Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
April 22 – 24, 2008
The city is called Ho Chi Minh now, but just like the locals, I still call it Saigon. The name is shorter and rolls off the mouth more easily. It helps that it’s one syllable less and without that extra consonant no one knows how to pronounce. Surely, the musical Miss Saigon, with its stereotyped scantily-clad singing showgirls, further cemented its recall quality. But in another sense, Uncle Ho does embody this culturally eclectic city. I recently found out that Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese statesman this city was named after, had lived around the world. And many of the places he lived in have left their imprint on Ho Chi Minh, the city.
Uncle Ho had lived in France, and a big swathe of Saigon has a decidedly French feel to it. Wide tree-lined avenues lead to the crowning glory of French colonial architecture in the city: the magnificent Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. It was constructed using materials imported from France, and it is evident just looking at the brick-red Gothic gorgeousness that looms above the street that traces its circumference. Even its backside can hold its own. Gothic cathedrals are known to have semi-circular rears, called apse. I find these circular lines and cylindrical forms easier on the eyes. An aside: In front of the cathedral is a statue of the Virgin Mary that was said to have had shed tears. I didn’t bother to check as it was punishingly hot that day.
A skip and a hop from the cathedral is the Saigon Central Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel, the same guy who did the Eiffel Tower. The impressive interior lets in natural light. The central dome and cartographic murals framed by arches on each side of the hall lend an antiquated aura. At the end of the hall is a huge painting of Ho Chi Minh himself with a Confucian look: salt-and-pepper mustache and cascading, overgrown goatee. A perpendicular hall from the nave houses some souvenir shops. You can also peek out for an angular view of the Notre-Dame from the stall windows.
Uncle Ho also spent considerable time in China. The Chinese influence on Saigon is best seen in the numerous pagodas around the city. Said to be the most beautiful of the lot is the Emperor Jade Pagoda, aka Tortoise Pagoda. It looks nondescript from the outside, however. We had doubts it was the right place when the taxi stopped by its gate. Enter nonetheless and a pond containing the eponymous amphibians gives it away. These tortoises are believed to bring good luck. In Vietnamese, the pagoda is called Chua Phuoc Hai, which is more explicitly announced by a sign at the entrance. It is very much a functional place of worship. You can see many locals burning incense and praying.
Though smallish, three different religions share its rooms and anterooms. The wood and marble carvings depict their religious diversity: Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu. It’s the yin-and-yang of eastern religions. They co-exist side-by-side under one roof, in harmonious deification, without a thread of contradiction nor a threat of an Armageddon (if only the three religions fighting it out in Jerusalem through the ages can be this accommodating with one another!). The Jade Emperor Buddha, the Goddess of Fertility, and the King of Hell are all housed in one roof. Spooky, actually. The carved depictions of the ten levels of hell, in accordance to Chinese belief, are truly masterful. There are also unmistakably Hindu figures with their multiple arms flailing about in mudra mode. None of the images are cordoned off, as in any real pagoda, so you can definitely “touch your Buddha”, or Shiva if you’re Hindu.
Uncle Ho was familiar with Uncle Sam. He lived in Harlem, New York in his youth where he worked as a waiter. I wonder if he remembered that by the time he led his country against the US in a protracted war. The painful memories of this period in Vietnamese history are unabashedly displayed in the sobering War Remnants Museum. (Trivia: There was a Jollibee outlet, a Filipino burger chain, en route to the museum.) Hundreds of mostly B&W photographs showing harrowing scenes of carnage and assorted atrocities during the Vietnam War in the 70s are displayed in numerous galleries. The unrelenting theme is the civilian casualties of war: A man’s head is blown off at close range; a mother flees with her children on a river (Qui Nhon by Kyoichi Sawada). Of course, there’s the famous photo by Nick Ut of Kim Phuc as a naked young girl wailing as she runs from a napalm attack (as to which side instigated the attack is still a controversial issue).
The US military used a substance called Agent Orange, a herbicide, to defoliate Vietnam’s thick rainforest cover used by Viet Congs. The chemicals did not only eliminate foliage, they also melted the faces of local people. These images can easily melt the hardest of hearts. Many Americans were among the visitors. The kaleidoscope of arresting images probably puts the “guilt” to their trip, but may hopefully get the average Joe involved in their country’s foreign policies. Outside, a life-size seismic bomb and several tanks and helicopters are also exhibited for photo-obsessed guilt trippers.
The Reunification Palace (Dinh Doc Lap) was the former seat of the now-defunct South Vietnam government. It has an instantly recognizable 1960s architecture: low and sprawling structure made of gray and white concrete. Since the fall of Saigon in the mid-70s, it has become a museum and conference venue. Tourists mix with convention attendees. One of the banquet halls, called Phong Dai Yen, showcases a painting by the architect of the building. Interestingly, on the roof of the building sits a helicopter. The same model was used by the then-president for a quick getaway from the communists. There are also tunnels under the building constructed for the same reason. Without a guide, it is easy to get lost in its labyrinthine hallways. I just followed the steady stream of the crowds.
Some ladies attending a conference at the palace were wearing the traditional ao dai (Vietnam’s national costume for women). Dai means long in Vietnamese; the dainty ao dai is a tight yet lightly flowing silk number that covers the Viet woman from neck to toe. It is elegantly feminine as it hugs the female form almost lovingly. Despite all the foreign influences in their culture, the Vietnamese have taken it all in stride and have become as graceful as their ao dai.
Ho Chi Minh may have much in common with this elegant small city than one might think. The French, the Chinese, and the Americans all had left lasting influences on Ho Chi Minh, both the man and the city. I may not have met Miss Saigon, but I felt I had gotten to know Mr. Saigon – Ho Chi Minh.