Our 95,000 dong ($4.75) hostel has an included free breakfast, which we plan to take full advantage of. We walk down to reception where a small table with some baguettes, margarine, and bananas are sitting on a table. It’s not the most exciting, but free is free, so I eat two bananas and a baguette to tide me over until lunch.
We walk over to the famous war remnants museum in the centre of Saigon. Just our luck, we arrive five minutes after it closes for the afternoon. It re-opens again in an hour and a half, so now we’ve got some time to kill. We were going to get lunch after the museum anyway, so we change our plans and go in search of somewhere to eat now instead.
We stumble upon a cute street-side pho restaurant with two small plastic tables and a couple mini stools out front. We order two bowls through very minimal communications with the vendor…meaning she says “pho?” when we sit down and we nod our heads in approval.
She whips up the two noodle bowls in seconds and brings them over to us. A policeman comes by and also orders a bowl of pho. I guess he’s on break? He sits down at the small plastic table with us, and we have a short conversation. Both him and the pho lady are very kind and seem happy to practice a bit of English with us. When we pack up to leave, they both warn us to keep our bags safe and to look out for robbers. They say “Ali Baba!” while pointing at my backpack, which I don’t fully understand but smile and nod anyway. It’s Tamara who explains to me later that it’s a reference to a movie called “AliBaba and the 40 robbers”? Never heard of it.
We wander around the city for a while, going no where in particular until the museum is back open for business. It’s much bigger than I expected, and absolutely full of content. I, admittedly, know very little about the Vietnam war, but have been learning lots throughout my adventure through the country. This museum is by far the best source of information. They’ve got it all. Tamara and I spend an hour and a half exploring the museum in awe of all it’s donated artifacts, unbelievable photographs, propaganda posters, quotes and explanations about the war.
The two most impressionable points for me were the Agent Orange room, and reading about the shocking Bob Kerry story.
“Agent Orange” is a herbicide that was used in mass quantities by the Americans during the Vietnam war. It was used as chemical warfare, and has now affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people. It not only severely damaged and maimed people during the war, but continues to affect new born children today, who’s parents, or who’s grand parents, were exposed to the chemical. Many are born with severe disabilities such as deaf/blindness, missing limbs, extra bones, severe brain damage, cleft palates, different forms of cancer, cerebral palsy, and so many more awful side effects. As a result, thousands of children are abandoned left in orphanages to die. The museum reports that approximately 70 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed throughout Vietnam during the war. This makes me feel sick. The images of the victims are extremely hard to stomach, and make for a difficult, but very important walk through the museum. I had heard of Agent Orange before, but had no idea just how terrible and vast it’s effects have been. Some American soldiers suffered the side effects from exposure as well, but the numbers are in no way comparable to that of Vietnam.
The Bob Kerry story was another appalling truth I discovered. A man who was once a US Senator, was in charge of a fleet of soldiers during the war. On February 25th, 1969, he and his unit attacked the small village of Thanh Phong in Southern Vietnam. Unprovoked and without reason, they murdered 21 innocent civilians including children and pregnant women. There was no crossfire, they simply rounded up a group of civilians and massacred them at point blank. I’ve never been to war, but I can’t imagine how anything in the world could ever cause a “good” or “normal” person to do something so evil and sadistic. Similar to the Agent Orange room, I feel sick and am in total shock after learning about such a horrendous occurrence. What’s even more tragic, is that it isn’t the only one.
In some ways, the strangest and most enraging thing to me, is the photographers. There is a surprisingly large amount of photographic evidence to accompany each of these horrific stories. This quote from one of the war photographers sums up my issue with their participation. It hangs below a framed photograph of a crying mother and her two children, moments before their death.
Yes, I am happy that these photos exist because I think it plays an important role in bringing to life how real this war was for people like me, who know next to nothing, but at the same time I feel angry that they did nothing but snap photos while people were being murdered in cold blood. One photo in particular, known as “The Terror of War” taken by an American, is world famous and has won awards. “Thanks for taking this photo of horrified children before they were murdered. Here’s a trophy and a million dollars.”
It rubs me the wrong way.
After a heavy afternoon at the war museum we have something planned to lift our spirits. We are meeting up with a friend we met in Ha Long Bay! Romain was one of our French pals on the disorganized boat tour, and lives in Ho Chi Minh for an internship. He’s offered to show us around the city while we’re here. We take a walk along the river, see iconic and beautiful buildings such as the Post Office and Cathedral, visit a market, and stop for a drink at a cute park-side restaurant.
After our afternoon we head home to change, have dinner, and plan to meet up with Romain again for a night out. Ho Chi Minh is famous for it’s night life, and there’s no better way to find a good bar than to have someone who lives in the city show it to you!
Tam and I go out walking near our hostel to find a cheap meal. We find a cute noodle shop down an alley way and even though we’ve had noodle soup three times in the last two days, we order it again. It’s too cheap to pass up! The menu is all in Vietnamese, but we point to the cheapest listed price, 27,000 dong ($1.30), and are told there is “meat” in it. Sweet. 27,000 don’t for a bowl of noodles, and I’m happy with whatever is it in. The soup arrives with a few pieces of what I believe to be chicken, some cute mini-wontons, chopped green onions, and the usual salty broth. It’s yummy!
When we go to pay we are told the price is 64,000. We were expecting 54,000 because anyone who’s passed grade 3 math can tell you that 27×2 is 54. We ordered no drinks, used no napkins (which are sometimes extra here) and can’t figure out how in the world we’re being charged an extra 10,000. We don’t care, we’re more curious than anything, so we ask. The English spoken by the staff is minimal, but our waitress picks up an uncooked mini-wonton an tells us that they’re 5,000. We never asked for mini-wontons, and I don’t know if I was expected to know this would cost more…but apparently we have to pay for them now. I’ll never solve the mystery of why the unwanted wontons were added to my soup, but at least I enjoyed them. It’s times like these that I really wish I spoke Vietnamese just so I could understand how these things occur. Does this happen to locals too, or just us? Is it really a small scale scam just to squeeze 5,000 extra dong out of each of us? Do I just have a face that says “I love wontons”? I don’t understand.
We go back to the hostel to change for the evening. Romain suggested we wear something a little fancy, which is a major struggle when you’re backpacking. Fortunately, I celebrated my 22nd birthday from a backpack, and invested in an LBD that can pass as dressy for tonight. Tamara and I even put on a little mascara for the occasion. We still don’t know where we’re going or how fancy we’re really supposed to be, but this is about as good as we can manage under the circumstances.
We meet Romain and his friend Anthony near our hostel in District One. Everyone laughs when I greet Anthony with a handshake. I forgot that I’m in the company of chic Europeans, so I’m supposed to do the ever-fabulous double cheek kiss instead. Whoops. We start the night by Tamara and I showing them where to find 8,000 dong beer, because the cheapest they’ve found in Vietnam so far is 12,000. Granted, they have jobs and don’t have to sit on street corners drinking mystery beer just to save a few cents like we do. We stay for one cheap beer on the backpacker strip before moving on to another bar. Everyone in my company tonight speaks French as their first language. It’s good practice for me, but similar to our group in Ha Long Bay, everyone’s English is so good that we end up speaking this instead. Maybe they do it because they pity my lost and broken attempt at French, who knows. A few drinks in however, I start to get a little more bold about my second language, and we use a mix of French and English for the rest of the night. I love when this happens.
Romain shows us to a cool bar called The Cargo; a big open space concrete space with live music, test tube shot glasses, and red lighting. It’s cool and very hipster-chic. Most of the clientele look like expats and backpackers, though I don’t know too many backpackers that can afford 60,000 dong for a can of Sapporo. It’s the only beer they serve, and trying to play it cool while handing over so much for one drink is a challenge. Tears are in my eyes as I let go of what could easily be a whole meal… Or 7 beers back at our street-side 8,000 dong spot. Still, I know it’s not fun to be around people who are always so worried about money, so I remind myself that one night of splurging won’t kill me. I won’t have to fly home tomorrow if I buy a couple of over-priced drinks.
We have a really fun night out doing a bit of bar hopping around Ho Chi Minh. It’s always so nice to catch up with people you meet on the road!