Recovery and Remembrance

All those people who told me the Vietnamese are pushy and rude are on crack. After coping with the tuk-tuk drivers on Khao San Road (and elsewhere in Bangkok), these guys are an absolute dream. Sure, there’s lots of people trying to sell stuff, but everybody will take no for an answer – at least, they did from me. They even smiled and said goodbye – one guy gave me his stool to sit on while I waited for the museum to open. I did give it up and take a ride in a Cyclo – that’s a bicycle-driven rickshaw with the passenger on the front in a wheelbarrow-like contraption – but instead of (as in Bangkok) demanding ridiculous sums of money and then taking me shopping instead of to my destination, this guy cycled me around to about 3 of the places (out of 4) that I wanted to see here and then dropped me off at the 4th, all for under $2. On the way, he played tour guide as well, telling me what we were passing and when things were built. If it hadn’t been for him, I would have missed the grandmama tortoise at the Emperor Jade Pagoda.

Speaking of which, the temples here are very different from those in Thailand and Lao. Emperor Jade Pagoda was built in 1744, and is totally Chinese in style and language. There are roughly 6 chapels and over 12 rooms in total, all housed in a maze-like main building. The Buddha is indeed represented and holds pride of place, but many other Hindu and Buddhist dieties are in residence also, as are what I can only assume are ancient Chinese heroic figures. If I weren’t so woefully undereducated on these mythologies, I could probably go on for a good long time. I would particularly love to know more about the tortoise ponds just outside – all my guide could tell me is they’re special animals. There was one pond that had literally hundreds of little guys in it, and the other just had the big sleepy one. If anyone can enlighten me, please do. As it is, we’ll move on.

There is indeed, for those of you who may have heard, a miniature replica of Notre Dame Cathedral here – it’s about 1/10 of the size, brick, and totally surreal against its surroundings. I was unfortunately not able to enter, so I can’t comment on the stained glass, but the flying buttresses were sadly missing. It was not the highlight of the day.

The highlight was the War Remnants Museum, an oddly if diplomatically named monument to what we call the Vietnam War. It was this that really struck me. We’ve all heard the numbers and the rationale (or lack thereof) associated with the conflict, but gathered together with images and narratives from photographers of all nationalities who died or went missing, an exhibition dedicated to the worldwide protest of the war, and frank accounts of the victims and later repercussions, all made for an absolutely staggering experience. The last time I felt something like this was at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin, after which all I could do was wander the city for a few hours, fighting back tears. This was not much different.

What I found most impressive is the complete lack of bitterness with which the war was presented. While it’s true that most of the atrocities shown were those committed by the Americans with the help of their allies, the prison conditions of the Saigon government were also meticulously documented. And although there were no accounts of the tortures visited on nonvietnamese by the Viet Cong, the American anti-war demonstrators were given pride of place in that exhibit. And when you look at the sheer numbers of Vietnamese – particularly civilians – who died, it’s pretty incredible that the tone of the entire place is focused not on persecution but on remembering what happened last time so we don’t do it again.

I couldn’t help but think, as I looked at the photos of Hanoi and other cities in the North, schools and hospitals and residential neighborhoods razed to the ground, of the impact of the Allied bombs on Berlin and other German cities in World War 2, of the impact of American bombs in Afghanistan and perhaps soon in Iraq. It astonishes me that we still think this kind of action can have a sustainable, positive outcome. Punishing the civilians of a country over whose government they have no control is no way to change the behavior of that government. Killing civilians is not the way to influence foreign or domestic policy. That should be abundantly clear by now, especially with the recent killing of civilians on American soil. And yet we persist, again going counter to the wishes and beliefs of most of the rest of the world, including many of our NATO allies, threatening to wage war alone if need be – this time on Iraq, but again, who will suffer more – Hussein or his people? And once war begins, it is not easily ended. Nor is it easy for allies to stand by and watch the bloody outcome without becoming involved.

I don’t know what can be done to stop this from happening. It seems protests like those in the late 60s are outdated in the US, and I don’t know if there are enough dissenters to really raise a crowd of 50,000 in DC again anyway. Looking at it all from this side of the world, I just hope it doesn’t happen. The world is more connected now than ever, and I don’t just mean by the Internet – any action will have a much wider effect than those of 40 years ago. I don’t have an answer, just a deep feeling of sorrow and foreboding. I pray it doesn’t happen.

I don’t feel I can end on that depressing note, so I will share with you all a bit of joy in my little traveller’s world: last night I arrived in Saigon and took a room at a recommended guest house. It costs more than I’d like to spend, but that’s generally the case in big cities. The good news is, I’ve got a soft cushy bed, air conditioning, a window that faces a *quiet* alley, hot water in a private bath, and – best of all – a bathtub! I hadn’t seen one of those since I left home, and you can rest assured that I’m going to spend some quality time soaking in it just as soon as I finish my delicious (and free!) dinner.

Over and out.