Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ho Chi Minh City: An Unavoidably Semi-Serious Glimpse Into the War in Vietnam

Deciding to forego yet another 18+ hour train ride along the rickety, 1,726KM Reunification Express line, we opted for a quick 1-hour, $45 flight from Danang to our final Vietnamese destination: Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly known as Saigon, and still referred to as such by those of the "get off my lawn" generation, the majority of our time in this expansive city of over 8 million residents was an eye-opening experience into that of a war through which we never lived.

Encompassing hundreds of museums, artifacts and other historical accounts of the Vietnam War, our time in HCMC was the perfect opportunity to do a bit of research into what was only previously known to our generation as "the scene where Bubba dies." After weeding through the endless array of biased/controversial articles that is only expected when reviewing such an unpopular time in world history, it took a bit of digging until we were finally able to come up with a fairly, unbiased summarization (in blatant, please take no offense if you believe differently, fashion):
  1. France controls Vietnam for a long time. While baguettes & croissants are enjoyed by all, the French become pains in the arse.
  2. Ho Chi Minh (the guy, not the city) hangs out with Stalin in Russia for a few years, gets his learn on about Communism, decides it's pretty cool.
  3. Uncle Ho (as his friend's call him) leads Vietnam to independence. Some dudes in Geneva say "ok, that's cool and all, but we are making you two countries now - North and South." Ho takes the North as it is much prettier.
  4. The US, in our "ahhhh, Communism!" phase, offers assistance (aka $$$) in building a new democracy-based government. The South of Vietnam says "sure, why not?"
  5. Russia, in their "Communism, hurray!" phase, offers their own assistance (aka $$$) in building quite the opposite form of government. The North says "hecks yeah!"
  6. The two sides obviously do not like one another, war ensues.
  7. The world isn't the biggest fan of the war. Seen most evidently through Jenny's hippie phase when she dates that douchey activist
  8. Nixon starts doing lots of sketchy things. These activities moreorless put an end to his already-unpopular cause in the far east.
  9. With no more support from the US (aka $$$), the South concedes to The North (aka Communism aka Ho Chi Minh The Guy Not The City).
  10. Vietnam becomes one country, tourism on hold for a while.
On a more serious note, it is quite surprising that any mention of Russia's involvement in the war is rarely, if ever, discussed. From an "outsiders" perspective, it seems brutally obvious why this war ensued (rightfully or not), as the US and Russia were quite at odds at the time in regard to the whole "spread of Communism" dispute. Yet, for those old enough to debate the war's purpose at the time, it is completely understandable why this viewpoint may not be shared so openly. It was only until recently that Russia's involvement was fully understood, as for years they remained "hidden" behind the scenes, providing money & supplies to the Vietcong, in comparison to the more-visible/more-controversial presence of troops sent over from the States. Nonetheless, a chin-scratcher indeed.

With our cliffnotes-esque knowledge in hand, we set off to the first of many war-based sites in Ho Chi Minh City - The War Museum (a fairly appropriate name based on the topics covered inside). Surrounded by US tanks, planes and other "repossessed" weapons left behind after the war, it only takes a few minutes within the museums confines to fully realize how one-sided the viewpoint truly is. With thousands of photos, 99% of them portraying the US in a fairly "unflattering" light, it becomes rather obvious why the war was so unpopular across the world. From images of American soldiers standing smiling over decapitated women, to deformed Vietnamese children suffering from the lifelong effects of Agent Orange, this is probably one museum where you should leave your American-flag-themed tanktop back at home.

It was only until our next visited site, to the Cu Chi Tunnels a few hours outside of HCMC, did we truly comprehend the entire story at hand. Led by one of the more surprising tour guides in this Communist-controlled nation - A Vietnamese-born gentleman by the name of Mr Binh/Bean, who not only fought FOR the US in the war, but also is entirely unafraid to share his potentially-treasonous viewpoints on various anti-Vietnamese topics (e.g. referring to the War Museum as "bullshit place, but go if you like being lied to"), his eye-opening stories into the war were quite incredible. With an understandable hatred for a war that not only took his life, but also his family and everything that he once knew, Mr Binh was able to provide a very interesting mix of insight in regard to the war:

Serious Insight:
While by no means a way of excusing the atrocities that occurred during this time, as many inexcusable actions did occur on part of the US, there is a rational behind the atrociousness. With the world being fed images of murdered women, children and others deemed "off limits" in any worldly conflict, what was not seen were those same "off limit" individuals, having actively volunteered to involve themselves in such a brutal campaign, firing rifles in the direction of those sent overseas to protect them. Add to that relentless heat and humidity, disease-spreading mosquitoes, and almost a complete lack of water due to the poisoning of any available source, and it is hard not to imagine how the majority of troops not only lost their minds, but eventually dehumanized the enemy against which they were never properly trained.

Not As Serious Insight:
  • The ever-popular image of GI's walking through the jungle with permanently-lit cigarettes hanging from their mouths did occur, but not for the popularly-believed notion of "promoting oneself as a badass." Instead, the smoke left a trail behind their heads as they walked, helping to keep mosquitoes at bay
  • The Vietnamese guerillas ability to shoot at soldiers without being seen came from their natural ability to sit in a squatted position for hours on end, balancing their weight perfectly as to avoid the powerful kickback of their rifles. The reason why, squat toilets. "Western toilets don't help balance"
  • As to create untraceable hints of their paths, the Vietcong would wear their shoes backwards as to confuse their enemies of their whereabouts

Overall, as the debate over the merits of the Vietnam War will last forever, as Mr Binh's and non-Mr-Binh's provide one-sided opinions for years to come, it does not seem fair that someone such as myself, completely uninvolved at the time, could provide a respectable point of view. However, after being surrounded by both good, and bad, of what Vietnam has to offer, it is difficult to avoid sharing a few thoughts on a subject that most prefer to generally avoid, informed or not. No matter who you ask, there is little doubt that the war was a blatant attempt to stop the spread of a government system which we believed to threaten humanities way of life at the time. Whether valid or not, what we instead encountered during this questionably-purposed campaign was an enemy for which we were entirely unprepared, both tactically and more importantly, mentally.

With no prior precedent, especially in regard to the handling of "anyone that can hold a gun will probably fire a gun," improvisation and catastrophe occurred hand in hand. And while one would think a lesson should have been learned by fighting an "unwinnable war against an unpredictable enemy," the story itself seems to consistently repeat itself again and again. And unfortunately, there only seems to be one way to avoid such disastrous conflicts from occurring in the near future: Don't vote for Trump. I mean, seriously? WTF happened while we were away?

Onto the more light-hearted pics:
Venturing into the "America is the Devil" aka "War Museum"
One of hundreds of anti-US propaganda photos displayed throughout the museum
Ho Chi Minh (the guy, not the city) - It may just be me, as I tend to have an eye for these things, but does he not remind you of a potential cross between Mr Myagi and Colonel Sanders?
Mr Binh/Bean providing us a nice taste of his anti-Vietnamese sentiment at the Cu Chi Tunnels
"Too small for fat Americans, just right for small Vietnamese" - Apparently I was raised in the wrong country
5 minutes within these tiny cramped tunnels, 3 stories beneath the surface, is insane enough. I could not imagine 5 years...
One of many US "artifacts" throughout the Ho Chi Minh region. And all we had to do was wait 15 minutes for the "selfie stick" crowd to climb off it as to capture the image
The Texan in me could not pass up the chance to fire an M60 machine gun. Rick Perry would be so proud
10 bullets at $2/bullet fired over the period of 3 seconds = $24,000 per hour rate. Well worth it in my opinion
The motobike-filled journey back from the tunnels
Propaganda Restaurant - Delicious food and a slight artsy taste of the Communist way of life
Washing down the depression of two days surrounded by anti-US sentiment with some chilled beers, 40 stories above the city
Literal monsoon making its way in over the city
Within 30 minutes our guesthouse road went from dry to completely flooded. Quite entertaining to say the least
Day tour to the Mekong Delta - As authentic of an Asian culture trip as visiting a Benihana in the middle of Arkansas
The advertised highlight of our day -- "Cruising along beautiful palm trees within narrow river" -- lasted all of 5 minutes
But hey, at least we looked the part
What's a trip to the Mekong without having a snake wrapped around your neck?
To say our tour guide Mister Hi (aka Mister Hello) was intense would be a slight understatement
One of the "local musicians" seemingly overjoyed with his choice of retirement activites
Fat Buddha = Favorite Buddha
Not sure how to describe this one, aside from the fact that it seemed like a cool photo at the time
After 5PM everyday, the central square would come alive. This section involved hundreds of locals playing hacky-sack with a badminton shuttlecock. Not sure we saw it fall to the ground once.
"Exercise Alley"
Not entirely sure which part of my body this worked out, yet it was quite entertaining

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