Friday, November 25, 2016

Gooooood morning, Vietnam to goodnight Saigon

After a week in Hanoi and a weekend excursion to Halong Bay, I headed south to Ho Chi Minh City for three days of presentations and writing workshops at Saigon South International School.

After the Vietnam War, in 1976, the city was renamed from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City, though the changeover has exceptions (for example, Saigon is still the name of the city center).

It struck me that I have quite a few songs about Vietnam in my music library:

  • "Goodnight Saigon" by Billy Joel
  • "19" by Paul Hardcastle
  • "Walking on a Thin Line" by Huey Lewis and the News
  • "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield
  • "I Have Seen the Rain" by Pink and James T. Moore (her dad, who wrote it)
  • "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night" by Simon & Garfunkel
  • "Last Train to Clarksville" by the Monkees (who knew?)
  • "Blowin' in the Wind" by Peter, Paul, and Mary (Bob Dylan cover)

My hotel, Hotel Opera, run by an Australian, is named for the Sydney Opera House. It was conveniently located right across the street from the school.

I arrived on the Sunday night still in some form of shock following the U.S. presidential election the Tuesday before. Signs that America can unify are everywhere, even in a small hotel in Ho Chi Minh, if you choose to see them. These bottles were already in that order; no rigging here:

Ironing was not permitted in the rooms. I asked how I could get something ironed and was told I'd have to wait till 8 a.m. the next morning. But that was later than I needed to be at the school. So the employee at reception said I could go up to the fifth floor and iron it myself.

The fifth floor was not only the laundry area but also what looked to be someone's private but doorless apartment. In fact, she was sleeping on the tile floor of the laundry room while I quietly availed myself of the nearby ironing board.

The only pocket of daytime I had to explore the city was Tuesday afternoon. I had only three destinations, all sites of (in)famous photos taken during the Vietnam War: the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk (1963), the point-blank summary execution of a Vietcong war criminal (1968), and the helicopter evacuation of the Embassy of the United States (1975).

 Malcolm Browne

 Eddie Adams

 Hugh Van Es/UPI/Newscom

Given how far apart these sites were from each other and from my hotel, and factoring in HCM traffic, I made it to only the first two (which were the two I most wanted to see anyway).

The immolation:

It took me a few minutes, but I eventually oriented myself by finding one remnant of the 1963 landscape still present today. It is a building made from large white blocks visible in a 1963 photo taken from another angle:

The execution:

As with the surroundings in the monk photo, the skyline here is totally different than it was when the photo was taken. I am trusting this site for providing this address (which I found nowhere else).

By the way, the backstory of the police chief who shot the Vietcong is fascinating and heartbreaking.

Also fascinating: I needed help plotting out the best way to get around to these sites in part because they are not marked with a sign or statue and in part because taxi drivers generally don't speak English. I consulted a knowledgeable Vietnamese library assistant at the school, who kindly wrote instructions for my taxi driver:

I showed her the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the execution—and was surprised she'd never seen it before. But I shouldn't have been because that disturbing incident—along with much of the rest of that devastating war—is not commemorated there.

One of my proudest moments in Vietnam—and one of the biggest adventures in Asia—is crossing the street on foot. This is the rotary I had to navigate to get to the site of the execution photo (my taxi driver would not drive into it):

To end on a light note, I was happy to discover these cute, crunchy, snappily packaged little apples from New Zealand.

Goodnight Saigon.

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