Vietnam is halfway between war and tomorrow. In some sort of purgatory between pain and promise. The beauty of a culture and people struggling to bloom through grief.
Our tour guide was very friendly and helpful, but that didn’t stop him from speaking with passion about the things his country went through.
The tour at the Ku Chi tunnel site was exciting, but also eerie.
It was like Call of Duty, or even Command and Conquer come to life. They let you into the tunnels that were approximations of the actual tunnel system the Vietnamese used to outsmart the Americans. They would have actual tunnels, false tunnels, and ways to cover the smoke of their underground kitchen so that it would be rerouted elsewhere. They showed the different traps they used against their enemies. They got really creative with the resources, using tiger traps against people, and using parts of the house as inspiration. By the time the Americans knew what hit them, it was too late. Actually, by the time the Americans admitted their loss, they had already lost too much.
Then there was the gunfiring range, that allowed the tourists to fire guns into a target range. Their roar echoed through the jungle. The jungle that was then filled with tourists, abandoned tanks, forgotten bomb craters, trap recreations, and souvenir shops. The roaring of the rifles, however, could help one imagine – and this is where it got eerie – the jungle when the traps were real, when the tanks rolled into action, when bomb craters had bodies strewn all over, when you heard the gunfire and you actually feared that the next shot will be the last thing that rings in your ears.
Then there was the Remnants Museum, where the war against the Americans continued to be remembered. Many pictures of the hostilities, of the victims of Agent Orange, stories and quotes lined up the walls, and a full makeshift prison that approximated the torturous state of being held captive, reminding us why war should never happen. It got me thinking if we should actually have this here in the Philippines – have we as a nation actually grieved enough over our scarred past? Have we embraced it fully? Or are we just glossing over these pages of our History Books? I know it’s communist propaganda, but at least the Vietnamese are letting the violent reality of their past mark their collective consciousness, so they will not forget it.
Against this backdrop of violence, one can actually appreciate the beauty of the country and its people.
In the city of Ho Chi Minh, traditional buildings are preserved and stand side by side with the fancier skyscrapers. Their stark contrast allows a peek into the vibe of Ho Chi Minh’s soul: raring to go after progress, but balanced by tradition.
Their coffee culture is very much a part of their city’s lifeblood, too. Their people, and even their motorcycles (which number ten times more thanManila’s probably), seem to run on their jolting, flavourful coffee.
They seemed to have adapted the French culture of sitting down near sidewalk cafes to sip coffee, talk, and watch passersby as the sun goes up or down. But they appropriated the tradition using their own coffee and means. There are actual cafes – but the more popular and peopled, are the makeshift ones. They have their delectably dark coffee in a pot. They pour it into a plastic cup with ice. They put evaporated milk. Then another splash of coffee. For only 20,000 dong (or 40 pesos), you get virtually unmatched iced coffee, anywhere on the planet. Then, they give you two small plastic seats. One for your ass, another, shorter one for your coffee. Groups congregate in these meeting venues made of sidewalk, plastic chairs and iced coffee in plastic cups. I was fortunate enough to have been asked to sit in one. Maybe it’s because I looked like a local?
Our visit also included a trip to the Mekong Delta. TheMekongis the mighty river that stretches across three countries, and could as well be the very reason for the emergence of civilization in all of them.
The river was serene. The sky was perfect (it rained just as when we were about to wrap up). People were in the different islands, minding their own craft, and preparing to sell it to the coming tourists.
But what I miss, almost as much as the coffee, is the Vietnamese food. McDonald’s did not exist on this side of the world (2 Jollibees. Yeah! And 1 KFC.), probably because of their Anti-American thing going on, but also because they just didn’t like fastfood. They kept to their Pho (great stuff at Pho2000) and their spring rolls. The un-healthiest they got was fried spring rolls – but only because they were fried.
Ho Chi Minh is immortalized in the play, Miss Saigon. And even there, it is portrayed in some sort of purgatory between progress and pain. Today, they are somewhat walking the thin line between remembering a brutal past they would never want to repeat, and the great leap into the future. It’s a country that wears its heart on its sleeve. Inviting tourists to come, take a look into their soul – for in it, we find that our own countries are trying to master that balance, too.