Saigon & Vietnam Thoughts

I've been trying to nail down the difference between Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City, and it really is difficult to explain. Hanoi definitely has a more old fashioned feel, while Saigon/HCMC is much more modern. Both are incredibly chaotic, but I found it to be more organized somehow down south, and the city seemed much more livable (more parks!) & friendly (no armed guards yelling at you). I still don't know exactly, but I do know that I liked Saigon better (and finally had fabulous pho!), but that maybe is because they were in full Tet preparation. I would also say I was glad to cross the border & leave Vietnam behind though. This is strange, because honestly I loved a lot about the country, especially Halong Bay & Hoi An. On my incredibly long bus ride from Saigon to Siem Reap, I finished up the book I had decided to read to help get me in the mood / prepare me for Vietnam. It's "Catfish & Mandala" by Andrew Pham, and it's basically his memoir of his return to Vietnam to find his roots (he biked up & down the country). His family fled to the US when Saigon fell, when he was about 10. The story he tells is incredibly personal & philosophical, but you wouldn't know that there are many, many others with his similar story from ANYTHING you see in-country now (which, I guess is to be expected).

I spent most of my day in Saigon (officially it's Ho Chi Minh City, but none of the locals call it that, so, I'm not going to either), trooping around from one museum to the next. Partly on purpose, partly on accident. I mean, who can forgive me for confusing the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Ho Chi Minh City History Museum, and the History Museum? I went to all three, and visited the two HCM ones (not the history museum). I also of course visited the famous "War Remnants" museum, which, among the photos of victims of massacres & Agent Orange, literally has an exhibit called "Historical Truths". Now, I will freely admit to being terribly ignorant about the Vietnam War, thanks to its still controversial status & my lackluster, public-school history education, but Geesh. Apparently the US just followed the French & Japanese in invading the country. Also, did you know that things get destroyed in wars? I mean, yes, war is horrible and our presence was really probably entirely unnecessary, and I also think we completely underestimated the people, but, I mean, you don't see British (ect) museums publishing photos of what the evil Germans did to their country's landscape. Museums about other awful things they did, of course, but something about the tone of all of these museums just didn't sit right with me, and maybe it's simply because it was my country doing the terrible stuff. I think it also had to do with the absolute dismissal that there was any sort of opposition to HCM, any South Vietnam government, but maybe they're right, and the nationalists were just a "puppet army" for the US. The problem lies with the book I was reading, and also just knowing Vietnamese people who immigrated to the US. They didn't risk absolutely everything to cross oceans for nothing, right? The author even talked about how weird it was for him to visit HCM's mausoleum... This was the man who would've, and almost did, kill his father (who was high up in the nationalist army). Yet he is treated, again, as the ultimate hero here... Less pronounced in the south than up in Hanoi, but still. The man/gov't saved any photo ever of him with the children, and look how happy they were "doing chores" to help the family out. Oh, and look, here he's decorating a vase, or some other "of the people" stuff. Just... All the propaganda was a bit hard to swallow.
As I finished the book (which really started looking at the author's dad by the end), and I had plenty of time to think all this through on my 14-hour bus ride through the country-side, I really did start thinking about my dad, and wishing he was still around to trade thoughts on this. I never really talked to him about his visit to Vietnam (as a tourist, he was too old to be drafted back in the day), and this is just the sort of discussion we would've enjoyed. Sigh. Maybe in another life.

That said, I just wanted to quote a passage that really resonated with me, and I think sums my feelings up really well:
“I am in awe of the Vietnamese. I admire them. I respect them, but what I really want is to like them, to find them likable”*
This is not to say I wasn't treated with kindness, I did see have lots of very cute & sweet things done for me. But, as he also describes elsewhere, there's always something hidden, kept private with the people, it seems to me, and that leads to a sense of mistrust or unease. I never could be sure of people, like all the people who saw me putting my camera back in my bag in Saigon & told me, "oh, very nice camera, be careful, someone may try to grab it". Very nice to warn me, of course, but were they the ones who were about to try to run off with it? No, of course not, but still, something just always felt a smidge off. I think this too is why the army had such a hard time telling friend from foe.

Anyway- all this to say that its a fascinating place to visit, though i'm in no rush to go back. The drive really was interesting) I'm sure helped by the book), and for the most part it was in Cambodia (or I slept through the Vietnam part in the early am). I included a couple of photos from the road- I love their architecture of houses-on-stilts! I'll get to my time at Angkor soon.

*Excerpt From: Andrew X. Pham. “Catfish and Mandala.”