Saturday, May 3, 2014

Saigon City

Bustling with life and on a high speed track toward modernization, Ho Chi Minh city has it all. As the economic capital of Vietnam, Saigon is playing an obvious game of limbo - balancing the old world with the new.  It is a city full of paradoxes, troublesome history, and hope. 

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh city after spending some time up north. My good friend Jason is currently living and working there as he will be running a camp on the coast this summer.  So we planned to relax and recharge with him, hoping to get a taste of local Vietnamese life. 

Saigon is a surprisingly clean Asian city that has a fetish for neon lights and karaoke. France's influence of manicured gardens takes precedence in the city center. Thousands upon thousands of motorbikes weave around the tree lined parks. 

Most of the attractions in Ho Chi Minh are French built - the gardens, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Municipal Office. The facade of these buildings in District One are clearly of French origin with their balconies, overhangs, and architectural design. The Reunification Palace is quite modern and creates a stark contrast to the Baroque features of the Cathedral across the way. The Post Office offers a chance to time travel thanks to it's traditional signage, world clocks, old fashioned teller windows, and vaulted ceiling. Most travelers reside in the backpacking area in District 1 where they have a delusional sense of the city. Here you can buy cereal and enjoy a daily happy hour. However, once you leave District One and venture outside the city limits, Saigon is not so perfect.

As a communist country, Vietnam follows many of the Marxist rules - enforced curfews, absence of Western chains or privatization. However, Vietnam - along with many other 'communist' countries have failed to achieve the founding principle of communism - a classless society. The theory of communism strives for the absence of class, money, and government. The removal of social classes will in turn lead to the removal of the state. This theory believes that class struggle creates social unrest. So during the transition to communism, if the proletariat holds the power of the State and enforces a collective ownership of all institutions, eventually there will be 'equality' for all in a State free country. Several countries have aimed for a socialist economy with a communist society; however it is debatable if one has ever been achieved. As for Vietnam, the State is alive and well - as is the class hierarchy. 

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in Vietnam. Cartier, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton are showcased in the heart of District One. Cocktails have New York City prices in the bars. There are no motorbikes in this neighborhood as everyone has a driver. However, in the surrounding Districts the workers carry on with their traditional life - squatting over a wok, selling fish in the morning market, pushing a cart around to sell Ban Mí. Travel outside the city where the potholes are deeper and poverty is greater and you will be a far cry away from the wealthy business men and women of Saigon. Children are barefoot and families live off of a dollar a day. The luxurious houses with framed international art hanging on their walls transform to tin roof shacks and shanty towns. Class struggle is not dead in Vietnam. 

I was able to see every side of Vietnamese society while in Ho Chi Minh. I was welcomed into the home of a wealthy family where a maid, cook, and driver are staples to their lifestyle. Their affluence was grander than what I have seen in the States. Jason lives in one of the outskirt districts so I was able to see traditional local living. People eat from the daily markets and from restaurants in the ground floors of family home's, not from a private cook. Motorbikes outnumber the cars on the streets. I also traveled outside the city center along the coast. I watched the sky-rises disappear into the horizon as small roadside towns popped up ahead. Heaps of trash burned alongside the roads as impromptu restaurants fed hungry pit-stopped travelers. The class divide is so painfully evident that I do not know how it would ever be erased. 

One day Mikaela and I walked through one of the green parks and sat down on a bench to find refuge from the relentless heat. Within minutes two university students came up to us hoping to practice their English. As they asked us a series of questions, fighting off their shy demeanor, several locals that were walking by stopped to listen. Soon enough we had a crowd of seven Vietnamese locals taking turns asking us about our travels, why we came to their country, and if we liked it. One man with missing teeth adamantly spoke about the Vietnam War - the elephant in the room. He showed us his bullet wounds on his thigh and kept shouting 'No Communism' 'What freedom?' 'What freedom?' With his low level of English and mixture of fanatical words, we could not decipher if this Southern Vietnamese man liked or hated us Americans. 

It was inevitable to face the reality of being Americans in Vietnam. We were warned to say we were Canadian while in the North as the older generations' wounds have not healed. We asked our guides, who were in their twenties, about their point of view on the war and Americans. They claimed that it is in the past and it is time to move forward, to modernize. However, decades later the effects of a brutal war are still thriving. 

We visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh where the visual representation of the Second Indochina War was shocking. Vietnam spent most of the twentieth century fighting imperial powers - the French and then the Americans. The ground floor shows all of the countries in opposition to the Vietnam War - pretty much every country except America and Australia. The second floor is filled with photos from Time Magazine journalists documenting the fighting and civilian abuse that took place. Eventually the path leads to Agent Orange where any faith in humanity is lost. The use of chemical warfare to destroy forests and force out the rural locals was unbelievable. The images of these villages being wiped out with dioxin are so inhumane. All I kept thinking was the world just finished fighting a war against a monster who tried to exterminate a religion and now a world superpower is using that same method of warfare on an entire country. Even more heartbreaking is the reality that Agent Orange is affecting generations to come. Those exposed to the chemical radiation have mutated genes and the land is still contaminated from the poison. Their DNA is passed down into their children resulting in an obscene about of birth defects - cerebral palsy, cancers, missing limbs, tumors, dwarfism, and many other disabilities. The images of these innocent children being victims of imperialist aggression bring tears to your eyes and a weight on your heart. As an American you walk around this museum ashamed. 

The Vietnam War is such a controversial subject. Was America right to intervene in another country's civil struggles. Was America's sole purpose for intervention to stop the spread of communism? Was there no profit to gain? 

American soldiers entered a battlefield they never experienced before. The North Vietnamese Army and The Viet Cong were more organized than expected and their knowledge of the jungle terrain gave them an advantage. This guerrilla warfare style of fighting caught American soldiers off guard. While Nixon was sending an endless sea of soldiers to their deaths, the anti-war movement Stateside grew with such fervor. Eventually America was in too deep with little progress and began to withdraw. However leaving such a fragile county on their own and reducing foreign military influence is a ticking time bomb. America's demilitarization and a weak Southern Vietnamese Army provided the perfect opportunity for Northern Vietnam to claim the whole country. In 1975 Saigon was captured and the South officially fell to Communism - all the lives lost, on both sides, rolled over in their mass graves. 

Seeing a side of the Vietnam War we do not learn about in our American history classes is both eye-opening and humbling. Even more so disappointing is the fact that this deathly scenario has happened and is happening time and time again - Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. 

America fights two battles. When countries are in civil despair America is looked to as the hero that must intervene and create order. However, we are also seen as the beast that instigates. Which is the right path to take? As a superpower is it America's global responsibility to restore the welfare of unstable countries? Or on the contrary, should America keep it's hands clean and focus on it's own domestic problems. 

Whatever the right answer may be, and whether there even is one, I do not believe it is correct to intervene on a country's political and social problems, turn their government upside down, and then withdraw, leaving the newly imposed government too fragile and too green. Even more so, I cannot fathom the reasoning behind nuclear and chemical warfare. Centuries ago war was fought for territory and control. Now that global boundaries are more or less set in place, war has evolved as a means of profit and of economic and political control. It is a revolving door of hypocrisy. Countries that once fought imperialism are now the imperialists. Countries that shamed the use of chemical warfare test it on weaker countries. Power is shown with military might rather than in effective legislation and compromise. How many more generations need to fall victim to untimely deaths for humanity to realize that war simply perpetuates problems rather than solves it. We have reached a new world order where wars are no longer battled on defined fronts; rather through a trifecta of military power - land, air, and sea, all with the threat of nuclear destruction as a wild card. Perhaps it is time that reason through legislation takes precedence over war. Less lives are lost with an intelligent discussion. War and violence has only shown man's inhumanity to man - how man has abused the power of free will. 

As I left this museum, somber and with my mind racing, I couldn't help but think of generations to come. My sweet, innocent nephew was born a week before and I tried to predict the world he would grow up in. The youth of this world is the future. We must invest in them, educate them, and offer the opportunity to experience other cultures in order to grow. There has been a general awakening of humanity's place in this world. Over time more and more people are realizing our role is not greater than Mother Nature. The force of her is grander than any army, any government, any revolution. 

We spent our time in Ho Chi Minh exploring neighborhoods, eating out at delicious vegetarian restaurants, and reflecting on the brutal history this country bleeds. The country as a whole is still in a state of healing. It is recovering and rebuilding, attempting to modernize and progress. 

We cannot change our past. In Vietnam grudges and hatred toward Americans still burden the shoulders of many victims - a reality for many nations with a similar fate. We can only move forward, never forgetting the harsh lessons taught to us, and do everything in our power to create a better, safer, and more compassionate world for the next generation.











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