We knew within 2-3 hours that we loved Saigon. Like any big city in Asia, there is a certain degree of chaos that comes from the intensity of concentrated humanity. Saigon is a very modern city, and it’s buzzing with activity. The traffic, particularly, seems crazy. Drivers in Cambodia were fairly sedate, but in Saigon they drive much faster and seem less courteous. A few major intersections have traffic lights, but most don’t. To get through, you must employ a mixture of pushing in (because you’d never get anywhere if you didn’t) and giving way. Crossing the road has been a bit hairy – pedestrian crossings painted on the roads don’t register with motorists at all! On our first day we were too scared to cross busy roads by ourselves, so we had to wait until a local came along so we could stick to them like glue. But we’ve adapted surprisingly quickly. It takes a bit of guts – basically you have to do your best to cut through the gaps, and the rest of the time, trust that the oncoming traffic will swerve to avoid hitting you. Apparently, Hanoi is even worse (Mum, try not to worry!).
Interestingly, despite the obvious greater wealth of Vietnam, we’ve found it significantly cheaper to travel here than in Cambodia. We can eat a full dinner for around 100,000 Vietnamese Dong (about $5 US), and take air-conditioned taxi’s all around the city for around $1-2 US. Our entry fee to the Fine Arts Museum was 10,000 Dong each (that’s US 50c). There’s been no trouble sticking to our budget here.
Saigon is often very beautiful. It has lovely green parks, sculptures, and amazing buildings (old and new). We loved visiting the Fine Arts Museum – I took more photos of the building itself than of the artworks though. The Vietnamese presentation of recent history in artworks produced since the 1970s seemed quite propagandist in tone, depicting the ‘glories’ of the US-Vietnam war – benevolent Uncle Ho, brave soldiers, and the triumphant reunification of North and South Vietnam on April 29th, 1975. The displays at the War Remnants Museum produced similarly mixed feelings for me. Photographs of brutalities against civilians and deformed children (due to the generational effects of exposure to Agent Orange) were truly awful. But there was no hint of what the Khmer Rouge did to their own people, and having just come from Cambodia, I think it’s important to emphasise that 1975, the year of Vietnamese reunification, was also the year that Khmer Rouge supported Pol Pot to power in Cambodia.
But what would a ‘balanced’ point of view look like, if it was indeed possible? History is always from some particular point of view. The best attempt was a display of photographs from over 100 photo-journalists killed during the war. These photos were hugely compelling, depicting dirt and blood, the pain, terror and exhaustion of soldiers, a devastating war of attrition set against beautiful landscapes. One photo in particular has stuck in my mind – a US soldier with his head down, weeping, following a day of severe losses to their side. I don’t know why we do such things to ourselves and each other.