Our heads were still swimming from the experiences of the previous day. Sitting on the shuttle bus from the ship to HCMC, we wondered what adventures My and Khoa had planned for us. Arriving in town near the Tax Trade Centre, My was waiting. We began with a nice stroll through the old heart of town.
When the French came here, they set out to create a new Paris in Asia. I plan to look for books on the subject. as the design and construction is remarkable and excites my appreciation for architecture. It is French, but with a unique flair that is Vietnamese.
The Second Empire inspired City Hall reminded me of ours in Philadelphia, just smaller. It’s creamy butter yellow walls, with delicate white ornate details make it look like a giant wedding cake with butter cream frosting. Between of the arched wrought iron gates that guard the entrances stand graceful green topiary in terra cotta pots. From the steeple like clock tower flies the bright red with gold star flag of Viet Nam. It seems to capture the history of Viet Nam, from French Colony to independent nation.
There are two broad boulevards that intersect here, in the heart of HCMC. DL Nguyen Hue and Le Loi Street could be placed anywhere in Paris, and one would be hard pressed to notice. They are lined with trees that form a canopy, and a divided by a garden like median. I guess it was the presence of these boulevards, the trees that line them, and the parks that border them that made me love this city; those are the features that make me love my city of Philadelphia. They are the inspirations of Paris that have give our cities this graceful character. I would hope that My and Khoa would fall in love with my city because of this same sense of familiarity that this character gives.
The City Hall sits at the head of DL Nguyen Hue and faces towards the river, visible about four blocks away. Nestled in a small median park in front of the City Hall is a modernist statue of Ho Chi Minh. Once again, setting the war and politics aside, we need to look at “Uncle Ho” by what he means to the people today. He is their George Washington, Ben Franklin and Uncle Sam all rolled into one. Just like those American figures, it can be hard to discern how much of his life is fact, fiction, or exaggeration. Stories of Washington and the Cherry Tree, Franklin’s endless list of mistresses, and of course the completely fictional character of Uncle Sam all have reason to exist, but they are not true. I can only imagine that, people being people, there is much the same with Ho Chi MInh.
This statue depicts Uncle Ho seated with his arm around a child who is embracing what appears to be a toy. Uncle Ho, in everything I have seen and read, appears to have loved children very much. I truly believe that, like our revolutionary generation in the 18th century, Ho did what he did for the future generations of Viet Nam, not his own; and, of course, he would not live to see the end of the war, let alone modern Viet Nam, dying in 1969. He wanted schools, he wanted children to succeed, he wanted them to live freely, and he was willing to do whatever it took to get it. That is the image that is painted of him throughout Viet Nam.
As we turned onto Le Loi Street to walk towards the Opera House, we stopped to admire the construction of a new hotel on a magnificent scale. Here was a completely new building, from the ground up, unfinished but getting there. I thought for sure that this was a historic building from the Colonial Period being restored, but My assured us that it was new and designed in the French Colonial style. When we say, they build things like that anymore, we are wrong. From the glass, gold leaf and black enamel curved awning, to the monumental gilded doorway, it is a masterpiece. I cannot wait to visit again and see the finished interior, which, if the glimpse in the slightly opened door gives us any idea of what is to be, it will be magnificent.
The Municipal Theatre was originally the Sai Gon Opera House. It is obviously heavily inspired by the Opera Garnier in Paris. Sitting proudly at the top of the grand boulevard, Le Loi Street, it’s sculpted angels of music sit with a harp inviting everyone to come and hear what treasures that have inside. The resemblance to the Opera Garnier is undeniable. While we could not go inside, I hope to attend a concert on a future visit. In front is another median park, and this one has a portcullis that is also a war memorial. It showcases images of Viet Nam’s war heroes and depicts key events in their war for Independence.
The largest lotus blossom
We continued our walk by following DL Nguyen Hue towards the river. The street is lined with many banks and financial buildings, but the star of them all is the amazing Bitexco Tower. Opened in 2010, it was Viet Nam’s tallest building for only a few months before a taller structure opened in Hanoi. Standing at 861 ft tall and 68 stories, it’s curved and shape is meant to invoke the lotus, which is the national flower. At night, lighting built into the tower, creates large petals on either side. It’s most interesting and unusual feature is the large circular helicopter pad that juts out from the 52nd floor and resembles a blossoming lotus.
The building is what we would call a “mixed use tower.” It has a large underground parking garage, retail shopping on the lower floors, a cinema and food court on the 6th floor, office space, an observation deck, several restaurants, and a convention centre on floors 61-63. fourteen double decker elevators race visitors to the many floors. Towers like this are symbols of Viet Nam’s desire to be a world financial centre. Unfortunately, I am told that most of the building is still unoccupied, but the space is there and ready for foreign investment opportunities. The Bitexco Tower has become one of my favourite skyscrapers in the world. It’s creativity of design combined with it’s mixed use features make me wish that American architects had half the talent and adventure in design as the rest of the world. Modern American architects are boring, dull, and know how to design nothing more exciting than a shoe box turned on it’s side. If they get adventurous, they may stick a spire on the roof. Want proof of my statement? Look at the drab boring building boom in Philadelphia. The current Comcast Tower, the new Comcast Tower, the new hotel/condo project at Broad and Spruce…all of them are just as dull as dull can be.
Walking the banks of the Sai Gon
We reached the banks of the muddy Sai Gon river with its bustling tourist boat trade. We were walking towards the Ho Chi Minh museum. Not the museum about the city, but the museum about Ho Chi Minh. As we began to cross the pedestrian bridge over one of the many tributaries that feeds into the Sai Gon, we saw something that we had not seen anywhere…graffiti. In black spray paint on the new concrete retaining wall was scrolled “Fuck School,” twice, very clearly, in English. A few other things, including “Skrillex,” and “We Are One,” were also written. Now, normally graffiti would not be something that I would focus on writing about, but this was unusual because of the noticeable lack of it everywhere else. It stood out, and was a bit surprising both by its present and by being in English.
As we looked over the edge of the bridge, we could see a local man with a small boat washing his clothes in the muddy water of the tributary. My told us that many people still live on the river and use it as others have or hundreds of years. We continued over to the Bao Tàng Hô Chí Minh (Museum of Ho Chi Minh), which we quickly learned would not open until 1:30pm. Fortunately, Khoa had pulled up in his car and was waiting for us.
Jumping in the car, we made our way to a small shop that My and Khoa recommended for picking up some sandwiches, for us to make a picnic later on. My ordered, I treated, and we were off for our next adventure.
Respect for Buddha
It is said that 99% of Vietnamese are Buddhist. I will admit to not having known much about Buddhism before coming here. The story of Buddha is interesting, and one that I recommend everyone read, even it just a quick wikipedia version. It is not unlike the stories of Jesus or Mohammad: a boy is born in a miraculous way, able to do things at a very young age, prophets say that he is special and will do great things, he learns of the plight of the poor and throws off worldly goods in favour of a simplistic life dedicated to mankind. It’s further proof that we are more alike than we might care to think. We live, we love, we worship, we fear, we hurt, we laugh, we cry, and the stories of faith all carry the same underlying purpose, to teach us to love one another without judgement and be caring of those who need help, and respectful of those with less.
Khoa took us to the Giac Lam Pagoda and Temple, a place that his family has come to on holidays. Built in 1744, it is a peaceful oasis in the city. The green canopy of the trees shade the bright yellow and red of the various structures that create a small village for the monks, and others who work at the Pagoda. Here, Buddha in all forms can be seen: the graceful lady Buddha stands with her right hand raised, the round bellied Happy Buddha laughs gleefully, The peaceful Buddha sits in meditation with his eyes half open in a state of complete contentment.
As we walked under a tree brightly adorned with a magnificent and unusual blooms, a flower fell, hit my shoulder and landed at my feet. Khoa told me that the tree gave me a gift, and that it was a sign of good luck and fortune. I told him about the bad year I had, with the building collapse, my mom’s illness and death, he told me that tree must have known and gave me the gift. I’m not Buddhist, I’m not even religious, but that gave me such peace. I felt as if everything would be all right, and that I was turning a corner. As we continued to walk, we entered one of the cemeteries for the monks. Khoa told us that the larger the tomb stone, was a sign that this monk was seen as a good person dedicated to his faith. After admiring my gift from the tree, I approached the largest and more ornate of the tomb markers. There was a place to sit on the front of the stone. I respectfully placed my gift from the tree on the seat. I made a gift to this goodly monk of my gift from the tree. If it is better to give than to receive, perhaps this will give me more luck in the coming year.
The smell of the incense that wafted through the complex, the unusual sounds of the birds that made their homes in the trees, and the complete serenity of the place was very calming. Khoa probably had no idea how much this place helped me with everything that had gone on in the last many months, but I am very grateful for it. As much as I took this trip to have an adventure, I also saw this as a chance to run away from everything that has happened. I haven’t spoken to anyone about what I have been going through emotionally with everything. I have kept it pretty much inside. I just needed to get away and find purpose, meaning, and joy in life again. This trip, and this place, helped me with that. Viet Nam helped me with that; and believe me, I would never have thought that was possible a few weeks ago; that Viet Nam could have done that for me.
As we stepped into the Pagoda, a small white and brown dog lay in the very centre of the ornate tile floor. This little pup had the most amazing look of peace and contentment on its face. I’ve seen many sleeping dogs and cats in my life, but I have never seen such a expression of peace on their face as this. I tried to quickly and quietly snap a photo, but unfortunately they are not in focus. Oh well, I still have the memory of it.
(UPDATE 25 June 2014: The above experience truly changed my life. Leaving Giac Lam, I could not get it out of my mind. I would go to sleep and dream about the large Buddha. I began reading more Buddhism and began a journey that has led to my devotion to this ancient philosophy. I now consider myself a Buddhist, and am eager to learn more. I have been very fortunate to find an amazing and compassionate teacher in Philadelphia. It has had a great everlasting effect on my life.)
The Vietnamese Hoagie
I have fallen completely in love with the Vietnamese version of the Hoagie, Bahn Mi. I am guessing that this style of sandwich came here much in the same way it came to Philadelphia, through the sea trade, colonisation, and immigration.
Khoa dropped us off near 30 Thang Park, the HCMC version of Rittenhouse Square that I mentioned yesterday. While Khoa was parking the car, My, Francis and I found a spot to sit on the ground and make a picnic. An elderly woman came by and sold us some piece of newspaper for us to sit on, and some sliced mango. We laid out the paper, sat down on our newspaper and got out our sandwiches. Another vendor came by and My ordered four iced Vietnamese coffees, warning us again that the coffee was terrible here. We passed out the sandwiches and I was about to have my first taste of heaven.
First, the bread is nearly identical in every way to our really good Italian rolls. I’m not talking about the crappy Amoroso junk, I mean the really good Sarcone’s rolls. They are also about the same size, about 8-9 inches. On this is a nice slice of ham, like a Sorrento ham. There is a slice of another kind of meat as well, I’m not sure what, but it was good. Then, there is some marinated cucumber, cilantro, sprouts and shredded carrot. There is also a nice sauce. Now unlike the Hoagie, there is not stuffed full or overly packed. It is a nice, light sandwich and it is perfectly filling; you don’t feel like you just ate to much. They wrap the sandwich in a flier for the shop, THAT is smart! The shop that My got these from is Minh Chân and they appear to have two locations in District 4. If you are ever going to HCMC, and wish to try them, ask me for the addresses and phone number. I have it.
Khoa joined us from parking the car, just in time for the coffee to arrive. Again, My had repeatedly told us how bad the coffee here was. I was really expecting something semi-drinkable. If this is the BAD coffee, they are a very lucky country, because this was better than most coffee back home. It was the traditional black coffee with condensed milk over ice. The whole setting was just perfect and very HCMC. Enjoying the company of friends, iced coffee, and bahn mi while sitting on newspaper on the ground in a park surrounded by others doing the same, and watching the traffic race by in all directions…this is what life should be.
Francis had promised to teach Khoa a magic trick, and I am pretty sure that we have created another Vietnamese magic fan. Khoa collects old Vietnamese coins and made a gift of a few to Francis. Francis showed a few basic coin tricks such as pushing a coin through the fabric of your shirt. Then Francis took out a deck of cards. While doing his demonstration and thrilling My and Khoa, a few others began to gather around. I have to admit that I was little jealous of Francis at that moment. His type of performance translate very well without words. Make a coin go through a piece of fabric requires no understanding of the language being spoken, you get it. I am incredibly fortunate to have such a universally talented friend as him.
A Temple to Ho Chi Minh
After our late lunch, we returned to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which was now full of the laughter, giggles and running of children. I think that when Americans think of a communist country, they think of people wearing uniforms and walking in a steady hard-faced manner with little enjoyment or pleasure. Viet Nam certainly smashes that cold-war era stereotype. I am pleased to inform you that Vietnamese children are as loud and obnoxious as their American counterparts. They will run around museums with the same level or disregard for others as our kids do. They will push and shove in shops while grabbing at anything they can reach without any regard for anyone else there. In other words, they are exactly like us.
The museum to Ho Chi Minh is set in a former ship passenger terminal on the bank of the Sai Gon. It was from this port building that Ho Chi Minh would first leave Viet Nam on the 5 June 1911 to explore the world. He worked as a cooked on a French steamer, and his travels would take him to France, London, New York, Moscow and other places in Europe. He was a well educated and handsome young man with a passion for knowledge and a dislike for the French colonists. His travels would establish his political ideology, and you can hear American influence in his speeches about freedom and liberty, even if he did see communism as the best way to deliver these American ideals. He is a complex character, but one that appears to have been universally liked by those that met him.
What’s in a name?
What do the names Nguyen Sinh Con, Nguyen Sinh Cung, Nguyen Tat Thanh, Nguyan That Thanh, and Nguyen Ai Quoc all have in common? They are all names for the same person, Ho Chi MInh He had many alias after his birth name, Nguyen Sinh Con. Nguyen is the most common surname in Viet Nam; like their version of Smith. And the names that he most frequently used included this, his real surname. He would use Nguyen Tat Thanh (Nguyen the Accomplished) and Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), but his finale alias was Ho Chi Minh. Ho is another very common Vietnamese surname, while the rest means “He who has been enlightened.” It’s not unlike Ben Franklin using alias like Silence Dogood or Poor Richard. Because of the many names, it made it difficult for those against the communist movement to realise that this was one person, and not a committee or group.
The first room that we would enter at the museum was a shrine to Uncle Ho. After removing our shoes, we stepped in and paid our respects. I pay him the same respect that I would hope others would show respect to our Liberty Bell, or Independence Hall. Being respectful to Uncle Ho is being respectful to the Vietnamese people. Showing respect should never have anything to do with politics, but rather with humanity.
We then moved into the main galleries. It was hotter than it had been on any day of the trip thus far, and I began to feel a little light headed. We stepped out to grab a cold bottle of water. If you were wondering what prompted my paragraph about the children, this experience was it. The poor shop keeper was completely overwhelmed with kids, packed into his small shop, shoving, pushing, pulling, grabbing at anything that could reach. It was chaos, and not unlike any small kiosk at the Smithsonian when a group of kids arrive. I managed to grab one of the last bottles of water in the now cleaned out refrigerator and handed my money of the children’s heads to the shop keeper. That poor, poor man.
I learned a lot about the Vietnamese perspective on the war, and their long fight for independence. Reading Ho Chi MInh’s speeches was very illuminating. His words on freedom and liberty could have come from any American president or founding father. I was not expecting that. In one room was a memorial to the Vietnamese battle at Dien Bien Phu. In the sculpture, Vietnamese soldiers were standing on the roof of a steel roofed, partially subterranean hut, raising the Vietnamese flag in victory. Next to this was a photo of the event. It reminded me of the famous raising of the flag on Iwo Jima during WW2.
There was also a large display dedicated to Viet Nam’s independence day, 2 September 1945. This was the day that Ho Chi Minh would deliver a speech on independence, and the north would establish itself as a government. The next 30 years would spent trying to unify the country as a singular entity.
OK, a LITTLE bit of politics
I will say now, though I have been trying to avoid American-Vietnamese politics, that I still have no idea why the US involved itself in this entire mess. Yes, I get the whole “anti-communism” stance of the US, and YES, I get the whole post war nation building movement. It’s just I really will never understand what my government saw in trying to build the South Vietnamese government. We had many opportunities to be allies with Ho Chi MInh. He reached out to the US many times to try and build a bridge, beginning with President Truman. That, by the way is from both Vietnamese AND US sources, so please do not try and tell me that is Hanoi rhetoric. Were we so against a different form of government that we would abandon any attempt at peace? If so, then shame on us. We would lost more than 55,000 young men and women in Viet Nam, and countless more if we include the psychological effects of the war on our soldiers when they returned home. It effected generations of Americans, including mine. For what? Today, we have an excellent relationship with them, and we buy a massive amount of product from Viet Nam. Wouldn’t it all have been a lot better, and cheaper to have begun that relationship in 1945? The Viet Nam war does not make me proud to be an American. My father’s efforts and his contribution make me proud to be his son, but that fact that he was sent there because US politicians couldn’t get their heads out of their asses for 30 seconds makes me angry.
I’m proud that I have been able to have this experience, and to begin a fresh new look at this nation that effected my life growing up. I’m also proud to have some great friends from here, who are proud of their country and heritage, just as I am proud of mine. Being an American should never involve hate, but should always welcome peace. We must always extend the olive brand before raising the arrow. Some make think that is weak, but the truth is, raising the olive branch first may be the more difficult and challenging thing to do, while raising the arrow may be the easiest and weakest.
We would leave Khoa when we arrived at the museum, and after our visit, we walked back to the Tax Trade Centre for our shuttle and say our goodbyes to My. We made two exceptional friends here, and they will always hold a special place in my heart. First, for introducing me to their culture and giving me the opportunity to form an opinion of their country on my own. The second reason is one that they had no idea they were helping me with. They helped me turn a corner in my life. Losing my mom the way I did was much harder on me than I have told anyone. I suspect that Francis knew this, which is why he invited me on this adventure. He has a way of knowing me like that. These two young faces of Viet Nam really helped me get a piece of me back. I feel like a wide-eyed child learning about the world and it all being exciting. I will forever be grateful to them, and I hope that they will find a way to visit the US so that I can return the favour.
My next article will be our third day in Ho Chi MInh City and our journey to and exploration of the tunnels of Cu Chi.