Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wanderlust: The Last Days in Vietnam

December 29-30, 2010-- Ho Chi Minh

The city Ho Chi Minh is named after one of the most iconic figures in Vietnamese history. In fact many Vietnamese people worship Ho Chi Minh, giving him god-like stature.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung on May 19, 1890, but is more well-known as Nguyễn Ái Quốc (In Chinese that translates to "Lover of Country"). During his lifetime, he employed more than 30 aliases while he worked and studied all over the world. After the last president Bao Dai (in my previous post) was ousted, a lot of political chaos ensued before Ho Chi Minh finally became the Chairman of the Communist Party in 1951. At the time, Vietnam was torn into a North side and a South side. In an effort to unite the two sides, Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic Vietnam where he became the Prime Minister in 1946.

One of the things I like most about him was that he liked playing volleyball, which is also the sport I love playing most. He died on September 3, 1969 while assisting his countrymen in the Vietnam War. By this time, he had lost power as Prime Minister but remained a strong figurehead. When Saigon was recaptured after the war on 1975, they renamed it after him. Obviously such an influential figurehead would have a Museum exhibiting his life and his revolutionary work, and it wouldn't be right for a visitor to pass by Vietnam without visiting a Ho Chi Minh Museum. There are museums scattered all over the country, where children can come for educational trips, and visitors may learn more about Ho Chi Minh.

Ho Chi Minh is mostly known for its colonial architecture and pagodas.

One of the most famous landmarks is that of the Reunification Palace (so named after North and South Vietnam reached a truce). Before, it was called the Independence Palace, where the president of South Vietnam worked and lived during the Vietnam War. The whole lot is 12 hectares big, and the palace facade itself is 80 meters wide. There are many spacious sitting rooms, conference and meeting rooms, and even a very retro-looking gambling room. The Palace is said to have more than a hundred rooms. The main stairs itself is sealed off from the use of visitors, as it was restored after it was bombed in warfare. The Palace also has an underground war room and bomb shelter, where the family of the President would run to hide in in case of an attack. On the ground floor, in the hallway across the kitchen and past one of the courtyard doors, a father-daughter team set up shop selling locally made traditional musical instruments. The instruments themselves are interesting to play, and with proper practice, the music produced is rather pleasing to the ears.

Vietnam also has its own version of the Notre Dame Cathedral. It was established by the French colonists around the 1860s. It has two bell towers reaching a height of 190 feet. All the materials used to build the Cathedral was imported from France.  The reddish bricks are from Marseille. The Cathedral was built to showcase the magnificence of Catholicism and French civilization among the people of Vietnam. Vietnam currently has the fifth largest Catholic population in Asia.

Interestingly, in 2005, the statue of the Virgin Mary was reported to have shed tears, running down the right cheek of the statue's face. Thousands of people flocked to the area to see the phenomenon. However, the top clergy of the Catholic Church in Vietnam dismissed the matter and stated that the Virgin Mary in fact did not really shed tears. For several days after that announcement, many people still went to the area to see the statue, often causing heavy traffic around the Cathedra, as the people were too many for traffic enforcers to handle.

The Cathedral is located downtown, right across the Saigon Central Post Office.

Aside from being a place to mail letters, the post office is also home to a souvenir shop which sells stamps and fridge magnets of Vietnamese landmarks and traditional outfits. There are two sets of stamps being sold inside, one older (I forget the range of the years), and one with stamps that have been more recently produced. The stamps sold are interesting and colorful in that they have drawings of the many different ethnic groups and minorities that live in Vietnam. They come in a book with plastic panels where the stamp is kept covered and flat, for the benefit of stamp-collectors and fans.

Here are some of the other places we visited in Ho Chi Minh:
When we visited the War Remnants Museum, I caught a glimpse of the ugliest effects of war that fell upon a generation of Vietnamese people that had nothing to do with it. The special photography exhibit in the museum at the time of our visit was about the effects of the US Army's Agent Orange dioxin to the descendants, not only of the Vietnamese soldiers, but for the American soldiers in the Vietnam War as well. There were so many haunting and horrible photos of disfigured children that make you stop and wonder why there needs to be war and cruelty! The things people come up with to harm others can only end in tragedy for all parties. But I'll save my thoughts on that for another post before this one gets too long.

To end this post are some interesting food finds in Ho Chi Minh:

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