Vietnam (Part 3): Challenging Stereotypes in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta

It’s the summer holidays and I’ve returned to South East Asia to continue my explorations. I’m in Vietnam, a country whose shift from one of the poorest in the world to a lower middle-income country has been remarkable over the last thirty years. I teach about Vietnam as part of the Global Migration topic for A level but I admit that my knowledge of the country is limited and, for me, this trip is about equipping myself with a better understanding of this region so I can challenge the stereotypes we come across in the classroom when teaching about it. This is the third of a series of blogs about my travels through Vietnam (written and posted as I’m exploring the country).

After breakfast we set out on a walking tour of Ho Chi Minh City. There is no doubting this country is making its way firmly into the middle income bracket with its glass fronted shopping mall, large hotels, chain stores and restaurants (including McDonalds and 7-Eleven convenience stores) and blue hoardings round the construction sites of Vietnam’s first subway. We walked past the Opera House with a student marching band playing on its steps, through the square with its statue of Ho Chi Minh in front of the People’s Committee Building, past the currently being restored cathedral of Norte Dame, into the Central Post Office with its French architecture and vaulted roof and to the front of the Reunification Palace made famous as the last place Americans were airlifted from at the end of the Vietnam War (and in Miss Saigon, the musical). Our last stop was the War Remnants museum which has hundreds of photography documenting the war inside and US tanks and aircraft used in the conflict outside together with a replica of parts of the prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son islands where they held political prisoners. As the first major conflict played out in front of the media, the photographs do not hide from the truth and the exhibitions on the use of Agent Orange are particularly harrowing. With 2000 people already known to have been born with genetic conditions as the 4th generation to be impacted by its use, it is clear the country will have to continue to deal with this aspect of the legacy of the war for many years to come. An art exhibition of children’s drawings by those affected by the legacy of Agent Orange really brings this home.

Now this is where I have to admit that my knowledge of the Vietnam War up until arriving in the country was entirely based on two things. Forrest Gump and Miss Saigon. Neither of which will be particularly reliable! I know it became, essentially, a proxy war within the Cold War era with the US seeking to stop the spread of communism but I have to say I’m still quite confused and need to go away and do some more research. However, this is what I’ve gathered so far (which is clearly far too simplistic). In 1954 the French who had occupied Vietnam as the colonial power were defeated but there was a fear that if the French left completely then Vietnam would become communist under Ho Chi Minh if an election were to take place. UN gave the French 100 days to leave but they didn’t leave completely and instead, together with the US, supported a new government based in the South of Vietnam while the North of Vietnam set up their communist government under Ho Chi Minh. The DMZ was established north of Danang and a north versus south conflict began in Vietnam. However, it’s wasn’t until later that the US became fully involved with American GIs sent over in 1965 to China beach in Danang (at the height of the conflict there were 500,000 American GIs in Vietnam) to support the South while the north were supported in terms of weapons by China and the Soviet Union. The US later brought over B52 bombers to bomb to north but in 2 weeks they lost over 30, shot down by Russian supplied surface to air missiles. Eventually the US, under pressure from American citizens and following an agreement made in Paris, pulled out of Vietnam in 1973 and two years late the north of Vietnam ‘liberated the South’ and the country reunified. In an attempt to move forward Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 but locals seem to still call it Saigon.

In the evening we headed out for street food where snails, frogs and pigs’ feet were in the menu. While some of the group braved the snails, I stuck to shrimp, beef and octopus!

On Monday we headed out of the city to the Mekong Delta in search of floating markets. In my mind I had visions of the Mekong Delta being just fields and fields of agriculture, mostly rice paddies, which on the one hand it is but in the other it’s incredibly built up. The banks of the river and its distributaries and canals are rammed with buildings built on stilts out onto the water or, in the case of the canals, built behind retaining walls. Every inch you can see is either built in or being cultivated and the evidence of the need to continually prevent erosion of the banks is everywhere. Floating hyacinth are fenced in along the banks to act as a natural barrier while mud banks have been constructed to protect coconut trees behind them; in the area we visited there us some mangrove present but most had been destroyed during the war and the area has been cultivated since. However, we had first hand evidence that the fencing of the hyacinth is not entirely effective as one of the large clumps that had broken free and travelled down the river got stuck round the propellor so we crashed into one of the buildings overhanging the river. The Delta wasn’t too long as the boat’s driver jumped in and untangled the plant roots and a bit of brute force dislodged us from under the building – the broken bits of wood on the boat were swiftly fixed while we ate lunch later.

While travelling round the Delta on the diesel boat we stopped to see some of the floating market boats. Each one has a bamboo stick with its produce tied on to show what it is selling and it’s open for business. At first glance most of the boats look quite dilapidated, with sacks and tarpaulins tied on to them providing shelter but in closer look these boats often have tv masts and batteries for electricity so they are not quite how they look! Once they’ve swapped their goods for others (the market works by exchange of goods not money) they return home until next time. We also had the opportunity to stop at a family workshop to see how they made popped rice, rice cakes, coconut caramel and rice paper and for a little souvenir buying. Our last stop was for a traditional welcome to the Delta meal with elephant ear fish served whole on the table and eaten in rice paper rolls with vegetables.

Returning to Ho Chi Minh City we stopped off at a ‘rest stop’ which illustrates just how mainstream tourism is becoming in Vietnam with its high priced gift shop, cafes and well kept toilets. This isn’t the Vietnam of gal year backpackers! In the evening we headed to the night market for a last taste of the stereotypical view of Vietnam – stalls and stalls of ‘Nike’, ‘The North Face’ and ‘designer’ handbags! For dinner we sampled the local street food but steered clear if the dishes with turtles in! The final visit of the night was to happy hour at the Apocalyse Now bar for cocktails. With its iconic GI helmet light fittings, surfboard wall decorations and techno music, this bar gives a little insight into the ‘happy’ side to Saigon!

Tuesday was to be our last day in Vietnam and we headed towards the border with Cambodia via the Cu Chi tunnels. Most of these tunnels were originally built as storage for fighting the French for independence but were then used by the Viet Cong, those in the south who supported the northern communist government. This was early gorilla warfare from within the ‘occupied area’ and is the reason Vietnam is now the training ground for UN peacekeepers as such tactics have been adopted more recently by the likes of the Taliban and IS. Aspects of the tunnels have been preserved and/or recreated so you can see the array of booby traps they set for the GIs and walk along a slightly widened (those still narrow and low) section of the tunnels. I wasn’t expecting this visit to throw up or smash any stereotypes but it did! In the recreated sections there are models of Viet Cong dressed in their combat gear. They look like soldiers in solders’ uniforms but in reality they would have been farmers, dressed as farmers and and camouflage workday like to have been from the parachutes of the dropped bombs. Tibet did, however, have plenty of examples of the flip flop like shies they wore that leave a backwards imprint on the ground so the Americans would follow them in the wrong direction.

And so in leaving the tunnels we headed to the border and my travels round Vietnam this year come to an end. But, I’ve still another 5 nights of my trip to explore some of Cambodia so this Geographer still has a bit more exploring and question asking to go. The adventure continues…

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