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Physical and Mental Exercises in Saigon

An Early Morning in Ho Chi Minh City

sunny 26 °C

We've enjoyed and endured a few of the world's greatest train journeys over the last few months, so when we boarded our final overnight train of the trip on Sunday night, I couldn't help feeling a little sad. I guess I have a romantic notion of allowing myself to be lulled asleep by the quiet, rythmic rumble of the train knowing that I'll wake up somewhere brand new in the morning.

Of course, the reality is a little different: sleep can be fitful, interrupted by carriage attendants, over-zealous air conditioning, noisy cabin-mates or the train horn sounding at all hours of the day or night. But I will miss these trains because of the adventure they symbolize, at least in my mind. But all good things must come to an end, and - still half asleep - we pulled into Ho Chi Minh City just after 5am on Monday morning.

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We wouldn't have a hotel room until after noon, so we headed straight out to explore the town. Wandering through a park in search of breakfast, we witnessed hundreds of Vietnamese executing their morning ritual of exercise. For some, this was Tai Chi. Others joined organized aerobics-type classes to pop music that filled the air. I know we shouldn't laugh, but it was hard to keep a straight face at many individuals who had picked one, simple movement to repeat over and over and over again. One young man stood thrusting his pelvis forward at great speed for several minutes. Some ladies did the same with their chests with such vigour that we feared they'd put their backs out.

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Is this exercise? We couldn't possibly comment, but would highly recommend an early morning excursion to any one of the local parks to figure it out yourself. If our parks back home were this entertaining in the wee hours, I could probably be persuaded to go out running more often myself!

After breakfast, we grabbed a cyclo to the War Remnants Museum, which used to be called the War Crimes Museum which might give you a hint as to the content. We expected a one-sided view of the so-called American War, laced with heavy propaganda. One-sided it was - to be sure - but the propaganda wasn't laid on as thick as we expected. The exhibition of the war through the eyes of the photo-journalists (and therefore through the eyes of the world) was particularly well done, although it was quite harrowing to see some pictures that long since gathered dust in my mind, and perhaps in the eyes of the world too.

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From our perspective, the Museum fell short by not explaining the rationale - as weak as it seems in retrospect - for US involvement in the War. In the midst of the Cold War, the US felt action against the Communist North was critical in order to prevent the spread of Communism throughout Indo-China. The museum does present the war very much as the American War: the exhibits talk much about hostilities between the North Vietnamese / Viet Cong and the Americans and practically ignores conflict between Vietnamese (i.e. North Vietnamese / Viet Cong versus South Vietnamese). While I'm trying to read up on this to learn more (currently 'The Girl in the Picture' which offers a very frank and less-than-positive view of life in the South after reunification), I confess that, for once, the more I read, the less I understand. We'll be leaving Vietnam in the next week, but I suspect the Vietnam War will be on my mind for months to come.

Anyway, we choose not to share with you the truly harrowing pictures on display at the museum: pictures of the massacre at My Lai, for example, or pictures of thousands of deformed children born to fathers exposed to defoliants used by the US. Instead, a picture of one exhibit that I personally found extremely poignant: the donation of one American Sergeant's medals to the Vietnamese people, with the simple message: "I was wrong. I am sorry." Regardless of your view on the Vietnam War, that any serviceman or woman should be so ashamed of service imposed on him or her in the name of 'duty' is the true tragedy for me.

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The War Remnants Museum still firmly in our minds, and with a better awareness of the internal propaganda 'pitch' since the American withdrawal, we are - once again - extraordinarily impressed with how genuinely foreign tourists are welcomed by the Vietnamese. Of course, many in the south are old enough to remember the economic boom funded by US Government spending that accompanied the US presence here, and this might be one of the reasons that tourism has been embraced so readily.

Later on Monday, we checked out a noodle shop known as 'Peace Noodles' which - while continuing regular service to customers - allegedly hosted the Viet Cong in its upstairs rooms as they staged the infamous 1968 Tet Offensive. The beef pho (noodles) weren't as good as we'd been led to believe (perhaps because the original shop owner Mr Toai died eight months ago), but we enjoyed reading the guest book signed (we assume!) by young communists urging other nations to follow Vietnam's example. Many others simply stated apologies, or took the opportunity to comment on perceived parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

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We'll spend a little more time in Saigon later in the week with Lloyd's parents who arrive late on Tuesday night. In the meantime, we will tomorrow be heading out to the Mekong Delta to spend some time on the water and for a homestay.

Posted by jacquiedro 17:38 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world

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