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Sunday 21 Jul 2013
Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

The legacy of Agent Orange

We had breakfast on the roof terrace today, although what appeared to be a full buffet table proved to be fairly uninspiring on closer inspection, before going to the War Remnants Museum.  We'd been warned that it was rather one-sided, which turned out to be true, but it was still interesting to see how the war was and is still perceived by the Vietnamese.  Granted, the museum included a healthy dose of propaganda, but there is still no mistaking the atrocities that took place and the legacy that many Vietnamese still live with.

For me, it was also another history lesson in Indochina colonialism.  (Another pocket history lesson coming up...)

Vietnam had been under Chinese rule for a century before the French arrived in the latter half of the 1800's.  Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh communist party were already resisting the French occupation before WWII and were among the most successful rebels against the Japanese invasion.  After WWII, the French wanted their colony back, but the Viet Minh declared independence for Vietnam at long last.  This lead to an aggressive struggle between the two sides, eventually resulting in the Geneva convention of 1954 establishing a divide between Ho Chi Minh's North Vietnam and a South Vietnam governed by Ngo Dinh Diem, who was backed by the French and Americans.  He was deeply unpopular and was eventually assassinated by his own troops, but in the meantime the Viet Cong had been formed to infiltrate South Vietnam using guerilla tactics.  Things came to a head in 1965 and America officially joined the war on the side of the Southern Vietnamese.  It was a messy, brutal war, which cost America billions of dollars and became extremely unpopular with the American people.  Which is to say nothing of the damage and suffering it caused in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  The Americans finally withdrew in 1973, allowing for the reunification of Vietnam in 1975 under communist rule.  Ho Chi Minh himself died in 1969 but his presence in today's Vietnam is still unmissable.  He had asked for cremation, but was instead embalmed and displayed in a state mausoleum.

The War Remnants museum tells the history of the country leading up to the American War, as they call it.  It also covers the events of the war and the actions of the invading American troops.  It is not pleasant.  The Vietnam/American war was one of the first to have press photographers, and later videographers, out on the front line with the military, which meant the world saw a lot more than in previous conflicts.  One exhibition was dedicated to the actions of the American soldiers, including photographs of violence towards civilians and prisoners that made the more recent pictures from Abu Grabe look tame in comparison. 

There was another section on the use and the effects of Agent Orange, or Dioxin, both on the victims themselves and on the next generations of children born to those affected, many of whom were born deformed or mentally disabled.  It is estimated that over 3,000,000 people were killed, injured or born affected by dioxin poisoning, for which the USA has not, to this day, paid a single penny in compensation.  By contrast, millions of dollars have been paid to American troops for their exposure to the same chemicals.  Again, I know there was a strong propaganda filter on the whole museum, but nobody can tell me that what happened was right, justified or in any way fair.  (See the letter to Obama covered in the next blog).

The final section of the museum included a reconstruction of the torture rooms at the POW camps which echoed the scenes and descriptions from S.21 in Cambodia, only this time it was the Americans controlling the torture.  I am sure the Vietnamese camps were little better, but it was still disturbing.

We left the museum feeling subdued and decided to walk back to the hostel.  We didn't have a particularly good map, but Josh managed to keep us heading in the right general direction and we took our time exploring.  We found ourselves in a square in front of a huge church and what looked like an old Victorian Railway Station.  On closer inspection, it turned out to be the central post office.  Inside were rows of highly polished wooden counters under an enormous mural and an vaulted glass ceiling.  There was a row of mahogany telephone booths on one side which had been converted to contain an ATM in each booth. We couldn't resist using them, though it was slightly disappointing not to see Superman appearing out of one and dashing off to save the day.

We meandered our way through the posh part of town, with the designer shops and big hotels.  The guys ducked into Armani to get an idea for the suits they were planning to have made in Hoi An, while I tried on a dress in Coast with a similar plan.  After that, we came across a banner advertising a Barbecue Garden on the edge a small park and went to investigate.  It was an outdoor restaurant set under the trees and awnings.  Each table had a couple of grills set into the tabletop where you could grill your own order.  Not only that, but it was happy hour! Perfect.  I had some excellent goat and wild boar skewers with strips of ocra and aubergine to add a few vitamins to the protein.  Delicious.

On our way back to the hostel, Josh, Jon and I decided that we would try the Sky Bar again but dress a little smarter.  The boys pulled out shirts and trousers, unironed still an improvement.  I wore a dress I'd bought in Siem Reap, but my only shoes were my flipflops.  This time it was me that the bouncers stopped ('no flipflops' policy), but they had a little cabinet of black heels to solve the problem.  Wearing heels for the first time in six months felt strange, but I've missed the feeling of getting properly dressed up and enjoyed the extra inch of height.  I suspect it is going to hurt a lot more when I try and wear my 4" heels at home in August.  The bar was very nice, all black, red and polished steel surfaces with a huge panoramic window looking out over Ho Chi Minh City.  Unfortunately it had just started to rain lightly so we were not allowed out onto the terrace.  Josh and I ordered Champagne Mojitos, which at 290,000 Dong seemed like the most expensive cocktails ever.  OK, so that's really only about £10, but it was still a lot after the 60p beers we were used to.  Jon's G'n'T wasn't a lot cheaper.  Handing over 1,000,000 for three drinks feels very strange!

After our drink we persuaded the bouncers to allow us to take one step onto the terrace just long enough to take a photo of the view before we had to head back.  We'd already checked out of the hostel, but got away with using the showers and changing back into skivvies before heading off to the station to catch our 11pm night train to Hoi An. 

The 'soft sleeper' cabins were sold out when we'd booked our tickets so we had bought the next option, the 'hard sleeper' bunks.  Each compartment had six flat bunks, three bunks high, with a 1" thick mattress on each shelf and a narrow table reaching halfway into the central space.  There was already a Vietnamese man on the top bunk, who smiled down at us as we bundled in.  We played a few rounds of Yanneth and then slept our way through much of the 930km journey to Danang.




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