Archives

Not in My Name: The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

A statue made out of shrapnel titled Mother

A statue made out of shrapnel titled Mother

Originally, I had no intentions of visiting The War Remnants Museum. A co-worker familiar with Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) insisted that I go. After my Ho Chi Minh meltdown, I found myself hurrying into a cab and making my way to the museum before it closed.

Bluntly put, the museum was horrifying. A tribute to the Vietnam War, known as the American War in Vietnam, it has three exhibit floors.

As a teacher and someone who has to check her own over-protective nature at the door (helicopter mom in training I am ashamed to admit), I wouldn’t bring anyone under the age of 18 to the museum. I wouldn’t bring my too tough NYC high schoolers to that exhibit.

But, it’s necessary. War is ugly and brutal and devastating. Can a movie with a crescendoing soundtrack ever really capture that?

The room painted tangerine orange was cheery in color only. The photos of people Agent Orange deformed thanks to the US’s shameful use of the chemical left me feeling like I would have nightmares.

I didn’t know that a human face could look like it had melted and pooled around a person’s neck.

I didn’t know a back could arch so much

and that generations were still being born with severe birth defects.

There were photos of babies long abandoned because of their birth defects; parents struggling to raise their severely intellectually and physically disabled children the best way they knew how and despair.

Battlefield scenes left me gasping. Here a child crying as soldiers take his father off to be shot. There a soldier holding a man’s torso still wrapped in a burned and holey shirt like one would hold a plastic bag ripping under the weight of too many soup cans.

I got hot. Began to sweat. My heat flash stood in sharp contrast to the goosebumps that marched across my chest when walking around an exhibit that showed international protests against the Vietnam War.

Could people tell that I was American without me even saying a word?

My country did this? In my name?

No.

When I stepped back into the sunlight after the museum closed, I had to breathe. Take a moment. Think. War has affected too many people. I’m too cynical to be a complete pacifist, but this war? This war made me want to chant peace from morning to night. This museum made me want to shroud myself in white and pray for forgiveness. It made me wonder if we as humans are ever truly capable of learning from our mistakes.

And as the sun shone down on me, the answer that came to my mind left me with dry eyes and a weeping heart.

It left me with Ho Chi Minh.

 

 

Advertisements

A Meltdown in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

I barely saw Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam because I was too busy having a complete and utter meltdown. A little over a week into my three week trek around Cambodia and Vietnam, I was missing my family, stressed that I was having trouble accessing more cash, and overwhelmed at war’s effect on a country.

In other words between calls to my bank back home and my mother, I was wailing in my boutique hotel room.

In eight days I’d been to two war museums, The Killing Fields, and a genocide memorial. When I arrived in Vietnam from Cambodia, I just couldn’t take any more I suppose.

The little that I did see centered around food and The War Remnants Museum.

Cuc Gach Quan is a traditional Vietnamese restaurant with a huge menu. When the waitress set the phone book-thick menu in front of me, it was hard not to get overwhelmed. I ate crisply fried spring rolls, brown rice sprinkled with peanuts and chili sauce, a delectable chicken dish, and fried banana with ice cream for dessert.

The place that brought me back from the emotional ledge was, ironically, a rooftop restaurant. Shri was one of my favorite dining experiences in Vietna

The view from Shri

The view from Shri

m. The staff was super attentive, and I didn’t get the “You’re dining alone?” “Just one?” “You’re traveling by yourself?” questions that followed me all over Cambodia and Vietnam.

Between the bread basket, wine, butternut squash soup, fried spring rolls, and the view, I could feel my tension dissipate.

I might try to return to Ho Chi Minh one day while I’m here in Asia. If I do, I’ll head to more museums and definitely return to Shri.

 

 

Baptism by Pho

One rule I try to abide by when traveling is to visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site in each country. Australia has the Great Barrier Reef, Indonesia has Borobudur and Prambanan, and Vietnam has Ha Long Bay. 

Hoi An is also on the list.

Unfortunately, with me visiting during the high season it was more of a tourist trap than a cultural destination. Though I loved the yellow-hued buildings and walks along the river that bisects the town (especially when chicken satay was sizzling nearby), shops overflowed with people all selling the. same. wares.

Leather goods. Paper lanterns. Paintings. Lacquer art. Tailored clothes.

The ever present motorcycle roared by and there was the constant call (found throughout Vietnam) of “Madame, do you want a ride/tour/fill in the blank?” It got annoying, but street hawkers are as much a part of a city as the actual roads and buildings.

20151230_163322

When I called myself escaping to the beach with no swimsuit, even the waves seemed angry and exasperated. They crashed into the shore with a ferocity that surprised me and caused my own negative emotions to dissipate.

Hoi An’s true highlights were to be found up a flight of stairs or down a tourist-thronged alley.

Continue reading

Hue, Vietnam

 

20160103_200445

The night market in Hue is so small I think a person can trip, stumble a few steps forward, and miss the entire thing. Minute stores sell paper lanterns, jade statues and jewelry. Lights shine over sliced green mango with chili pepper, fried treats and soups bubbling in large metallic pots.

The market’s real jewel was actually something that couldn’t be purchased: the Truong Tien Bridge. A rainbow of colors illuminated the steel structure while white headlights moved across it.

Hue is as an ancient city replete with pagodas, lakes, and a citadel. In my opinion, a full day tour is enough time there. Some buildings still need some major restorations (I wonder what kind of artwork is beneath that black substance was a thought I had on occasion).  For food, I suggest the restaurant Nina’s Cafe that’s tucked in a back alley amongst a slew of hostels (try the Hue pancake). Though I can’t say I would visit Hue again, I’ll let some photos I took (displayed above) guide your decision if it’s a place worth visiting.

Ha Long Bay: A Boat Tour That’s Not to Miss

Feet were stomping over my head, and I was not happy. As a teacher I can’t seem to sleep past 6:30 AM during the school year (whether I’m on vacation or not), so I knew the heavy steps were moving around even before that hour.

Yanking my curtain open, I was ready to grumble at the world and my empty cabin.

But then, I had a view like this:

20160106_152803

My anger dissipated like fog beneath a hot sun. Nature humbled me and left me silent. The meditative state washing over me was similar to how I felt when visiting beaches in Venezuela. 

How could I be upset? I was on a junk boat in the middle of Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Limestone structures stretched out of the water and left me feeling awed. A cool breeze hugged me the minute I stepped foot on the top deck and lounge chairs beckoned for me to splay out and relax.

I did. Well, at least I tried to. To be honest, I was battling a cold the entire time I was in Hanoi. My body is now weak to the “cold,” as in anything that has the nerve to dip to 65 °F.  I was wearing a jacket and using a sweatshirt as a scarf to protect my throat. I couldn’t help but marvel…how can this be my body’s reaction when I lived in New York City for five years? But, it is what it is.

With Legacy Cruises, there was a boat ride that led to the loudest silence I’d ever experienced in my life (I booked through my hotel for a cheaper price). Oars slid into water that supported floating houses. Waves lapped quietly at the structures as if they too were afraid to make noise in nature’s sacred space, and then there was Surprising Cave (Hang Sửng Sốt). Beautifully lit, it was a wonderful way to end my two days and one night in Ha Long Bay. In short, it was a respite from life’s busyness.

As the junk boat chugged back towards shore, I sipped hot honey tea and wrote in my journal. The limestones flowed past me and for some reason I felt like I was in an orchestra, a symphony. The entire experience just seemed like nature had crafted a work of art.

In the end, I was glad to be there for the show.

Hanoi, Vietnam: A Place After Your Own Heart

Mur

I did a double take when I saw this mural. I’ve been missing Latin America something fierce, but did I really see a large piece of artwork celebrating Venezuela in Hanoi, Vietnam? The short answer: yes. In honor of Hanoi’s 1,000 year anniversary, a beautiful stretch of road is covered in mosaics and murals…and there was this, a piece of my heart for all to see.

This mural hinted at what I would soon discover: the highlight of my three week sojourn through Cambodia and Vietnam would easily be Hanoi. The moment I stepped into the Old Quarter’s streets I couldn’t help but smile at the energy that sizzled around me. Hawkers sold fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, and fish. The heat radiating around my ankles was actually a woman fanning coals to roast corn or chicken satay. The constant roar of an approaching motorcycle called out to me to be careful. After all–according to my Hanoi Cooking Centre street food tour guide–there are about 8 million people in Hanoi and 6 million motorbikes. Stepping into Vietnamese traffic is stepping out on faith that one of those millions of motorcycles will not clip you as the drivers navigate them through winding, narrow alleys made even smaller with all of the outdoor cafe seating and parked bikes.
Yet in the midst of the organized chaos there is flavorful beef pho, a soup and traditional Vietnamese dish, to be consumed and bahn mi sandwiches to devour. The Vietnamese rendition of the French baguette puts the original to shame, trust me. Snail soup awaits in a back alley where people squat on stools so small any American adult would think they were meant for a daycare. Iced coffee with condensed milk wants you to swirl it in a clear glass and, of course, fried spring rolls dare you not to eat them at least every other day.

Vietnamese cuisine is heavenly, and if I had died in Vietnam God would’ve scowled at me and accused me of gluttony. Knowing me, I probably would’ve been trying to hide a bahn mi sandwich behind my back as He reprimanded me.

 

Yet there are quiet corners of Hanoi too where pagodas hug lake shores and coffee shops murmur welcomes to passersby. A lovely expat introduced me to Cinemateque, a teeny movie theater without a website that artsy types patronize.

DSC05353Then there are the restaurants Pots N’ Pans and Cau Go. I literally stumbled into Cua Go with a competitor’s menu still in my hand (I thought the space was all one restaurant).  Both Pots N’ Pans and Cua Go treated me so graciously as a solo diner instead of tossing me into any old corner. The ambiance was wonderful, the food divine, and the staff extremely friendly. Cau Go’s view of Hoan Kiem Lake at night is so beautiful I braved the crazy roundabout it’s located at twice to eat there. It’s mere blocks from the Water Puppet Theater if inclined to see a folkloric part of Vietnamese culture. Art galleries and souvenir shops overflow in the area along with surprisingly aggressive women asking you to taste their fried sweets.  Even when I got lost and was scared to ask armed soldiers for directions I didn’t want to leave Hanoi, plain and simple. Besides, I think the military check point that was at my apartment my first six months in Venezuela made me develop a comfortable unease with armed soldiers.

But, eventually I did leave Hanoi…to go to the famous Halong Bay. It’s a place I think God personally kisses everyday, and my next post will be about it. Keep (im)migrating with me!