Sunday, May 11th 2014:
What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better reexamine our reasoning. – Robert Strange McNamara
Keeping your eyes gently closed, close your eyes tightly. Wake up and eat your breakfast and get on the bus. We’re on our way to Da Nang International Airport for the short flight to Ho Chi Minh City, it will always be Saigon to us.
The flight was delayed, five hours to kill. Frankie and Kevin decided to leave the airport to catch a taxi to the beach, but I wasn’t in the mood to have to deal with security twice. I ate some Burger King and milled about. A coffee here, some souvenir shopping there, sleeping on the floor for an hour behind a closed ticket booth. I’m an expert at wasting time at airports. The flight is called and we’re on our way to Saigon.
Let’s jump right in. We collect our bags and get on a bus straight to the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. I’m not sure how to write about this. I’m the sole American traveling with a group, we’ve just been plopped down in Ho Chi Minh City and our first experience is this. On the short bus ride over I can hear some talk about the Vietnam war (known as The American War here, of course) and I’m feeling singled out. The museum is fascinating. It’s strange to be on the other side of history, I feel lucky to be here, I feel disgusted and ashamed.
I’m walking up and down stairs looking at every exhibit. Photos, propaganda, war prizes, every image worse than the last…It’s a lot to take in and I don’t feel like getting into it, but I will say this: If you are an American you should seek out things that make you uncomfortable about your heritage. It’s important to hear and see both sides, you’ll be suprised how gentle people are with you. They’ll ask you how you feel. Tell them. They’re interested and only want to meet you. The world is not a scary place.
The next stops are Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica and Saigon Central Post Office. We’re in the middle of the city now. Tree lined parks and French architecture, the whole history of Vietnam clashing with neon skyscrapers in the distance. The Post Office is beautiful and I spend some time pacing around taking photos. Out front a group of teenagers corner me asking me where I’m from…USA? Wow, can we practice our English with you? I pose as some curiosity for photos and they ask me if I think Vietnamese girls are beautiful. People cram in to the American coffee shop across the way, the park nearby is filling with students protesting China’s presence in the South China Sea. This is a new Vietnam.
I’m back on the bus heading to the hotel, the Family Inn Saigon. It’s a perfectly decent hotel, but maybe the worst of the trip. Prostitutes are lined up next to the bodega across the street, buildings blocking out any remaining sunlight. Let’s take a minute to process where we are, let’s unpack and clean ourselves up, let’s go out tonight alone and see this corner of the world.