I don't often go to places more than once. There is so much of the world to see that the idea that I might miss out prevents repeats. But this year we were not prepared. Which is stupid because it isn't as if Spring Festival can up on you. We have had the dates from the school since last January. I guess we just blocked out that 400 million people traveled in a two-day block and didn't pick up tickets soon enough (i.e., Last June) So here we are in Vietnam... again. But it is a new city, Ho Chi Minh City. We love Southeast Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, so I am not disappointed.
Actual travel was weirdly smooth. I was expecting there to be horrific crowds at the airport and all kinds of delays. But although we did have to wait a bit to check into our flight (I have yet to be allowed to check in online for Air China) because there was no one working our counter, we passed the time watching a group of people performing some kind of song/chant/cheer. They all had on the same t-shirt, and everyone was happy to watch and applauded when they finished. Was it a spring festival carol? A motivational chant about dealing with lines? A commercial? What? There are the times when my terrible/nonexistent Chines is both a hindrance and an embarrassment.
Everything seems to be closed. We arrived on the eve of Tet, so most of the country is off doing holiday family things. Which is understandable. It makes lazily hanging around the apartment watching the traffic go by from the balcony less guilt-inducing. We aren't missing anything because there is nothing open to miss. #winning There was a funeral parade this morning which I thought was part of Tet because it has the same ragged drumming as the Dragon Dance. I was probably smiling like an idiot before I saw the casket. At least I didn't take a picture. That would have been the height of insensitivity. There is a guy sorting trash (or maybe recyclables) in front of our building. A pile of cardboard large than him. A dozen gallon bottles of water. Seven large trash bags a human could fit into. He patiently ties everything together and for it to the back of his motorcycle. I'm not sure I could get all that in a car if challenged. A pale green tarp goes over the load, and he rides off as if unimpressed with his feat.
We went to the War Remnants Museum earlier. We were a bit surprised, as we had been to the military museum in Hanoi, how well done this museum is. It is slightly one-sided, but that is easy to overlook because:
1. They kind of aren't wrong (nothing false just some kind of significant stuff omitted)
2. It is their museum
The collection of photos put together from the works of various war photographers particularly moved me. Altogether it was a powerful statement about the cost of war. There were a couple of other exhibits that focused on war crimes and the effects of Agent Orange, but I found these too painful to process really. There are only so many dead bodies you can see before your brain stops make sense of them. Outside there was a bunch of military equipment (tanks, planes, helicopters, and the like) where were interesting enough but not my thing.
Just sitting and watching people go by on scooters is one of the best Parts of a visit to Vietnam. We took a Vespa tour of the city which is truly the way that Vietnam was meant to be experienced. Scooters are a tiny little microcosm of lives. It is never quiet here. Motors roar by in a ceaseless flow, horns constantly blare as we weave in and out of one another's vehicle. Tourist's pause, indecisive and anxious, trying to figure out how the hell to cross the street. An alarm blares in the background. A car alarm? Is some large vehicle reversing? Ancient buses lumber by like whiles surrounded by motorbikes playing the part of attendant fish. It is raining which relieves some of the stifling humidity of the last few days. It is also fairly inconvenient as we are taking a boat to the Mekong Delta Region today. Shops are slowly starting to open again after Tet. I can look across and see the smoothie shop across the street raising the door for the first time. This early in the morning is mostly single people driving by, and I imagine they are on their way to work, but occasionally whole families will drive by on a cycle. You might not think that a family of seven including an infant could fit on one, but you would be wrong. Style points for managing to breastfeed at the same time. I wasn't tall enough to put my feet down, so a good portion of the day was dedicated to trying to keep my sandals on. #shoechoiceregret We went to the intersection wherein 1963 a Buddhist monk famously set himself on fire to protest the anti-Buddist policies of the US-backed South Vietnamese governments. If you look at the pictures, you can see that his face is entirely composed even though his entire body is engulfed in flames. Is a powerful example of strength in faith. It was a significant turning point in the conflict in Vietnam. There are a tiny park and a monument on that corner but aside from that the street is identical to a 1000 others in Ho Cho Minh City, and it would be easy to pass by every day without knowing what happened. I guess that is the way history goes. A thousand ghosts in any spot we also went to the Unification Palace a Vietnamese designed French influenced structure built on the bones of a twice bombed building that had housed puppet governments.
We took a boat to the Mekong Delta. I think that this is the third or fourth time that we have sailed on it. It is incredible how the personality of a river can change as it slows down on the way to the sea. For one think it is filthy. Filthy! It is disgusting, actually. I don't think that I have ever been to another body of water that has so much trash in it. Wads of plastic bags, packaging, coconuts, and I swear concrete. Can concrete float? Like, if it was mixed right? It doesn't seem as if it should, but there it was, and I am pretty sure I saw it more than once. We had to stop a couple of times because there was trash blocking our motors blades. Maybe I should have noticed something else, but the trash was pretty fucking dramatic. We passed by whole communities made up of shacks built up on stilts. They popped up here in about forty years ago. They aren't legal, and the government is trying to to get rid of them. You can see the ghost of where some of them have been torn down. All that is left is a trash pile. We stopped along the way downriver at a coconut farm (did you know that there was such a thing as a water coconut because I was for sure not) and walked though rive paddies. It is the first day of the new year, and nonoptional shots of several different kinds of homemade rice liqueur were foisted off on us. Just what you want at 11 in the morning. We were plied with a dozen different kinds of fruit including dragon fruit with actual taste, mango, and custard apples (which are much more delicious than you might anticipate from looking at them.)
The second weirdest thing that happened last night: we didn't make plans for dinner. That is almost always a mistake. We started wandering around our neighborhood but there wasn't any street food, and there weren't any restaurants open. Tet is cramping our style. We finally ended up at a fairly large, fairly emptyish Pho restaurant a block away. Pho is always a safe choice in Vietnam. Guaranteed decent food and since it is soup it is boiled, so there isn't that much chance of food poisoning (I have never had food poisoning in Southeast Asia). As we were finishing up a rat, not a mouse, a rat came out from the wall behind me and ran halfway across the room where it hid in the statue of an elephant. I like to think that our reaction was one of cool sophistication tempered by our travels. If only because I am impressed that I managed not to gasp, shriek, or otherwise embarrass myself. We simply had one of the marriage moments where both of you are entirely aligned in purpose. We looked at one another and went to pay. The rat, as if to prove that it was not a figment of our imagination popped out again only to run back to its elephant hiding place. I don't think anyone saw it but us. I don't think that I have ever seen that before. A rat in a restaurant that is. On the street? Yes. In the Subway? Yes. But I the restaurant is in an old colonial building with no glass on the windows and a kitchen with one wall completely open to the street. I can't imagine that pest control is east there.
The rats aren't afraid here. We have seen them twice running across the park and two dead ones in the gutter. Weirdly in the same place a couple of days apart. It is a little intense. I'm not really afraid of them that there is something about them running around that just doesn't sit right. Something primeval maybe leftover from when mice and rats directly competed with humans for food and spread disease, maybe.
We went to the Cu Chi tunnel network by boat. It is sometimes a very strange thing to come to southeast Asia as an American. Although the war ended a decade before I was born, it is still painful to see the physical reminders of my government's policy. I've taken several courses on the Cold War and and one specifically on the war in Vietnam. It isn't a secret that America wasn't in the right. And while imperialism, colonialism, and frankly a part it is important to remember that all events and especially armed conflicts are more nuances then can be fit into 280 characters. I guess I am think ing about this because so much of the experience was skewed and at one point was blatant propaganda. It is a little weird to me that they would bother doing that when the reality definitely favors the Vietnamese. They showed us some bamboo traps. Traps I had just been reading about an hour earlier explained from the Us soldiers perspective. Over and over we were told that the traps were meant to injure but not kill. Which obviously isn't true and such weird point to lie about. People were invading their homes and had dramatically better firepower. They did what they needed to. It's understandable. We get it. It sort of soured the experience and made me hypercritical of everything both said and not said. There was a shooting range with an AK 47 and M16s which given what is going on in my country made me kind of queasy. The tunnels themselves were awful. Dark, confined, hot, and smelly. It knocks your breath out to think that people lived there. That people had to live there because it was the safest place. Sometimes my prissiness just slaps me in the face. The tour ends with a 1967 documentary or propaganda film made to promote the North Vietnamese cause. Pretty uncomfortable and I think that might have had the record for the use of the phrase "Hero American Killer." If you go, make sure that you have done a little research beforehand to enhance the experience.
It is our last day here. My body is making it's objections to being in sight of having to go to work by having an allergy attack. We were going to have a scooter tour around the city again today, but we couldn't find one that was running. So our plans include a hike for beer, a stop at the post office reading and eventually dinner. I'm not sure if we will go to bed early or not. We need to pack, and our flight leaves at 5:30 meaning a 2 am wake up call,