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When Worlds Collide

day 30-31: sai gon

I spent much longer in Nha Trang than I had thought and now I am in the crazy madhouse that is Sai Gon (or Ho Chi Minh City, whichever your preference might be). We arrived after 10 hours on the bus, tired, dirty and not ready for the bombardment of people greeting the bus with promises of cheap hotel rooms, motobike taxis, and cyclo rides. What I have been experiencing with these sellers everywhere in Vietnam was intensified tenfold in Sai Gon.

It's so overwhelming, everyone yelling "hello madam! motobike! taxi! cigarettes! cyclo! do you have a hotel? very cheap!" Etc., etc., etc. It comes from all sides. Then a 9-year old girl comes up to you selling cigarettes. At midnight. Five minutes later a woman carrying a sleeping baby tries to sell you gum. You feel helpless: propagate this kind of selling or give them a chance to eat tomorrow? You cannot walk down the street without being bombarded by everything.

What has struck me the most is that Saigon is nothing like I've ever seen. EVER. There are still so many old buildings and houses and historical sites and looking directly around, it looks like almost everywhere else in Vietnam. But then you look a bit further and see the huge neon lights popping up everywhere advertising Hitachi, Samsung, Coca-Cola, etc. There are actually high rises here, whereas everywhere else has had maybe 5 floors, maximum, even in Ha Noi.

There is still such a sense of disillusionment and extreme poverty after the American War as well. Many of the cyclo and motobike drivers used to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. but after siding with the Americans against the north, and after the Americans all but abandoned them, and after being relocated to re-education camps, they have no hope of ever regaining their former lives.

I met one such man in Nha Trang, Mr. Thanh, that took me around the city and introduced me to his lovely family. He gave me the gift of coffee, and I provided him with income. His wife cooked a delicious meal that we ate at the beach. Mr. Thanh worked for the Americans and was actually sent to Dallas for military training for 3 years. After the Americans pulled out of Vietnam, he was moved from his home that he had lived in all of his life. He has a university degree in science, but now he is a motobike driver, who while complaining about his lot in life, does so graciously and with no bitterness. He seeks out the Americans in Nha Trang so that he may practice his American accent so he can teach English to other adults in the city and earn money. He dreams of one day returning to America. He is 63 years old with 6 children.

Being in the north, I never encountered any anti-American sentiments, but then again, almost nobody was really connected to the Americans during the war. In the south, so many of them worked with our military to defeat the Communists and still have these memories, still feel the effects.

I went to the War Remnants Museum and saw the most touching, the most moving display of anti-war sentiments. There were rows upon rows of pictures of US personnel, North and South Vietnamese soldiers, families displaced by the war, victims of Agent Orange, journalists killed while covering the war, victims of the Mai Lai massacre, and other such pictures. It was hard and extremely emotional, and one display in particular of the journalists gone missing or killed. I have no pictures yet, but I have this that was written about them:

Photographs are the images of history rescued from the oblivion of mortality. Long after those who died to take these photographs are gone, long after those of us who knew them and survived them and remember their experience are gone in our turn, the images they captured will remain to show generations to come the face of the war in Indochina...
...Eleven different nationalities are represented among the dead - American, Australian, Austrian, British, German, French, Japanese, Singaporean, Swiss, Vietnamese and Cambodians. Nor can one fail to note the sacrifice of the seventy-six photographers, two of them women, who died on the Vietnamese Communist side.
Yet all of these photojournalists of Indiochina prevailed in the end. In a war in which so many died for illusions, and foolish causes, and mad dreams - these men and women of the camera conquered death through their immortal photographs.

- Neil Sheehan

And on that note, I leave Vietnam to go back to the developed world of Korea. In retrospect, Vietnam has been wonderful. I have lived in the lap of luxury, but I have also seen the face of poverty. Even this somewhat disheartening stay in SaiGon has opened my eyes to a different way of life, a people that have suffered so much and yet retain their sense of humor, their smiles, their grace, and their determined spirit. Vietnam has forever left an impression on me and if you're reading this, thinking of coming, by all means come. The people will be waiting.

Posted by lrbergen 21:17 Archived in Vietnam

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