Saigon is a surprise and still a sorrow.  38 years after the American war ended it shows barely a sign of being the southern epi-center of hell on earth.

Saigon Traffic

The main downtown area looks like its sister mega-cities around the world — traffic, high-rises, neon, haute-couture, first class hotels, tourists streaming everywhere and a several wonderful, well used, green spaces.  We’ve paid everywhere in US dollars, and had change made to us in the same.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon

Pittman Apts -- final departure point 1975

One odd reminder of the war, two blocks from the Notre Dame Cathedral — still in service for Vietnam’s 8% Roman Catholic population– is the Pittman apartment building, where the CIA was headquartered during the war, and from which desperate Vietnamese clambered up a ladder to board a helicopter readying to take off.  Dutch photographer Hubert van Es captured it for posterity. It’s due to see the wrecker’s ball soon, but still stands.

The greatest part of the traffic are motor-bikes, usually with two, sometimes with three aboard.  It is astounding to see it, much less be part of it, which we were for a 35 minute ride.

The sadness was to visit two memorials of the war.  One, the Cu Chi cave complex, 45 miles north of Saigon, has been set up somewhat like a US Civil War park — with guides to walk us through parts of the largest tunnel complex in Vietnam, where the Viet Cong stubbornly took everything the Big Red One (First Infantry Division, US Army) could hurl at them, along with several million tons of bombs.

US Bombs on Display at Cu Chi Tunnel Complex

We stooped and crawled through a few of the tunnels where men lived by day and appeared to fight by night.

The second stop was at the more museum like building with three floors, mostly of photographs.  Called The War Remnants Museum it displayed to a sober and silent crowd what the war had been for so many.  The core of the exhibit is taken from a collection put together by photojournalists Tim Page and Horst Faas in a book called Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in the Vietnam War.

Some of the indelible photographs of the war are included, by some of the great photojournalists.  Page and Faas collected not only from their deceased friends’ work — Sean Flynn (son of Errol)  and Dana Stone among them– but from North and South Vietnamese photographers as well.

A young Viet Cong suspect cries after hearing a rifle shot. His captors, Chinese Nung tribesmen in the service of the U.S. Special Forces, pretended to shoot his father, a ruse designed to make the boy reveal information about Communist guerrillas.(SEAN FLYNN Duc Phong, Vietnam, 1966 UPI)

I can’t imagine a more even handed set of images, showing the suffering of all who were caught by, or who went, to the war. Images of Agent Orange occupied half a floor.  A large section devoted to war crimes was largely directed at the Americans and terrible stuff it was, even as reminders of events that seem not faded with time.  A telling quote from President Eisenhower was displayed, regarding American dollars sent to the French before their defeat at Dien Bien Phu.;
“Suppose we lost Indochina.  If that happened, tin and tungsten, to which we attach such high price, would cease coming. That is why when the United States decides to give an aid of 400 million dollars to this war it does not make a gratuitous offer.”

War Remnants Museum, Saigon

So, 40 minutes or so was enough.  Deep breathing and staring at the ceiling got me through a few sections. To school kids in the crowd it was ancient history, an opportunity to take a few photos and hang with their friends.  The Vietnamese seem to have moved on — the greater part of the population knowing it, if at all, through stories of their elders.

‘Nuff said. The rest of the day was exhilarating, racing through traffic and eating more fine Vietnamese food.
Tomorrow to the border and Cambodia.
All the best
Will
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