon. Furthermore, what immediately hit us as we took a taxi from the airport into the city was just how modern everything was. There were bars, cafes, luxury shops (including the oh so very bourgeois Armani, Versace etc) and the occasional luxury western hotel. Even more surprising was that on the road, aside from the sea of scooters (more on this later) was the odd Mercedes, Range Rover and Porsche. If the revolution was meant to bring an end to excesses of the old capitalist regime then nobody had told the people of Saigon.

When thinking about Vietnam, it’s hard not to have your thoughts influenced by the iconic images associated with the Vietnam war, whether through documentaries or Hollywood, but surely the Vietnam of nearly 40 years later did not warrant such a stereotype. However, having checked in to our hotel, we went out to get our first feel for the city and what we found, rather bizarrely, was surprisingly familiar. Dominating the streets of this particularly touristy area were dozens of clubs and bars, outside of which sat hundreds of tourists, mostly men, many of whom weren’t talking with each other but had their seats facing outwards on to the street. Meanwhile, local girls in impossibly short skirts flitted about and stood around the pool tables smiling, winking and challenging young backpackers to a game, who, egos flattered by the attention, willingly obliged, bought rounds of drinks and did their best to flirt, seemingly unaware that they were dealing with professionals and that money as opposed to putting on their best moves was the only way the evening was going to progress as they hoped. It really was just like those movie images ingrained in our psyche, except the American GI’s had been replaced by an international, and slightly more colourful, army of tourists, and lot more neon. That night, we had a couple of Christmas beers and played some pool but the main entertainment on offer was people watching!

The following morning we were up bright and early as we needed to plan our time in Vietnam. It was now 26th December and Darren was flying back to Bangkok and then home on the 4th January so we wanted to make sure he got to see everything he wanted in the time available. A quick look at the map revealed that Vietnam was both incredibly narrow (generally around 100km wide and as little as 50km at points) and surprisingly long (almost 1700km). Our initial thoughts had been that we could rent or buy a small bike or scooter in Saigon and ride it to Hanoi but clearly this wasn’t going to happen. Certainly it was possible but given that we wanted to actually stop at places of interest and not just ride everyday from dawn to dusk, it really wasn’t very feasible. Darren listed Saigon, the Cu Chi tunnels and the citadel of Hue as his top three places of interest. Hanoi was listed as a possible but given that our choice was to take time to savour three places or risk rushing four or more, we decided to go with the former. With the decision made, and safe in the knowledge that we had three days in Saigon, we headed out into the city. Far from having drab communist, or even American, influences in the architecture and infrastructure  as one might have expected, Saigon still held on to its deeper colonial past and had a distinctly French feel to it; we walked along streets with French names, past French style houses, bakeries and street stalls selling baguettes. But it was the wide four, five and even six lane boulevards (very much a la Baron Haussmann darling) (Em: wtf?) that captivated us. Now, you’ll remember that I mentioned scooters a little earlier. We’d heard from other travellers that the scores of scooters in Saigon would come as something of a shock to us, but nothing could have possibly prepared us for the sheer number! They were everywhere! These wide roads were simply rammed with a sea of countless scooters weaving in every possible direction. It was, quite simply, astonishing!

This brought us on nicely to our next spectacle – crossing the road. We’d read about it in guide books but like so many things, it’s easier said than done. The first time, we stood on the pavement for a few minutes, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all (and secretly, I think, hoping for some miraculous break in the traffic). Now, as I said, it really is hard to get across the sheer number of scooters in Saigon to anyone who hasn’t been there, and the general advice for crossing the road is to ‘just walk out in to the melee and keep going, letting all the traffic buzz and swerve around you’ (picture a swarm of wasps!), which is exactly what we did! It was hilarious and I wish I’d taken some video of it, but with one hand kept free for emergencies and the other held in a vice like grip by Emily, it simply wasn’t an option! In Europe, crossing a road like this would see you quickly taken to hospital, but throughout our trip, and in fact ever since Albania, we’ve been in countries where this system of impossibly busy  and seemingly rule-less roads has been standard operating procedure. It’s a strange thing, but with the exception of India (where almost a quarter of a million people are killed on the roads annually!), we hardly ever see accidents. Everything just keeps going – don’t ask me how but it does. Anyway, we walked slowly and tried to keep to a predictable pace and direction but to be honest, no matter what we’d have done, we’d have still had scooters zipping and swerving all around us.

In the afternoon we visited the War Remnants Museum, something at the top of most Saigon must-see lists. We’d been expecting an appallingly biased propaganda piece about the Vietnam war but what we found was altogether more candid. Outside the museum was a collection of captured American military equipment – tanks, artillery, helicopters and attack fighters – giving us a real sense of the iconic imagery of the war, and all just as expected. But when we stepped inside things really changed. Unlike the slightly diluted photos and documentation we get in the western world (to protect the more sensitive visitors), this was totally unedited and graphic. There were two exhibitions being held within the museum – the first was a tribute to the international war photographers who died in the conflict. Their photos were incredibly explicit and utterly disturbing, capturing executions (not just by the Americans), battle shots and normally the last photos, both of and taken by, the featured journalist. It would be fair to say that despite the large number of visitors, the atmosphere in the large room containing the exhibit was hushed and sombre, but that was nothing compared to the shocked silence in the second exhibition. Based on a project undertaken by an English photographer, it is a record of the execution and consequences of Operation Ranch Hand, perhaps better known for its association with Agent Orange.

Running from 1962 to 1971, Operation Ranch Hand had several goals. Officially it was the US military’s attempt to deprive guerrilla fighters of food and cover by defoliating the forests by spraying them with a toxic chemical known colloquially as Agent Orange (a reference to the orange warning labels on the drums); it was reported to both Congress and soldiers on the ground that the crops being destroyed were used to feed the enemy. However they would later discover that this wasn’t true and that almost all of the destroyed crops were, in fact, used to feed the local civilian population. Destroying the civilian population’s ability to feed itself was actually all part of a ‘greater’ strategic plan – to induce what was known as ‘forced draft urbanisation’. Effectively the idea was that by wiping out the rural civilian population’s ability to feed itself, famine would break out. The now starving peasants would have little choice but to leave the countryside and head for the American controlled cities, which would in turn not only deprive the enemy of their food supply, but take away their valuable local support base. Of course, history shows that ultimately it made no difference to the outcome of the war but it did create famine in Vietnam, and it did force many to move to towns and cities where they formed large slums. The numbers are astounding: during the period that Operation Ranch Hand was active, the urban population grew from 2.8 million to 8 million; 80 million litres of the herbicide were sprayed over Vietnam, Eastern Laos and Cambodia destroying 10 million hectares of farmland in South Vietnam alone and spraying 20% of the country’s forests at least once a year for 9 years. An estimated 400,000 people were killed or maimed at the time as a result of the toxins in Agent Orange, but the effects ran far deeper than that as the chemicals used (which were 13 times higher than the legal US limit) seeped in to the soil and the water table. The effects are still being felt today, with the soil in some areas still up to 350 times higher than recommended safety levels, and this, combined with the polluted water table,  has resulted in a population whose genetics have been severely compromised. A reported 3 million Vietnamese people have been affected by Agent Orange, including some 500,000 babies being born with severe defects (as well as an unknown number of still born births), and this number is still growing to this day.

The local population weren’t the only ones to suffer; those American soldiers and airman who came into contact with the chemicals have also been found to have abnormally high levels of dioxins in their blood, despite assurances at the time from the top brass that it was completely harmless. Like the Vietnamese, US veterans, many of whom were exposed to concentrated doses, have since reported a wide range of illnesses including respiratory defects, cancers, and disorders of the skin and of the nervous system and, like with the Vietnamese, it’s the children and grand children of the veterans who are in turn affected. The exhibition was pretty ‘no holds barred’. We were spared none of the horrors, and not a sound came from any one of the visitors for the 90 minutes we spent viewing photos and reading the testimony of Vietnamese and American victims alike. Agent Orange has become infamous for the effects it had and its illegal use (it defied the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical and biological weapons). We left the museum visibly shocked by what we had seen and read, and felt an anger not only at the fact that it had been allowed to happen but the fact that those in charge, those at top who were ‘brave’ enough to authorise such a program, weren’t brave enough to stand up and be held to account whilst those at the bottom on both sides suffered without any real recognition or compensation. Rather appropriately,  the next day  we were booked on a tour to visit the Viet Cong tunnels in the Cu Chi district outside of Saigon where we would get to see first-hand some of what we had just read about.

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One Response to “Good morning, Vietnam!”

  1. Mama/Kate says:

    Wow, that was some history lesson, thanks to ‘The Fountain’. I realise that I had no idea of the extent of Agent Orange. You would think that those who were in authority at the time must now be haunted by the knowledge of what they allowed to happen. I wonder how they live with it.

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