As we evaluated our filling passports, we began to worry about the lack of blank pages available for the full-page visas required by our upcoming countries. When we began the trip, we calculated out what we would need, but failed to account for the trend of border control agents flipping to an entirely blank page and stamping it, thus precluding its use for visas. In an attempt to preserve pages, we acquired some sticky notes, and placed them on the remaining blank pages with a short note requesting they be preserved for visas. Despite the dire warnings from our Cambodian bus driver about how he did not expect this to work with the allegedly strict and callous Vietnam boarder control agents, we happily received both stamps on already-used pages, preserving our precious visa space.
From the moment we arrived, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly, and still more popularly, Saigon) felt unlike other cities we had seen in Asia. It is far sleeker and more modern, filled with glass and steel skyscrapers, boutique coffee shops and Western restaurant chains. Towering over everything is the 68-story Bitexco Financial Tower, a glass obelisk which is visible from anywhere in the city, providing a convenient navigation point while walking. While the Reunification Palace seems to be an exercise in ugly concrete, we did discover some more attractive buildings in the city, as we walked past the city hall, the Saigon Notre Dame cathedral, and the central post office, whose architecture is reminiscent of an old train station. A number of verdant parks, filled with towering trees and public art, were scattered throughout the city, providing some cool cooler shade – welcome relief from the intense sun beating down in the 105+ degree heat.
A new country also brings new food. Bánh xèo, an extremely thin Vietnamese rice pancake, is typically filled with pork or shrimp, green onions and beansprouts – in the southern regions, they are served with lettuce, mint and basil leaves to create a wrap. Jenn enjoyed a dish of lotus seed rice with fresh vegetables, and we even found a local artisan chocolate shop that provided us with a selection of amazing truffles.
We dedicated half a day to visiting the War Remnants Museum, which was an odd experience. Naturally, they do not refer to it as the Vietnam War – instead calling it the War of American Aggression. While I was prepared to be presented with a singular viewpoint, I’m not sure either of us expected the extreme propaganda, such the “humanitarian” area, an entire wing devoted to displays of how wonderfully the American POWs were treated during the war. This area was replete with photos of American soldiers decorating Christmas trees, receiving dental checkups, playing organized sports, and eating holiday meals “cooked to their tastes.” It made it difficult to separate the fact from fiction when moving through the museum.
Nonetheless, there were some powerful exhibits on display. Americans and Vietnamese alike are still dealing with the effects of Agent Orange, the dioxin-based defoliant used during the war. While the extent of the health problems linked to the compound may never be fully known, it’s certain that many participants in the war on both sides are suffering from increased rates of cancer and birth defects due to Agent Orange handling and spraying. The museum also contained an exhibit called “Requiem,” one of the best displays of wartime journalistic photography that I’ve ever seen. It was a truly amazing, and enormous, display of photographs taken by a number of international journalists at the front lines, and really emphasized what’s possible when dedicated photographers are willing to put themselves in harm’s way alongside our soldiers, to capture and bring back moments that most of the rest of the world would never see.
[Enter Auntie Jenn]…
Just as Stephan requested to hijack my ‘West Coast Drive’ blog to bemoan New Zealand’s (sadly) receding glaciers, I would like to similarly interrupt him to share my favorite Saigon moment. One morning as we walked from the U.S. Consulate (after getting some info about the aforementioned passport anxieties), we passed a quiet gentleman, casually blowing some bubbles in front of the Central Post Office. He stood silently in front of the vivid, yellow building holding a small, pink, dolphin-shaped bubble gun. The toy had a little fan on it, and he was using some type of homemade soap that he carried in a 500-mL Aquafina bottle. I’m guessing he’s some sort of Nobel Laureate of detergent chemistry, because, man, could that little dolphin device churn out some magnificent bubbles! With a single squeeze of the trigger, hundreds of perfect orbs, shimmering with blue, gold, and pink hues danced along the breeze, dazzling against the sundrenched, yellow façade. I stopped and watched with delight, snapping some photos and cheering for the bubbles as they made their way skyward. I soon noticed that other passers-by also paused to smile and look with childlike wonder at the bubble stream, as the unassuming gentleman just kept doing his thing – blowing bubbles that made everyone smile. Obviously, it made me think of Reese, who can spend some serious time blowing bubbles with her snazzy pink and purple wands from Target, as well as further convinced me that we should strive to never lose that fun-loving kid inside of us. No matter how hot, sweaty, and stressed you are about your passport, a few moments of childish fun is sure to cure all of your worries. I mean, really – life is just more stinkin’ fun with bubbles! Let us all learn a thing or two from Reese & Sadie here… never lose your sense of awe over the simple things, girls, and keep those bubbles flying!
P.S. Sorry I didn’t get the soap recipe, Reesie… I haven’t gotten that far in my Vietnamese quite yet.