Ho Ho Ho

Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog

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All the way from Brisbane I feel a tightening sort of trepidation. The last 3 months have been same, same... the next 3 promise to be different, different.

Strapped into my backpack like a snail to it's shell I walk through the exit doors of HoChiMin airport. Outside hot air swirls loud as a song; dense, fumey, foody, peopled air. Noise is errupting silently all around. I breathe, smile , relax.

Hello Again Asia, It's good to be back.


The Rex


On nights one & two I stayed in the relatively costly Rex Hotel. Just to acclimatise you understand.


The hotel itself is very splendid.

Rooftop @ the Rex
Gleaming marble & bamboo foyer populated by petite, exquisite ladies wearing traditional dress and smart men in fitted tunics with mandarin collars. The Rex is plumb in the centre of old Saigon;  just a hop & a skip away from The Continental, where many scenes from The Quiet American were filmed (much to my delight).


My room was the chaepest available & had two distinctive features: Air-conditioning which was either Arctic or ‘Off’ and an unpleasant view of crossroads below. From my slither of a balcony I could breathe in the toxic air of a thousand honking motorbikes; contemplate the tangled wire nest where a million or so electricity & telephone cables converge; and gaze across the junction to a (crumbling) garden bar advertising itself as ‘Miss Saigon’ in wanton red italics.


I have since paid about one tenth of the price for a room with twice as much to recommend it, but the flawed glamour of the Rex remains quintessentially Saigon, ….

. I think of it fondly.



A thousand emotions at the War Memorial Meusum


From memory there are 5 distinct parts to the War Memorial Museum.


Firstly there’s the Photographic Collection that fills every available inch of a large tatty L-shaped room.  The pictures comprehensively capture Life and Death during the Vietnam War.



At the beginning are sepia images of various international officials standing on ceremony seemingly enjoying each other’s company. But the smiles do not last and quickly the pictures relocate to the battlefield where soldiers are waiting in bunkers or snaking through lush terrain. Beautiful young faces with serious expressions stare out from under hard-hats; guns lie in the mud or hang ominously over narrow shoulders. Then, Action……


Critical moments of terrible beauty: Men loading and shooting, exploding earth, bombs and fire, quick death, slow death, soldier death, civilian death.


Humanity, both kind & awful, is pinned to these walls where it silently screams down at stunned tourists.

Markus Nyikos & the HoChiMin City Symphony Orchestra
We stand around hopelessly struggling to disseminate these images from the thousand reconstructions we’ve seen on the TV & in the movies.


Visiting this room you could only ever conclude that 'War is hell and should be avoided at all costs'. And yet the display is sadly undermined by it’s bias; we’re presented with a selection of images favouring the Communist Victors over American Brutes. This truth may be partial, but it’s surely not absolute.


After the vicious punch of the front-line photos comes the sweet stroke of the Romance Hall. This space holds a collection of  love letters, mementos & images centering on young Vietnamese couples separated by the conflict. It’s a strange exhibit & not one I felt entirely comfortable with.


In the months since my first visit to Saigon I’ve become familiar with the Eastern habit excessive romanticism.

This is most obvious in the arts and applies across almost all commercial & cultural mediums from ancient legend to a gazillion puke-inducing ballads that play relentlessly across numerous TV stations, and over communal loud speakers.


I find I am constantly challenged when trying to understand native romantic ideals. For example whenever I ask a young person here about their marital status the conversation invariably ends in talk of money. Countless men have told me that they remain unmarried whilst they save money to be able to ‘afford’ a wife. And countless more times I’ve seen delicate Asian girls hanging on the arm of some nasty, aging, balding Caucasian man…


There seems to be a clear conflict between the notion of romance and the everyday practicality of coupling. My friend Nam tells me 'Westerners are more cynical; they forget love quickly.

..' but I’m not so sure. Sometimes I think it's the westerners who are really the soft ones, but then maybe it's just because we can afford to be?


Anyhow, the Romance Hall contains all things sweet & lovely including carefully scribed notes between lovers exchanging dreams of a future that will never happen. Many of the amorous metaphors do not survive translation but much about these letters is universal;  Belief in 'doing the right thing'; Longing to be reunited; Hope for better times. In this context everybody wants the same thing.


A glaring omission from the Romance Hall was any recognition of relationships between Asians & Americans: A difficult fact to deny, especially considering there are some 30-40’000 ‘Amerasian’ children resulting from such partnerships. At the wars’ end many of these kids were abandoned by both parents. American fathers went home & local mothers were shamed by their obvious compromise.

As I understand it there has been significant charity work to re-home the Americasians, but it remains a tragic situation.


So far I’d held it together, but the third exhibit was too much and big, fat tears broke loose & poured down over my cheeks. I was looking at photographs illustrating the effects of Agent Orange.


Agent Orange is a corrosive chemical compound that the U.S. Army dropped over central Vietnam in order to eradicate dense foliage where the Vietcong hid. If anything can be said to be Pure Evil, this is it. The chemicals contaminated the land to such an extent that even now, when the trees have grown back to mask the scars of destruction, children are born with hideous deformities. Standing in front of this photographic collection was like gazing at the devil’s sketchbook.


One person was little more than a torso with a head; another’s spine curled back on itself; a boy sprawled helplessly on the floor, his withered & twisted limbs splayed at unnatural angles, his face contorted like a rabid dog.

Government Cabinet Reunification Palace i
I couldn’t help but think of the sickest horror films and yet they seemed ineffectual in comparison…. Not only that, but also inappropriately gratuitous alongside this real life perversion.


Next, I moved zombie-like to the Tiger Cages, a collection of brick outhouses demonstrating the conditions in which prisoners were shackled & tortured. I don’t remember them all that clearly, I just remember thinking ‘Enough! I’ve reached max capacity’. I felt so sorry, I couldn’t feel any sorrier.


I sat outside & waited for Hung, my motorbike driver, to come & take me away.  Out here was the final exhibition; a collection of US Military Machines scattered around the courtyard.

Pink phones in the war room.
A tank, a jeep, a helicopter, bombs and so on. They looked like props from Apocalypse Now. Who knows, maybe they were.


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Rooftop @ the Rex
Rooftop @ the Rex
Markus Nyikos & the HoChiMin City …
Markus Nyikos & the HoChiMin City…
Government Cabinet Reunification P…
Government Cabinet Reunification …
Pink phones in the war room.
Pink phones in the war room.
Government Cabinet Reunification P…
Government Cabinet Reunification …