Dear Faithful Correspondents,
The Heart of Darkness is the Joseph Conrad novel about a colonialist gone native in Africa, which was the inspiration for its adaptation into the Vietnam War Film, Apocalypse Now. I used these two to keep my High School Senior English students occupied during the last two weeks of their Senior years, 1981-1984, and so I know them well.
I had some trepidation coming to this City, and this Country, given our shared history. I was sobered and surprised.
Today we went to Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). So many years ago I almost came here in a very different capacity, but my number was never called. I registered as a non-combatant: I was ready to serve my Country, but only as a chaplain’s aid or a medic.
Thank God I was not called!
Before discussing my experiences of the day, let me lay out clearly my positions.
— I honor without any qualification the brave men and women who served our Nation in Vietnam, and those of our allies, South Vietnam, Australia, et al. With the exception of those who committed atrocities such as My Lai, they did the best they could.
— I honor the men and women of the North who served their country, again, except for those who violated the “Rules of War” (a pretty sick concept, overall, but it is what it is).
— That being said, I believe the US was horribly wrong to prosecute the Vietnam War.
OK, it is good to get that out on the table.
His rebus dictis, Saigon in 2013 is an incredible place! We have to thank our lucky stars that Vietnam is overwhelmingly Buddhist and Catholic Christian. Both spiritualities emphasize compassion, forgiveness and acceptance (yes, Victoria, that is what Christianity is REALLY about, not exclusion and prejudice… hmmmm!).
We came ashore about 2.25 hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City, and took a comfortable bus ride into the city. Along the way, we saw an immense path of industrial sites, Buddhist Temples, Christian Churches, store-fronts, and above all, restaurants serving Pho (the unique Vietnamese soup) and Com (rice dishes).
The first thing I noticed was that, although English signs on businesses did occur, the street signs, and most business signage were solely in Vietnamese.
Let me take as moment to talk about Vietnamese.
Vietnamese is a South Asian language, with relationships and cognates with its neighboring Thai, Burmese, Laotian, and Chinese languages. Prior to the 17th century, it was written in Chinese characters and also a modified Chinese script, but the Jesuit 17th century French missionary named Alexandre de Rhodes (1591–1660), perfected a script using the Latin alphabet plus unique diacritical markings based on works of earlier Portuguese missionaries (Gaspar do Amaral and António Barbosa).
Thanks to this, we can actually sound out much of Vietnamese, which I see regularly on VTA Buses in San Jose!
We arrived in the center of the city, and began our perambulations. First stop: changing money. Today, about 20,000 Dong = US$1.00, so we got millions of Dong. It is kind of cumbersome, similar to the first time I visited Italy (1972), and we paid in hundreds of thousands of Lira.
Saigon is a bustling, large city. Typical of what I am experiencing, on the road here, and in the city, relative poverty lives cheek-by-jowl with wealth.
Everything seems to be negotiable. Before you get in a taxi, you should bargain with the driver for the flat fee for your trip. Failure to do so could turn a 15 minute ride into about 750,000 Dong (= $40). Negotiated, the ride would probably be about 50,000 Dong (= $2.50).
We first went to our prime objective: the War Remnants Museum. This is a large collection of photos and artifacts from, as it is called “The American War of Aggression.”
The battlefield photos are bad, but the whole room full of the children’s photos who were and are the victims of Agent Orange is enough to make the strongest person weep. What were we thinking?
Along with the photos, there is running commentary with quotes from the U.S. and International opposition to the War, as well as quotes from U.S. figures such as General Curtis Lemay saying “…the North must pull in its horns, or we will bomb them back into the Stone Age.”
There is also a gallery of support posters for the North from many nations around the world.
All in all, it is a fair presentation, and devastating. Possibly the most surprising is a large gallery dedicated to the international photojournalists who lost their lives in the War, giving their most vivid pictures of the War, which I remember from Life, and CBS News each night.
This exhibit was created in Kentucky about 23 years after the War, and after being exhibited there, it was donated by the people of Kentucky to this museum. A remarkable gesture of the healing which is taking place.
Former American servicemen have also donated parts of their uniforms, and even their medals, to the museum, in protest of the War.
From there we went to see Notre Dame Cathedral, the Main Post Office, and then had a good Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwich in a central HCMC Mall.
We headed back to the ship, and enjoyed a recreation of Disco by the ship’s singers and dancers!
Tomorrow is a Ship Day, and I will use the time to talk about today’s visit to Nha Trang and to reflect on the difference of the feel of this Communist country, and those I visited in the 1970s (Czechoslovakia and East Germany), the incredible traffic, as well as general thoughts on our ongoing topics.
Until then, be at Peace!