Friday, December 18, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I'm a little late; we left Vietnam two days ago. It's been busy and I've been a bit sick. But I'm better now and my homework's done and now I've got time to write!

Day 1:

Ho Chi Minh city is hot, but not nearly as bad as Chennai. The morning was spent watching our ship navigate the crowded Saigon River. After that, I hopped off to go on a trip required for my Warfare class: a visit to a former UPI photographer followed by a trip to the Museum of War Remnants.

The UPI photographer was an interesting guy. He spoke to us (in *heavily* accented English, like everyone else in Vietnam) about his experience in the war. After it was over, he was briefly investigated by the new government before fleeing. He worked as a farmer in the Mekong Delta before they found him and sent him to a re-education camp. After seven years of hard labor and not enough food, he was released. He now runs a little antique museum and sells old photographs that he took during the war (he hid the negatives during his re-education). It was an interesting visit, but he was more concerned with selling photographs than telling stories.

On the bus ride to the museum, the bus driver turned on neon lights and put on a bunch of painfully loud J-pop music videos. Inexplicable.

The Museum of War Remnants was formerly known as The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government. It provided a very interesting perspective on the Vietnam War. They displayed a bunch of captured American military equipment in the yard outside the museum. There were exhibits on French oppression, South Vietnamese treatment of POWs, Agent Orange, the My Lai Massacre, and lots of other ugly stuff. The experience was reminiscent of the Holocaust Museum or the Ghanaian slave castles.

Day 2:

I woke up early (4AM) to run off to the Saigon airport and take a flight to Hanoi with a S@S trip. People killed time by doing some shopping in the little airport stores. The exchange rate is 1 dollar to about 18,000 Vietnamese dong (there were many jokes about the currency). Even airport stores were cheap. The flight was perfectly normal and pleasant, to my mild disappointment.

Upon arrival to Hanoi we met our awesome tour guide, Hung, and did a quick visit to the Hanoi Army Museum, which was sort of like the museum in Saigon (lots of hardware on display, very one-sided) but the tone here was much more glorious and less about mourning the atrocities of war. After that, we took a long bus ride out of the city to Mai Chau village.

Mai Chau is a regular ol' village that has successfully marketed itself as a tourist stop. Most of the people there were involved in rice farming, animal husbandry (lots of cows, chickens, ducks), or selling cheap crap to tourists. The countryside of Vietnam is absolutely beautiful. Lots of steep mountain cliffs, green fields and hills, and a cover of mist in the mornings. Our group stayed in the village longhouse, a big room on stilts with a bunch of mats and pillows on the ground. There were electric lights, but the electricity died several times during our visit. Our gracious hosts gave us food (cooked over an open fire) and did a small show with a bunch of 20-somethings performing a set of traditional dances to live music before putting us to bed.

Day 3:

We got woken up every five minutes from 3AM until we actually got up by roosters. Evidently, in Vietnam they aren't trained to wait until dawn to crow. I HATE roosters.

The next morning we enjoyed the scenery for a while, had breakfast (some sort of fried banana pancake), and walked around the village shopping. The coolest items were definitely the crossbows. There were some that were at least a yard in length; I ended up buying the smallest one I could find, which was still powerful enough to lodge a dull little wooden dart into a log. (I had no chance of getting it on the boat, so I shipped it home.) There were also a ton of puppies in the village. The dogs were all awesome. I wanted to take one home, but shipping wasn't an option for them. I had to settle for taking extra pictures of them.

Lunch was absolutely delicious. It included rice (of course), plantain fries, some sort of breaded pork, and a deliciously salty chicken dish. Then we took our ride back to Hanoi. We got back fairly late; myself and a small group went out to see what was to be seen around the hotel. I got to hang out at a nearby cafe and get a (mercifully) brief look at a Vietnamese dance club.

Day 4:

We got a few brief tours of some pagodas and other sites, including an ancient Chinese university. The coolest sight was the Hanoi Hilton, the famous prison that housed American POWs during the Vietnam war. It's now a museum. Most of the museum is dedicated to demonstrating how barbaric the conditions were... when the French were using it to imprison Vietnamese citizens. There are two rooms that are all about American POWs and shows how wonderfully nice they were treated. Lots of pictures of happy Americans smiling and playing pool or chess or getting a medical checkup. What a fun place! It was practically a vacation. They proudly display John McCain's flight suit.

Lunch was at Pho 24, the biggest Vietnamese Pho chain. Pho is rice noodle soup, and it's delicious. I got Chicken Pho, like most people. Others in our group got the Pho "Special", which involved a lot of unidentifiable but very suspicious pieces of meat.

We ran into a traffic jam on our way to the airport, and for a while it looked like we were going to miss the flight. Luckily, Hung and the tour company were resourceful. Vietnam is soon to be hosting the Asian Indoor Games, a big sporting competition that called for all sorts of billboards and advertising. There was one bridge out of the city that led to the airport that was reserved for only certain types of cars and for buses transporting athletes for the games. Our tour company had some of those buses. Our bus borrowed the official "athlete bus" sign and drove through (we had to put up the window curtains and hide behind the seats, though). We got to our flight with plenty of time.

On our way back into the ship, we were stopped for a while by the housekeeping staff. Apparently, somebody else on our bus had found bedbugs in their hotel in Hanoi. I guess we were in danger as well, and they demanded that we hand in all our packed clothes to be frozen for two days and then washed to get rid of any possible bugs. Our trip leader, an otherwise mild-mannered older man, got really frustrated at this unforseen delay and went berserk, yelling and trying to barge through the security checkpoint and ripping off his shirt and at one point yelling "WE ARE THE PEOPLE!!!" I think he was trying to make the point that we shouldn't have to deal with the check because we were the customers of S@S, but it sounded like he was trying to start a revolution. That professor's reputation will not recover anytime too soon.

On our last day, I finally came down with whatever illness I picked up in Hanoi, so I slept in and took it easy, only briefly going into town for lunch and free internet at a cafe. There were also a bunch of movies shown in the classrooms later that evening, as everybody who bought bootleg DVDs for a dollar apiece decided to put on shows. Fun times!

We land in Hong Kong tomorrow morning. I get 1.5 days in Hong Kong, then go on a 4-day overnight trip to Guilin, and then catch up with the ship in Shanghai for a day. More news afterwards!

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