Curbside Capitalists in MC City (aka HCM City)

Trip Start Feb 19, 2010
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Trip End Mar 08, 2010


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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, March 4, 2010

Don't kid yourself- there aren't any communists in Motor Cycle City- ahhh, excuse please- HCM City. Any vacant curbside space is an invitation to open shop- what do you have to sell? No need for CraigsList here. Just sit down on the curb and set up shop on the sidewalk. HCM City is a bit
of an overload- the people, the motor cycles, the neon signs, the heat- after the exquisite peace- and ocean breeze- of Hoi An. Hanoi is the national capital- and has that DC feel to it. Hue is like a smaller, ancient version of Hanoi. HCM City is New York, New York, the business capital of VN.

We start the day with a history lecture from Nguyen Van Anh. He presented to us a very personal narrative that vividly portrayed the recent history of VN- the story of a family divided. He was born in 1951 in a small village near Hue. His father studies for the Mandarin exams- but didn't pass and returned to the village to be a farmer. His older sister was sent away to school and joined the Viet Minh. His Father was killed by a French officer when a neighbor revealed the information. His mother died shortly afterward of grief. His older brother was an officer in the Vietnamese army. Another older brother was killed by a land mine. As a young orphan, he was taken in by a Catholic school and educated. He was a street urchin, selling candy etc in order to earn money. He eventually became a teacher. But lost everything after the unification of VN under the communists. He lost his position and later his freedom when he attempted to escape the country. Eventually, he was reinstated as a teacher when VN implemented free market policy (Doi Moi) in 1986. His children and his sister's children are part of a new generation that lives in a new world- the past isn't really relevant to them- just like children all over the world.

At 9 am we leave for the Jade Emperor Pagoda. It's Taoist and built by the Chinese in 1909. We exit the bus and walk around the corner to enter a shady courtyard with the pagoda in the center and benches along the side walls. People appear to use this area as a peaceful escape from the outside world- much like a library reading room. We see a young woman with a cage filled with small birds. She burns incense and prays at the pagoda- and then opens the cage, shaking it until all of the birds are freed. Her prayers sent to the skies. The hall is crowded with diverse beautiful carved statues and worshipers praying with incense in their clasped hands.

We're then entertained for an hour or so with a drive around the city in the air conditioned bus- possibly the safest way to see the city. The congestion is astounding- but it's nearly all motorcycles. The drivers show their individuality with their decorated helmets- mandatory but personal. And the ubiquitous surgical face masks against the smog that have also become personalized- with diverse colors, patterns and designs.

We finally stop at the Reunification Palace- just a quick photo op through the fence. But then are dropped off near the Opera House for a walk through the streets of District 1- containing art galleries, high end shops, an old Cathedral and Post Office. Lunch is a short drive away at the Nam Phan, a typically Vietnamese narrow high rise painted bright yellow with bamboo garden on the sides- a piece of art itself. But also a bit of an art gallery, displaying some amazing pieces. The food is also a bit of art.

Then a quick stop at the hotel before we head out for the Cu Chi Tunnels. It's a long but nice ride through the countryside- nice to get out of the city proper. We walk through the sadly quiet jungle, where dressed up guides demo the tunnel entrances and a garish collection of iron traps- people traps- we seem to be glossing over the horror of their purpose- and souvenirs from bullet shells.

I can't help but admire the VN for their sacrifice and personal heroics to obtain their freedom over the centuries from the Chinese, the French and then the American's and their puppet government. But still, I'm a little taken aback by the Disneyland approach to the horror of it all. Maybe that's their way to deal with it. There's no way I could ever understand what it means to them. It's difficult, maybe especially as an American of my generation, to deal with. I have to walk away.

The ride back through the early evening is a bright moment- for despite the traumas of the previous generations, the children are true to their own nature. They fly kites in the recently harvested rice field- high high up above their heads- soaring on the evening breeze. Many, many kites, like the birds of the temple- carrying their wishes to the sky.

We become typical tourists that night and head up the street to the new HCM City Hard Rock Cafe. What a hoot! The place is mostly tourists and very wealthy young VN. The wait staff look very hip- spiky hair with gel and loads of rings and necklaces- and excellent English. I have a super delicious pulled pork sandwich with onion rings. Are we really in Vietnam?


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