I’d been craving phở the moment I arrived in Saigon.
A bowl of Vietnam’s legendary noodle soup finally sat in front of me. Chicken floated in the crystal-clear broth, above a bed of noodles and herbs.
I sipped the soup and slurped up the noodles. It was as good as I’d imagined.
Despite not ordering a salad, the cook had also placed a plate of leafy-green veges on the table. This flummoxed me. The salad had no lettuce; it was just fragrant and peppery herbs. I nibbled it out of politeness.
I noticed a local woman watching me from another table. Feeling judged, I kept eating my phở. Still unconvinced by the salad, the woman’s eyes narrowed when I took another bite.
As I reached for the salad again with my chopsticks, the woman huffed. She stood up violently, clattering her plastic chair along the tiled floor. She reached my table in two strides and grabbed a handful of the salad, then plonked it into my phở.
Returning to her seat, she started reading her phone as if nothing had happened.
I noticed a delightful aroma rise from the phở as it absorbed the herbs. My crash-course in Vietnamese culture had begun.
Saigon’s intoxicating mix
Saigon is a seductive city. A cocktail of cool and danger.
There’s just something wild about Saigon. Maybe it’s the hangover of the Vietnam War, the mix of Asia and France, or the communist iconography.
Indeed, I was confronted by politics when I was shooed away by armed guards for photographing a state building. You’ll also find communist slogans splashed across billboards all around the city, depicting subjects like heroic women wielding AK-47s.
Vietnam is a single-party state, but the political situation is confusing. Even residents had difficulty explaining it. While having a market economy and encouraging foreign investment, locals must still pay bribes and battle other inefficiencies.
Just as complicated is Vietnam’s history, shown by buildings like the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. Completed in 1880, it’s a relic of French colonisation. France was no paternalistic ruler though, and ruled brutally until its overthrow in 1954. I wondered what this reminder of colonialism means to modern Vietnamese.
Nearby is the Saigon Central Post Office, another French legacy. Uncle Ho beams down from a large portrait as you enter, an image found all-over Vietnam.
The Post Office has a romantic air, fostered by weathered maps bearing titles like Lignes telegraphiques du Sud Vietnam et Cambodge 1892. It harks back to a time when steamships ruled the seas and life was slower.
I half-expected Tin Tin to appear.
The Independence Palace
A little down the road is the Independence Palace. I’d just arrived there when a Vietnamese girl asked me to take a photo of her.
Dressed in the collared shirt and pants of her university uniform, she contrasted with my cliched backpacker garb.
Unperturbed, she introduced herself as Thảo. After four attempts, I pronounced it correctly. Together we headed off to explore the Independence Palace.
The Independence Palace was assured its place in history when North Vietnamese tanks burst through its gates on April 30 1975, ending the Vietnam War.
Bùi Tín was the soldier who accepted the South’s surrender from its leader, Dương Văn Minh. When Bùi arrived, Dương said that he’d been waiting to transfer power to the North Vietnamese.
With words that became immortal, Bùi replied: “There is no question of your transferring power. Your power has crumbled. You cannot give up what you do not have.”
Today the Palace lacks any drama, and has acquired the sterile air of state-power. It’s still used for official receptions, and so its interior remains is exquisite. But you can’t help feeling that it contrasts uncomfortably with how most Vietnamese live.
It’s communism in the real world.
Thảo led me down to the Palace basement, which served as a bunker for high-ranking officials during the war.
It’s apocryphally untouched from the day the Vietnam War ended. True or not, the basement certainly looks authentic. It My footsteps echoed in its cold hallways.
Communications equipment still sits on heavy desks, like computers in a modern office. But it’s all ancient technology — large telephones, jumbo radio-sets and other weird contraptions. Huge military maps line the walls, showing troop numbers and movements.
It’s like being in a Cold War spy thriller.
The War Remnants Museum
My next destination was the War Remnants Museum.
Thảo said that there was a particular exhibit I had to see. My curiosity piqued, I asked what it was. “I don’t know the word in English,” Thảo replied cagily.
The War Remnants Museum has been controversial. Originally named the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, it was criticised for distorting history. In particular, it was charged with demonizing the United States, while portraying the communists as faultless.
One example is an image of an American holding the severed head of a Viet Cong soldier. The caption reads: “After decapitating some guerrillas, a GI enjoyed being photographed with their heads in his hands.”
There’s no doubt that this museum is a piece of propaganda — but so is every war museum. After all, war museums exist to justify the sacrifice of those who fought and died for the state.
Context is crucial here too. The Vietnam War pitted the industrial might of history’s greatest superpower against a peasant society. The United States dropped three times more bombs on Vietnam, than all the ordnance used in WW2. This was what the Vietnamese had to contend with.
This pointless war was fought for dubious imperialistic aims, and was punctuated by atrocities like the My Lai Massacre where 400 civilians were murdered by U.S. soldiers.
Overall, the U.S. lost 58,220 serviceman during the conflict, while Vietnamese deaths range from 800,000 to 3.1 million. Millions more were wounded, with villages and towns destroyed.
Within this context, Vietnam’s anger is justified. The museum’s true value therefore lies not in its historical usefulness, but as a monument to the Vietnamese psyche. After all, against incredible odds, Vietnam defeated the United States.
On the museum’s top floor is the Agent Orange room. When we reached it, Thảo paused at the door, a pained expression on her face. “What I want you to see is inside. But I can’t look at it again. You go.”
Agent Orange was a defoliant used by the U.S. to destroy South Vietnam’s jungle, a refuge of the Viet Cong’s. However, Agent Orange contained TCDD, which has been described as “perhaps the most toxic molecule ever synthesized by man.” Over 75 million litres were sprayed over South Vietnam. The human toll has been horrific.
Apprehensive, I walked over to where Thảo had pointed. On the floor lay a rectangular glass prism housing a murky brown liquid. Two distinct shapes floated inside.
The shapes were stillborn babies; or rather, fetuses. But instead of having normal features, the bodies were deformed, missing limbs and covered in growths.
I looked away, only to be confronted by a wall of photos of children without legs, arms, or faces. These are the victims of Agent Orange. They have never been compensated for their plight.
I understood why Thảo didn’t want to see this again. But I had a much harder time understanding her answer when I asked her opinion on the United States.
“I don’t hate the USA at all. The war is in the past. I just want to forgive them. That’s more important now.”
Ben Thanh Market
It’d been a long day, but Thảo had one last Saigon institution to show me: Ben Thanh Market.
Reaching it was another question though. Saigon’s streets were murderous in the evening rush. I needed my wits about me — even the footpath was unsafe as bikes came flying down.
I watched in awe as Thảo commanded the roads. She walked fearlessly through the deluge of bikes, raising her arm to alert the riders. My heart-raced as I cowered behind her.
It was a relief to finally arrive at Ben Thanh Market. Built in 1870, it’s one of Saigon’s oldest buildings. The market’s popularity makes it a headache to navigate, and a pickpocket’s dream. Items for sale range from fruit and noodles, to bottled scorpions and tailored suits.
Juxtaposed down the road is one of Saigon’s newest buildings: the Bitexco Financial Tower. Designed to look like a lotus flower, it’s the tallest building in the city. Dwarfing the Ben Thanh Market, it hints at a new era for Saigon.
Thảo and I ate dinner in the tower’s shadow. I was surprised to learn that despite having a local’s confidence, Thảo was not native to Saigon. Her home was Buôn Ma Thuột, a city in the Central Highlands. Thảo had come to Saigon for university, alone, and was taking a degree in Australian Studies. She rattled off a bunch of facts about Australia, and told me she dreams of visiting one day.
As a kiwi, this seemed a funny concept, but Thảo explained: “It’s important that Vietnam has strong ties with other countries. Australia could become a major trading partner.” Knowing the extent to which Vietnam suffered under the post-war embargo, this made sense.
But with wonderful people like Thảo to call on, Vietnam has nothing to worry about.
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