The Meanderthals

Ho Chi Minh City today

In the morning we visited the rural enclave of Cu Chi, which during the Vietnam War villagers turned into a subterranean nightmare for American troops after US warplanes levelled their village. Their homes destroyed, they simply moved into more than 250 kilometers of  tunnels – some of them 30 or 40 feet beneath the ground –  giving the Viet Cong  the means to attack and retreat, dodge and assault, hide then swarm.

In the afternoon I shook the hand of a man with no arms, a victim  of a landmine accident which took both of his arms above the elbows, his right eye, and his right leg. He was selling books at the War Remnants Museum (formerly, and appropriately, called the American War Crimes Museum). I spoke to him for awhile, bought some postcards for 100,000 Dong ($5), and got to hear his story.

And I looked him in the eye and shook the stump of his arm when he extended it in greeting.

In the evening we sat in the Sax n’ Art Jazz Cafe, listening to a  Berklee School of Music-trained saxophonist/guitarist/singer take a small audience through an impressive playlist of American jazz and blues favorites.

Such is the incredible contrast of  Ho Chi Minh City. It’s roughly nine million inhabitants and four million motorbikes all scrambling simultaneously about in the sprawling urban center that boasts an impressive financial center alongside miserable hovels, a ragtag backpackers’ enclave of bars, hookers and dazed expats stumbling about that cozies up next to cosmopolitan shopping areas and French bakeries.

It’s a city about to explode, it would seem, both from the humanity that continues to pour into the city (one guidebook estimated that the city will pass Hong Kong in population in the next decade, with an estimated twenty million people) and the construction and development rising from the soil everywhere you look. think of a very walkable New York combined with a bit of San Francisco, and toss in a heavy dose of Taipei or Hong Kong for commercial purposes’ sake, and you’ll be able to envision Saigon.

And it’s a place where you don’t have to look hard to get a sense of what makes it tick.

It’s the sort of place one can seek refuge from the sun in the shade of one of HCMC’s countless parks and find yourself, as we did, next to an 87-year-old philosopher and author who for the next 45 minutes shared his insights on love, life and the future of mankind. He is an ex Esso accountant who, as he told us several times during our conversation in perfect English, worked for 28 years with Americans. He quizzed us about the three essential ingredients to a contented life (love, spiritual health and family), and commented on the state of the world (“I am afraid the world is not wise..too much interest in money….”)

He invited us to his home to continue our discussion and to meet his wife of 60 years, and accepted our explanation when we told him the visit would have to wait until the next time, as we had only one more day to experience the city.

He left us with his prescription for a long, loving and happy marriage: respect, devotion, love and fidelity, gave us his card and earnestly asked us to call when we visit.

It’s the sort of place where, walking out of an electronics store, you’ll bump into a fellow ex-pat named Lee who explained in a bit of a manic rave about his life as an ex-Marine who survived the front lines of the Vietnam War and has since returned several times. This time, he told us, it might be for good.

“I stepped off the plane and thought to myself, ‘I’m home.'” he said.

The Party is very present, from the banners, slogans and the helmets on the head of nearly every single motorbike rider, each of whom donned the protective devices after the government issued warnings of severe punishment for anyone who dared to defy the new helmet law a couple of years ago. The Party, it would appear, doesn’t mess around.

There’s the ever-present reminder of the Vietnam War (or, as they appropriately refer to it here, the American War), both in the tours to Cu Chi (where, distastefully and inappropriately, you can take your pick of an M-16 or AK 47 to fire live rounds into a sand bank after touring the tunnels and death traps locals prepared for American soldiers) and the War Remnants Museum.

There’s the former US Embassy, and we looked up at the spot on the roof where the famous photograph recorded the last embassy personnel being airlifted out of  Saigon before it fell. There’s the street corner outside of the city center where we stood, reading the memorial of the monk who self-immolated in protest of the  persecution of Buddhists in the country and at once became a global icon for opposition to the war.

War tourism doesn’t particularly interest me, but when we came to Vietnam I felt it important to try to understand and see the effects of US foreign policy firsthand. The irony will forever chill me that I now live in a part of the world that as a young man I would have done anything to avoid.

Reminders of the war move about the streets in wheelchairs and on crutches, as there was with the man at the War Remnants Museum with whom we spoke. Men with no legs pumping arm-propelled wheelchairs about. Lots of prostheses.

There’s often a glint in their eyes when you tell a local you’re from the US, a not unfriendly look of familiarity. I saw it just this morning in the eyes of a miniscule street vendor named Wat with whom I struck up a conversation with while I was waiting for coffee. He’s 52, just about my age, and had the look and feel about him of a veteran.

We’d come to HCMC with no understanding of the language or culture but a little bit of historical perspective, but left it for Dalat with a great deal of respect for a vibrant culture that is very much on course to bring its 88 million people to the forefront of the world’s developed countries.

I have little doubt we’ll be back to experience more of the city’s complex weave of sights and sounds – after all, it’s only a six-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh.

Besides, we have a date for a conversation with an 87-year-old philosopher who would like for us to meet his wife.

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