After a two-week reality-check crash-course in Cambodia, we moved on to Vietnam. Our first stop: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
It was a really quick stop, we only stayed for four days, but it was enough to visit the city, walk around a bit – I was thrilled that there were actual side-walks (sort of like ‘OMG side-walks, we can walk, look at this, how amazing?’) until I realised that motorcycles don’t give a sh*t and they just ride on side-walks if the road traffic is too heavy for their liking. Anyway, silver lining is it was sightly more walkable than any of the other places we’d been so far.
It’s a nice city, not my favourite, but I liked it. It has a cool vibe to it and there are loads of cool bars and restaurants.
We were also lucky enough to be there for the semi-final of the U23 Asian Cup which Vietnam won, and I’m telling you the city went mental: everyone was shouting, people took to the streets in their motorbikes, honking, holding flags, shouting ‘Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam’… it was hysteria all over. I thought the old man at our homestay (yeah there was a really-old-super-friendly man at our homestay) would have a heart attack! He didn’t though, he was just over the moon thrilled. It was great fun to accidentally be a part of it all!
The main sightseeing spots are all in walking distance from each other and easy to check out in one day, so we pretty much saw it all on our first day. Next on our itinerary was the War Remnants Museum. If you read my previous post about Cambodia, you’re probably thinking, ‘jeez, these guys don’t exactly take it lightly do they?’
Well, again, I think it’s important to learn a bit about the country you’re visiting – and we never really learned much about Asia in school – so we knew very little about the Vietnam War (or the American War as they call it over here). We were keen to understand it a bit better, particularly after being in Cambodia, which we learnt was also heavily bombed by the USA as a result. So yeah, we wanted to learn more.
I don’t think I was fully prepared for it, even though I’ve been to my share of war museums… It’s really really heavy and extremely visual. I had to step away at times and hold back the tears. But of course, war isn’t pretty, and I guess it’s important to see all its ugliness in order to understand why we should prevent it at all costs.
The exhibition is very thorough and brutal. I read many reviews from people who thought it was a bit biased, that it focuses mainly on the American wrong-doings and dismisses other countries’ involvement… I didn’t come away thinking the USA was the main culprit, I actually thought there were many many culprits, and much wrong-doing from all sides and all allies involved; it certainly felt like a war to cater the interests of a few, and devastate the innocent and the many (but then again, aren’t all wars like that?).
But I have to agree that the photo exhibition on the second floor – a brilliant collection from the bravest war photographers, many of whom died trying to get the world to see what was really going on – makes it clear that while the USA wasn’t the only culprit, they certainly took advantage and used Vietnam for ‘new weapon testing’, which was absolutely appalling… While some might think that “all is fair in love and war”, that’s actually not true, and the Bertrand Russell Tribunal found the USA guilty of war crimes for “the utilization and testing of weapons prohibited by the laws of war (C.B.U’s, napalm, phosphorus bombs, combat gases, toxic chemicals).” (Of course in my naive view, the only ‘law of war’ should be “don’t make war”; but I know the world isn’t all fluffy like I want it to be).
As you go through the exhibition your faith in humanity is shaken, you start questioning where the good people are, if there are any… but they’ve somehow managed to finish the exhibition in a very beautiful way: with love and hope. On the ground floor, after learning the all the whys and whats, there is a collection of newspapers, letters, articles, etc., showing all the support Vietnam received from around the World, including the USA, where the gap between government and people was getting wider and wider as the war went on. There are also stories of American soldiers, who didn’t see a reason for the war any more and refused to take part in the use of chemical weapons; soldiers who refused to follow orders they couldn’t possible make sense of any more. There were peace marches pretty much across the globe. Statements from many nations begging for the war to come to an end.
In 1975 the war ended and Vietnam could finally start to heal its wounds and pick themselves up. And they have. Today it is the 47th largest economy in the world (measured by GDP) and according to Forbes its economic growth will accelerate in 2018.
But of course such a war leaves deep scars. To this day there are still generations struggling with the devastating effects of Agent Orange, not just Vietnamese people and soldiers but also American soldiers and their offspring. (Interesting opinion article in he NY Times here; some of the comments are really heart-breaking).
While steps were taken to clean Vietnam of all toxic remains, charities struggle to get the resources to help all its victims, many of whom have to live with its scars forever.
Here are a few that are helping the victims, feel free to check it out, maybe you’ll want to help too:
- Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) – an organisation that was set up to help the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. They provide help to people in their homes and in rehabilitation centres, priority is given to the poorest families.
- Medical and Scientific Aid for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (MSAVLC) – a registered charity that was originally established in 1965. Since then it has been providing aid to some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in South-East Asia, including some of the victims of Agent Orange.
On the path to happiness
From my experience so far (we’ve been here for a month now), Vietnam is a beautiful country with beautiful, kind people. Obviously you can never (should never) make generalizations, but from our experience, Vietnamese are amongst the friendliest people we have ever met. They welcome everyone with a smile. They are kind and generous. They’re on a very happy path (they nearly won the U-23 Asian Cup for cryin’ out loud!) and that makes my heart very very happy. (Almost fluffy).