Thursday, February 23, 2006

Being in an unfamiliar position....

Saigon ended up being a very pleasant surprise for us. After hearing countless horror stories of the endless touting (i.e., moto drivers, book sellers, other hucksters) we were prepared for the worst. Instead we found ourselves pleasantly surprised. It's a busy place. But as far as craziness and volume of sketchy people goes, Phnom Penh is light years ahead. Throw in the fact that they have some nice green spaces (similar to the Park Blocks in Portland) where you can watch young lovers lounge on their motos, it ended up being a city that very much exceeded expectations.

The most memorable part of our time there though had to be the dynamic we experienced visiting the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi tunnels. In both of these places we had the unique dynamic of visiting a war location where our country was without doubt the loser. It's a interesting perspective; having to listen to an alternative version of the facts and know (Communist Propaganda aside) that it's the truth. As the quote goes; history is written by the victors. Just uncomfortable being on the other side. (And strange as well to be welcomed with smiling faces to exhibits and films talking about the evil American aggressors, etc. I suppose the tourist dollars in our pockets help...)

The War Remants Museum was our first stop. It was an educational visit; the exhibits showed the history behind the conflict, the jails and various torture methods by the US, photos of My Lai and some of the other low points of American involvement, and a striking collection of photos from the various war correspondents who died during the war. The tour also made me realize how limited my knowledge of the Vietnam war was. From the history behind the uprising, the US's involvement and the gruesome nature of the combat; all gave me a fuller perspective and a sense of foreboding that left me to wonder whether we'll be walking through a very like-minded exhibit in Iraq in 30 years time.

The visit to the Cu Chi tunnels took a little more effort to absorb with a even keel. A number of factors led to us shaking our head at the end of the day. The first was this was our first "tour" in a long time; complete with 30+ people piling on and off the bus and traveling like a giant pack of lemmings from location to location. (The most humorous part though was watching everyone struggle at the end of the day to find their respective buses from the identical pack waiting to take us back to town.) Add in the fact that there were about 15 other like minded groups doing this and you had this bizarre scene of group jostling for position to get the best view of a particularly gruesome booby trap or be in line first for the firing range.

Yes, a firing range. If you were willing to pay at least $10 bucks you could fire away with a AK-47 or any other number of machine guns and handguns. For those of us not interested we had to wait around wincing while the guns blared in the background. Now if they'd had a rocket launcher I might have been interested...

Otherwise, it was amazing to see the tunnels that the VC soldiers made their way through. We stooped/crawled through one that was 2x (both height and width) the size of a regular one and it was more than small enough for us. We almost couldn't believe it when we saw one of the real entryways. (They let a couple of tourists try and squeeze in and I was the only non Asian tourist to successfully fit) Just difficult to imagine people scrambling through them while being bombed and the like. Of course, we got the chance to visualize just that thanks to the best piece of propaganda I've even seen. The film we watched (with the cheeriest, bounciest soundtrack we have ever heard) went on in depth on how the people of Cu Chi defended their land and for their attacks they were labeled an "American Killer Hero". Yes, evidently there was a medal for just that. (Of course, the US didn't help their defense by building camps on top of the tunnel network allowing VC soldiers to appear and disappear as if out of thin air. )

History goes to the victors indeed.


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