Thursday, May 16, 2013

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City II

At the heart of Ho Chi Minh City is an easy walking tour which covers many of the major tourist highlights.  Walk down Dong Khoi and you'll see Notre Dame Cathedral (significantly smaller than its Parisian counterpart), the City Post Office, Saigon Opera House, the big hotels that served as a haven for foreigners before the fall of Saigon.  Lining that street, you'll also find glitzy shops selling expensive luxury goods -- the same name brands I've seen in New York and London and Shanghai.

Walk a bit further and you'll find Reunification Palace, the former seat of the government of South Vietnam and the site of the end of the Vietnam War.  The North Vietnamese tanks which crashed through the gates during the Fall of Saigon still sit on the grass; the victorious Communist party still rules the country from their Northern capital.

After that, we reached the War Remnants Museum, our most thought-provoking stop.  Opened in 1975, the museum was originally called the "Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes" (where "puppet" refers to the South Vietnamese government); in 1990, its name was changed to the "Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression".  With the normalization of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the US in 1995, the museum took its current name.  Regardless of the name on the building, however, the focus of the museum clearly reflects its origins.

What I learned about the Vietnam War growing up was from a distinctly domestic perspective.  We talked about how unpopular it was on the home front ("Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"), the guerrilla tactics of the enemy, the draft and the dodgers, the Pentagon Papers, how it ended in defeat.  Our grandparents' generation served in WWII and lived proudly as veterans; our parents' generation was drafted into the Vietnam War and lived with a much more conflicted legacy of service.

Were we justified in intruding in Vietnamese affairs, in fighting their fight?  Was this a war over ideals -- democracy versus communism -- or a colonial struggle against the French which was continued by a resource-hungry foreign power?  Did we have a right to bomb Cambodia and Laos -- countries we weren't at war with -- to try and stop the Viet Cong?  What responsibility do we have to the victims of Agent Orange?  To those who continue to lose limbs to landmines?

Oh no!  A chemical!
Not all chemicals are bad (see: water, sugar, DNA, vitamin C.  there are plenty of chemicals you can't live without).  
That one was.  

The War Remnants Museum presents the Vietnamese view of the war (which they call "the American War of Aggression in Vietnam" or simply "the American War").  An exhibit on Historical Truths discusses the history and the motives.  A photo exhibit displays the effects of Agent Orange and the atrocities of the My Lai massacre in graphic detail.   It's a one-sided presentation, but an important side to consider: they are the victors and we are reading about the war on their turf.  To quote General William Tecumseh Sherman (of the American Civil War), War is hell!  We are too often shielded from the realities of what it means to wage war, of the human toll.

And it's amazing how, a mere 40 years later, we're free to roam the country, welcomed without hostility.    

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City I

For $13 and six hours of sitting, we were transported by bus from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam.  A word of warning for the American traveler: unlike Thailand, which doesn't require visas for American tourists, and Cambodia and Laos, which issue visas upon arrival at the airport, Vietnam requires that you obtain a visa in advance.  It's a bureaucratic hurdle but not a particularly arduous one.

My initial reactions to Ho Chi Minh City were of the wholly superficial tourist variety.  Namely,

1. They actually wear the hats!

2. So many motorbikes!

According to Wikipedia, Ho Chi Minh City has 340,000 cars and 3.5 million motorcycles.  It's not uncommon to see bikes with whole families of four (plus a baby!) piled on as they swerve and weave through traffic, maneuvering mere inches apart. Helmets, while required by law, were often worn as thin plastic fashion statements.

Are you familiar with the scene in Mulan where Grandma tests her lucky cricket by crossing the street without looking?  (Silly question... aren't we all?)  As carts swerve and crash around her, she makes it to the other side unscathed.  That's how I felt when crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City.  If you wait for a break in the traffic, you'll never leave the curb.  The only way to cross is to take a deep breath and walk slowly and steadily, praying that the bikes will swerve around you.  The adrenaline rush is one heck of a way to wake up in the morning.

3. The food!

When Vietnam threw off French colonial rule, they wisely kept the French desserts.  Asian food + French desserts is a fantastic combination.  Of all the Asian countries we've visited, though, I had the hardest time finding vegetarian food in Vietnam.

Sacks of dried shrimp

A fruit stand: lychee, custard apple, mango, durian, dragon fruit, and a couple I can't name

Anyone looking to buy a large pile of intestines?

Ho Chi Minh City had its thought-provoking moments too, especially as an American.  I'll follow up with these more serious musings in the next post.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Cambodia: Phnom Penh

Warning: This post contains photos from S21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where prisoners were tortured by the Khmer Rouge.  It's disturbing material.  If you'd rather not see them, don't click through at the jump break.

"Tuk-tuk?  Killing fields?  Genocide museum?"

So called the tuk-tuk drivers, advertising the most popular tourist "highlights" of Phnom Penh.

With attractions like that, Phnom Penh sounds like a rather grim destination.  B. would agree, I think (exacerbated by the fact that he spent most of our time there in bed feeling miserable).  And yet, I found Cambodia's capital to be charming and exciting.

Phnom Penh sits at the confluence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong, and Bassac rivers.  It was once considered to be the "Pearl of Asia", one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina.  In the 1970s, however, the Khmer Rouge shelled and then forcibly evacuated the city; during their genocidal reign from 1975-1979, approximately 1.7 million people -- 21% of the country's population -- died.

Since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Phnom Penh -- and, indeed, Cambodia as a whole -- has been rebuilding.  It is, in many ways, a very young city and a very young country.  I loved the city for its rawness and its potential.  For the palpable feeling that, if we return in 5 or 10 or 20 years, the city will have grown and exploded and regained more of its former glory.  I look forward to that day.

On a decidedly less sentimental note... by the time we'd reached Phnom Penh, B. was several countries overdue for a haircut.  We found a bright orange, super inexpensive hair salon with a bit of English on the door and figured they couldn't mess up his hair too badly.  The ordeal involved several electric razors that couldn't cope with B.'s quantity of hair, a broken electrical outlet, and ultimately resulted in a haircut was a bit short on the sides, a bit long on top, the front was gelled to a point... and the hairdresser refused to change anything, despite our laughing insistence.  That's what a $3-4 Cambodian haircut gets you.  (Note: this wouldn't be the last time an Asian hairdresser had her way with B.'s hair and then refused to change anything.)

Click "read more" below to see photos from S21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Cambodia: Angkor Wat

The Angkor temples exist in various states of reconstruction.  Some are still scattered piles of stone with trees growing through.  Others have been largely restored to their original glory.

See those numbers written on the stones?  In order to reconstruct Baphuon, the temple was taken apart piece by piece and the original location of each stone was carefully noted.  During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the inventory was lost, turning the reconstruction project into a massive puzzle in three dimensions.

Buddha reclining

Angkor Wat

Bullet holes from the Khmer Rouge

Our tour guide

It's extremely popular for tourists to visit Angkor Wat for sunrise, crowding around the reflecting pool to catch the iconic shot of the sun rising through the towers.  Instead, we caught the reflection of the tourists.

And then watched the sunrise from Bakan, the uppermost terrace of Angkor Wat

The Angkor temples have suffered the ravages of both time and men.  In many places, statues and decorations have been stolen and sold on the international black market, winding up in private collections and at famous museums abroad.  The push is increasingly toward preservation, though, and some of these stolen pieces are now being repatriated.

Ta Prohm temple has been left partially-reconstructed with gigantic trees growing through.
It has a cameo in "Tombraider" with Angelina Jolie.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cambodia: Siem Reap

When so many well-traveled friends tell you not to miss Angkor Wat, you listen.

One goes to Angkor Wat to see ruins of an empire, to ogle at the scale of the temple complexes, the delicate detail of the buildings, the technology required so long ago, and to wonder at the fact that all of it was abandoned -- forgotten -- literally reclaimed by the jungle -- for hundreds of years.  It's stunning and breath-taking and tragic.

For photos from the temples, see the next post.

We flew Cambodia Angkor Airways from Bangkok (BKK) to Siem Reap (REP, the city closest to Angkor Wat) on their second day of operating the route.  Conversation on board started with jokes about whether the pilot had been flying for more than two days (he had.  It was a perfectly smooth hour-long flight on a prop plane) and then invariably shifted to genocide and Cambodian history.  It was a stark contrast from Thailand, where the conversation centered around beautiful beaches, partying, and relaxation.

At the tiny Siem Reap airport (one of three international airports in Cambodia and the busiest one in terms of passenger traffic, according to Wikipedia), we had the surreal experience of watching our passports get passed, hand-to-hand, down a line of 7 Cambodian officials while Gangam Style played in the background.  Before Psy finished singing "Eh, sexy lady", our visas were granted.

While the temples dominated our time in Siem Reap, we also took an ATV tour through the surrounding area and stopped at the Landmine Museum.  Given that Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat and that millions of tourists pass through each year, the area is remarkably underdeveloped.  Nearly 30% of the country lives under the poverty line of $1 per day; even near the relatively prosperous tourist sites, there are communities without electricity.  We saw endless rice paddies, many waving children, and a gorgeous sunset.

* The official Cambodian currency is the riel, which currently exchanges at approximately 4000 KHR to 1 USD.  In practice, US dollars are used for most transactions, especially in the cities; even the ATMs dispense dollars.  We picked up a few thousand riels in change from vendors, but that's about it.