23 July 2008
Saigon – Iced Coffee Same Same, But Different
We said farewell to Cambodia in true Kyle (Taylor) form – I thought we left my crutches (that I no longer needed) in our shared taxi from Siem Reap, which put Me, Kyle, Graham, Stacey and her guesthouse receptionist on a good thirty-minute wild goose chase, only to discover that they were in fact leaning against the fence. Super.
Our bus to Vietnam left bright and early the next morning, which meant saying farewell to Stacey (who was heading on to volunteer at an orphanage just south of Phnom Penh) and Graham (who was staying in Phnom Penh to do some incredible NGO work on educating people through national and community radio). Now, this bus had all the bells and whistles – curtains, breakfast, A/C and a host that acted as trilingual tour guide THE ENTIRE RIDE. “We are now entering Blah Blah Province of Cambodia. This province is famous for…” First in Khmer, then English then Vietnamese. It was like a 7-hour book on tape that a parent or grandparent made you listen to in the car when you were a kid.
Per usual, we stopped at a roadside restaurant just before the border. The Cambodia side moved as smooth as butter. The Vietnam side took forever, and they were charging an outrageous $2 for a packet of M&Ms! Anyway, now crutch-less and on the mend, we decided to take Saigon by storm and – for the first time in a few weeks – do it on foot. We found a super-lux hotel for $12 and proceeded immediately to the closest Pho (Vietnamese noodles) shop (We stayed in a non-book hotel, which meant an in-book restaurant, per the arrangement Kyle and I made).
The next morning we went directly the War Remnant’s Museum. I’ve always had mixed emotions when it comes to Vietnam. I know Vietnam Veterans who – to this day – still are not comfortable talking about what happened. I’ve read about public opinion during the war and heard stories of how terrible veterans were treated upon returning to the US. Vietnam has been both demonized and victimized in my mind for the last decade, and I couldn’t help but feel slightly guilty for coming here, much less enjoying myself. At the same time, the past is the past and, as Vietnam is now an emerging market-based economy it seems that in the end, it all came full-circle. Either way, it seemed at the very least, an extremely important place to experience and understand.
The War Remnant’s Museum could not have been more telling of just how terrible war is. The images, video clips and stories were quite honestly, devastating. With so much death, destruction and violence it seems that no one really “won.” One I found most fascinating was the special exhibit – a collection of painting completed by kids from a local elementary school with the prompt of “Peace On Earth – All People, All Places.” There were doves, kids of different colors and backgrounds and places playing, holding hands and smiling. That image set against the backdrop of remnants of war, while seemingly out of place, was a welcome respite to the sadness, death and destruction. Lets hope that attitude carries into adulthood.
We spent the afternoon wandering the market, old town and new town, which was lined with designer stores like Louis Vuitton and upscale hotels like the Sheraton and Mandarin Oriental. From what I can tell, this is a very different Saigon. Before getting our night bus to the coast (yes, another bus – that makes one on Friday to Phnom Penh, one on Monday to Siem Reap, one back to Phnom Penh on Tuesday, another to Vietnam on Wednesday and yet a fifth in six days to Rach Gia from Saigon on Thursday. Can you handle our pace? Woo!) we actually met Graham for dinner! Yes, he was in Saigon with a friend for a little weekend holiday. What are the chances? Thankfully, we hadn’t exhausted all possible political issues to discuss, which made for another lively evening before the night of doom. That’s next…