War and Religion in Saigon

My last 3 days of Vietnam were spent in Saigon. I was there for two days with Elle, and then I had a day and a half to myself to meander the city. I visited the War Remnants Museum, explored Chinatown and had some very interesting egg filled bbq pork buns. I visited temples and then bargained with a motorbike rider to take me back to my hostel after a tiring morning of walking. I have to say that the traffic in Vietnam looks worse than in Indonesia, but it was a much more pleasant ride, apart from the fact I was wearing a dress (always more difficult to ride on the back of a motorbike in a dress than in shorts) and half sliding off the back due to holding onto the bike with one hand and holding my purse with the other. However I survived, and one thing I just had to do before leaving was have a relaxing gin and tonic on the roof of the Rex Hotel, where I wrote this reflection on anti-American sentiments in Ho Chi Minh. The Rex Hotel was the “Home of the Five O’Clock Follies”, as it was where the United States Military gave briefings to the Press at 5pm each day. It had a very nice high view of the city, with high prices to match! However it was my last night in Vietnam, so I decided to treat myself after a full month of the grungy backpacker lifestyle.

Whilst in Vietnam, I never had a chance to upload any photos, because the Vietnamese government blocks a lot of sites such as Facebook. This meant that WordPress was difficult to access in some places too, so photos never made it online. Until now.

I won’t repeat everything I said in my earlier post, but I do want to re-touch upon the Cu Chi Tunnels, as it really was quite an experience. I wrote earlier that the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum were similar to theme parks, minus the roller coasters. They seemed to celebrate the war, and rightly so (in their mind) because the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was built upon the fall of Saigon and the conquest of North Vietnam over the South. So in their view, they won. They forced the Americans out, beat South Vietnam and now operate under a one-party system where they are in full control of the country. I was sickened by the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, yet I barely felt anything at the Tunnels.

I even fired my first gun there. That’s right, after learning about the atrocities of war and seeing traps left for American and North Vietnamese Soldiers, I cheerily handed over $17.50 for 10 bullets to an AK47, and shot at targets (see photo below). And I felt nothing negative about it, because the whole day didn’t feel sad or depressing. It felt like an amusement park. It was very weird. And after I had fired all 10 bullets (and taken one of the shells as a souvenir), I simply handed the gun back over, took off my ear muffs and rejoined the group to continue on our tour. Again, weird.

This gun is not the gun that I shot, although my AK47 wasn’t particularly new (it probably did come from the war itself!). I just thought it was a pretty cool looking gun on display at the War Remnants Museum. When you walked in, there were all these different guns, tanks and airplanes on display. With American tourists wearing baseball caps, singlets and basketball shorts taking photos of them and their friends in front. Not at all the same vibe you get when you walk into the Killing Fields, listening to the audiotape about how they are still finding bodies in the fields beneath your feet…

Like I said in my earlier post, the tour guide at Cu Chi talked about how the Viet Cong used to climb in tiny holes to hide after they shot at US troops. So, at the start of the tour when he was discussing this tactic, we came across a person dressed in uniform, ready and waiting by the hidden trap door, to show us exactly how it was done:

After, we were asked whether anyone else wanted to have a go. Elle volunteered, and down she went. She was thin enough to fit in, though most tourists in our group were not…

And speaking of the size of tourists, one of the key attractions of the Cu Chi Tunnels is the ability to actually climb through the tunnels yourself!! Although you don’t climb in an authentic tunnel – they widen the tunnel, make it higher, and put electrical lighting in it. They clean it up a bit and get rid of all the booby traps. I can’t imagine the Vietnamese size tunnels, as the tourist tunnels were tiny and unbearable. You are torn between crawling and perching, and can’t wait to find the first exit possible. I couldn’t imagine living in there for days on end!

And of course, no war exhibition is complete without a tank. And an amusement park war exhibition especially is not complete until you have a huge group of school kids climbing on top of a tank (used in the war to kill people) and posing for a group photo.

I had my token tank shot, at the Presidential Palace, in a much more tasteful manner. If a tank photo can be tasteful. And I am happy to say that the super sexy camera-bag-matching knee brace is no more. My knee is 90% healed (yay!).

Now the other half of our full day trip was a visit to the Cao Dai Temple. Balance the good with the bad, salvation with death. Caodaism draws upon Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Cao Dai means “High Tower”, or the supreme God. Under Cao Dai all religions are one, and all Gods are one. We actually were there for a ceremony, where they chant and hum with an orchestra of sorts in the back. The temple itself is really quite spectacular, and very vibrant. I was happy we added that to our tour, rather than just visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels (like most people from our hostel did).

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