Travel update: Email home from Vietnam

(This personal email was edited for a blog audience.)

Dear Dad and Mom and sister,

I decided to write an update about our travels in an email. With the different time zones, our daily explorations and activities, it’s easier to type this to you than it is to call. As I start this email, Tedly and his mom still are asleep.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is chaotic and heavily populated. There are more motorcycles here than in Thailand or Cambodia. Some intersections don’t have traffic lights, and so there is always a mass of motorbikes, cars, buses, bicycles, even wheelbarrows and wheelchairs crisscrossing every which way. I have been here five days. I’ve never seen anyone texting and riding or driving. I’ve never seen anyone on the phone while driving. To do those things would be suicide — you have to pay close attention to the traffic rhythm in order to avoid a crash. Also, we haven’t seen any crashes — or anything close to a crash. Somehow, it all works out. People let each other go; they ride around you; they stop for you (or at least slow down). It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Eventually I will take a video so you can see it in action. 

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Not many people speak fluent English, but many people do know a few words. For example, Grab drivers (like Uber) know hello, thank you, etc. I am trying to learn a few words in Vietnamese, but I only know hello, thank you, please, excuse me, and some numbers, and words for chicken, rice, tofu, water… I sometimes watch YouTube videos to try to learn a bit, especially since we will be here for at least two months and three weeks more.

In large stores and restaurants, the young people do know English – at least one person, but usually more. We are so damn lucky in that regard. I try to imagine us wandering the world with no one speaking English. It would be a different sort of travel tale, I’m sure. 

Yesterday we went to the War Remnants Museum. This was an interesting place. First, the Vietnamese do not call it “The Vietnam War.” They call it “The American War.” The first thing I saw in the museum was a video loop of Trump’s recent visit to Hanoi on a giant screen. The video showed the American president shaking hands with communist leaders in front of a row of American and Vietnamese flags. It was powerful imagery.

There are two major exhibitions in the museum. The first one displays incredible photographs taken from the cameras of war photographers — many of whom did not survive the war. It was eerie to see the last picture someone took before he was blown to bits by a landmine, or before he died in some other way. The photographers were American, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, and also some other nationalities, such as Japanese and Australian. This exhibit was co-produced by the state of Kentucky, of all places. So while it is in a communist museum, the descriptions and accounts seemed to be fairly objective. The photographers captured each side doing dastardly things to each other and to the civilian population. It was a powerful exhibit. It illustrates the complete madness of war. The pictures are extremely graphic and the public is warned about that before viewing. I saw many dead bodies.

I viewed several eerie photos of Marines, in fields with barren landscapes singed by Agent Orange. It gave me a good idea of the tricky terrain and the terror men must have felt.

The second big exhibit starts with a quote from the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” 

And then: the exhibit shows what the Vietnamese call the “American Aggression” in “The American War.” In this exhibit, only Americans are shown doing dastardly things to the Vietnamese people – north and south. So the implication here is that “all Men are created equal” … only if you are American. 

This second exhibit goes on to show the horrific, life-altering devastation to civilians by Agent Orange. Some pictures were so awful that I could not look. The photos were of people… who didn’t really look like people. I saw deformities like I’ve never seen in any documentary or book. By the time a person is done with this exhibit, one can be utterly depressed and simultaneously angry at the depravity of war. Regardless of your views on the politics of The Vietnam/American War, it’s clear average people suffered on both sides. The Vietnamese exhibit also featured Americans who had children with severe deformities. 

There are a few smaller exhibits near the end of the route with more photos about the politicians in Vietnam. Outside there are large military items on display that were left behind by the Army. There are many tanks, and a helicopter. (By the way, inside the last exhibit, there were a lot of American guns and other weapons, including the M-16.)

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After the museum trip, we walked around the block to the Reunification Palace. This is the building where the famous image of a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gate during the fall of Saigon in 1975. Today, it’s a well-cared for government building. It’s possible to have coffee on the grounds during regular business hours – there are a few privately-run stores.

That’s a strange thing in this country – the businesses are just like anywhere else, even though it’s a communist form of government. There are small mom-and-pop food stores, like your deli many years ago, and there are a few big-name brand stores in the tourist section of the city, which is mostly called District 1. We are staying on the southwest corner of District 1, close to Chinatown. There is a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner. Down the road there are Toyota and Lexus dealers, and I’ve seen McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, H&M (clothing) — and there are even some high-end fashion designers with stores in the city. 

Despite this smattering of name-brand stores, the majority of businesses appear to be owned by the little guy — family-run businesses of modest natures. There are more small- and medium-sized businesses here in this communist city than in most similar-sized democratic American cities. It’s a fascinating contrast, isn’t it? If McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, H&M, etc., do well here, and it seems they are, I suspect eventually corporatacracy eventually will take over the marketplace here, as it has done back home. Because no matter the political persuasion, no matter the religion, no matter the nationality, money is the true ruler on a planet filled with greedy humans.

Well… this email has gotten quite long. I hope you stuck with it and read it all. I guess that’s about it for now. 

A few more side notes: the food is really cheap and delicious, people seem kind, the city is easily navigated, I’ve met some fellow Americans and travelers. I am feeling ok outside in this humidity with the hot flashes, but I do feel better in air conditioning. It’s hotter than hell here, but only from 11am to 4pm. Early mornings are my favorite time because it’s cool enough to enjoy coffee on one of our two outdoor seating areas.

I’ll write again when I experience more in this strange, foreign land.

Love, Ellen

(I am attaching pictures— but none are too graphic.)

Correction: the quote that begins “All men are created equal…” is from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, not the U.S. Constitution. Thanks to a reader for catching my air-headed mistake.

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With the feeling that Animals’ Farm is more true than ever, is it so Ellen? As always, a lovely and smart report, better than an experienced journalist’ one,, for the empathy you feel with places and people. I am pleased you are having a good time, above all , Tedly, better Uber than renting a scooter! Looking forward to the next script, Kisses from Loretta and Giuseppe

Excellent and evocative post! People everywhere are so resilient. One small quibble: the quote you attribute to the US Constitution actually is the opening line of the Declaration of Independence. In its way, even more ironic.

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