Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
April 22 – 24, 2008
The city had already been called Ho Chi Minh, but just like the locals, I still called it Saigon. The name was shorter and rolled off the mouth more easily. It helped that it was one syllable less and without that extra consonant no one knew 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 did 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 had 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 led 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 was evident just looking at the brick-red Gothic gorgeousness that loomed above the street. Even its backside could hold its own. The circular lines and cylindrical forms of the apse were easier on the eyes. An aside: In front of the cathedral was a statue of the Virgin Mary, which reportedly had shed tears. I didn’t bother to check as it was punishingly hot that day.
A skip and a hop from the cathedral was the Saigon Central Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel, the same guy who did the Eiffel Tower. The impressive interior let in natural light. The central dome and cartographic murals framed by arches on each side of the hall lent an antiquated aura. At the end of the hall was 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 housed some souvenir shops from where I peeked 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 was best seen in the numerous pagodas around the city. Said to be the most beautiful of the lot was the Emperor Jade Pagoda, aka Tortoise Pagoda. It looked nondescript from the outside, however. We had doubts it was the right place when the taxi stopped by its gate. We entered nonetheless and a pond containing the eponymous amphibians gave it away. These tortoises were believed to bring good luck. In Vietnamese, the pagoda was called Chua Phuoc Hai, which was more explicitly announced by a sign at the entrance. It was a functional place of worship where many locals could be seen burning incense and praying.
Though smallish, three different religions shared its rooms and anterooms. The wood and marble carvings depicted their religious diversity: Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu. It was the yin-and-yang of eastern religions. They co-existed 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 could be this accommodating with one another!). The Jade Emperor Buddha, the Goddess of Fertility, and the King of Hell were all housed in one roof. Spooky, actually. The carved depictions of the ten levels of hell, in accordance to Chinese belief, were truly masterful. There were also unmistakably Hindu figures with their multiple arms flailing about in mudra mode. None of the images had been cordoned off, as in any real pagoda, so you could definitely “touch your Buddha”, or Shiva if you were Hindu.
Uncle Ho was familiar with Uncle Sam. He lived in Harlem, New York in his youth where he worked as a waiter. I wondered 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 were 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 were displayed in numerous galleries. The unrelenting theme was the civilian casualties of war: A man’s head blown off at close range; a mother fleeing with her children on a river (Qui Nhon by Kyoichi Sawada). Of course, there was the famous photo by Nick Ut of Kim Phuc as a naked young girl wailing as she was running from a napalm attack.
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 could easily melt the hardest of hearts. Many Americans were among the visitors. The kaleidoscope of arresting images probably put 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 were 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 had 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 had become a museum and conference venue. Tourists mixed with convention attendees. One of the banquet halls, called Phong Dai Yen, showcased a painting by the architect of the building. Interestingly, on the roof of the building sat a helicopter. The same model was used by the then-president for a quick getaway from the communists. There were also tunnels under the building constructed for the same reason. Without a guide, it was 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), a tight yet lightly flowing silk dress that covered the Viet woman from neck to toe. It was elegantly feminine as it hugged the female form almost lovingly. Despite all the foreign influences in their culture, the Vietnamese had taken it all in stride and became as graceful as their ao dai.
Ho Chi Minh may have much in common with this elegant 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.