Last Stop: Saigon

Sitting in front of the Reunification Palace.

After spending a few days in a near comatose state on the beach, we decided to wrap up our trip in Ho Chi Minh City, or as it’s known to pretty much everyone who lives there, Saigon (the name was changed in 1976 shortly after southern forces fell to the Vietnam’s Peoples Army). Muggy as ever and overflowing with motorbikes, we visited a few of the city’s historical sites, most notably The Reunification Palace and The Vietnam War Remnants Museum, both of which offered a unique perspective to a conflict that usually is only delivered from one side in our hometown history books. For instance, something I never considered is that the war is referred to as the “American War” by the Vietnamese. Just goes to show that there really are two sides to every story.

To get to the city we endured a 12-hour overnight trip from Doc Let to Saigon on a “Sleeper Bus.” This is a terribly misleading name mainly because there is very little sleeping happening, and mostly a lot of praying that your bus doesn’t collide with an oil tanker or or fall of a dilapidated bridge. A more accurate name would be a “Strap-on-your-seatbelt-Sally-Mae-and-hope-to-God-you-don’t-crash” Bus. I had to make several “pant checks” throughout the ride to make sure I hadn’t punched my ticket to brown town. Thankfully we made it unscathed.

This picture was taken from inside the Reunification Palace, the site of the official handover of power during the fall of Saigon. More a time capsule than a function building, the rooms of the palace have been left mostly untouched since the the 70’s. Rooms are adorned with the same furniture and decorations as they were when the last Southern soldiers fled on April 30th, 1975. Explanations of the Palace didn’t really extend beyond room names, but regardless, you couldn’t help but feel the history sweating out of its walls. A unique experience indeed, and I highly recommend it to anyone visits. And with an entry fee of $1.50 how can you afford not to?

The roof of the palace 30.4.1975 (photo taken by Hubert van Es)

The roof of the palace today

Our next stop was the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. Visually speaking, this is not a glamorous museum by any means. The exhibit rooms are small, cramped, and exceedingly hot. The main hall is reminiscent to a high school gymnasium with pictures pasted to the walls. Getty and Guggenheim it’s not, but what makes this museum shine is its amazing content. Filled with hundreds of gut-wrenching photographs from embedded photographers, the exhibits shed light on the brutal and lasting impact of war. Be warned- the museum is not for the faint of heart. Some of the exhibits, especially those focusing on the My Lai massacre, and the use of Agent Orange and napalm, are incredibly graphic. However, this much should be expected considering the the subject matter and the fact that the site’s original name was The War Crimes and Atrocities Museum.

The parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, if not already glaringly apparent, are difficult to ignore when viewing some of the material found in the museum. I thought this photo particularly telling. Here two American soldiers are “interrogating” a Vietnamese soldier. The caption reads “They decide on water torture. A rag is placed on the man’s mouth and water is poured on it, making breathing impossible.” Hmmmmm. Water boarding? Why does this sound so familiar?

After the heavy dose of history we decided to hit the town. Our hotel was located in a pretty lively part of town. We posted up at a nearby bar and spent our last night drinking Tiger beer and watching the city go by. Mission accomplished.

Related Listening: “When The War Came” – The Decemberists

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One response to “Last Stop: Saigon

  1. The April 30, 1974 picture of Americans fleeing Vietnam brings back memories. Sitting in a bar, in Iowa City, law school exams over, and the News comes on. The war is over. We declared “Victory” and ran (flew) the hell out of there. All around the bar beer flowed – The War Ends – Peace Now was no longer merely a slogan – In a few more months (there was still some killing that had to be done) peace would break out all over the place.

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