Saturday, July 9, 2011

Bullets, Bread, and Biases

Our weekend in Vietnam was incredible. I've learned that no matter where you travel, it helps to have a local friend who can host you, help you get around, and take you to all the worthwhile places. There is so much less hassle and anxiety.

Ho Chi Minh City moves at a frenetic pace. Many people still use motorbikes, which makes driving on the roads at bit unruly and chaotic. Additionally there are barely any streetlights or crosswalks, and pedestrians do not appear to have the right of way.

We tried to cram as much as possible into our two days, but I feel as if we barely scratched the surface of the culture and history of the city.

One of the destinations we visited was the Reunification Palace. The Vietnam war ended when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through these gates. Apparently, everything inside was left exactly as it was that day a few decades ago. All the technology and telephones were so old fashioned, and there was no air conditioning.

I've had the traditional Vietnamese pho in the U.S., but I knew I had to try the real deal here. We went to a popular pho joint that was three stories tall. The server used a dumbwaiter to lift the steaming bowls of noodles from the kitchen on the ground floor to our table on the second floor. It was quite an efficient process. I ordered the pho with rare beef, and the thin slices of meat were cooked by the hot, savory broth. The broth is the most important component of pho - in order to have the rich, meaty flavor, it has to be slowly simmered for at least a day.

Another traditional food that we tried was banh mi, a type of sandwich. Here you can really see the French influence, as the sandwiches are made on freshly baked baguettes. The roadside stands that sell banh mi are incredible. A person delivers huge baskets of hot, freshly baked baguettes. Then the vendor slices open the bread and prepares it with the topping of your choice. We all ordered the omelette banh mi, so she slathered the bread in some sort of pate, put on spicy cucumber relish, jalapenos, and freshly fried eggs. It was definitely one of the more delicious things I have tried in my life, and we had it both mornings. An added bonus - only $0.50 for a large sandwich!

The War Remnants Musuem was one of the more serious and somber parts of our travels. To give you an idea of the theme of the museum, it used to be called the "American War Crimes Museum" before relations between the U.S. and Vietnam warmed up. The museum has several exhibits which details the horrific effects of the Vietnam War on the civilian population. Though it was one-sided, not showing any of the offenses of the Viet Cong, it still was truthful in documenting the human suffering.

It was definitely not a child-friendly attraction. There were graphic photos of American soldiers mercilessly killing and torturing enemy soldiers as well as innocent people. The most disturbing exhibit was the room detailing the effects of Agent Orange, the chemical warfare component of the Vietnam War. Many people who encountered this toxin later had children who were deformed and handicapped in unimaginable ways. Some were missing limbs, some had no eyeballs - the photos were extremely hard to look at, and yet it was difficult not to look. The U.S. manufacturers of these chemicals were later sued, but I'm not sure what happened in the case.

After this museum, I could completely understand the perspective of pacifists. The impact of wartime experiences on civilians is so cruel and can last for generations. We are lucky to be so removed from actual war, even though our country is currently in one, that we can be blind to its effects. Military activity has become so mechanized and high-tech that it's become easier to justify and to ignore. Even though chemical and biological warfare is technically banned, war will never be fought completely cleanly, and without unnecessary victims.

Now I know I just finished talking about the consequences of war, but there's no harm in shooting guns at metal plates! We went to a shooting range, and there we had the opportunity to try out M16s and AK47s. The sound is deafening! It was really scary when we first heard shots go off.

It was quite a memorable weekend. This weekend I am staying in Singapore and trying to do some of the fun activities in the city. Today I got a haircut, then visited Little India, went to the Singapore Art Museum, and then at night, the night safari at the Zoo. Though we didn't do any traveling, I am pretty tired now!

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