Left or Right, If You Wing It Vietnam Feels Just Right

My last column talked about how Trump’s win further pushed the world that was already leaning right. Depressing is the word muttered openly among friends, and a pal quietly told me of having returned to anti-depressant in the following days.


I decided to travel with an ex colleague-turned-friend whose career potentials had already been jeopardized by Brexit. We figured we’d see the world before it was going unceremoniously down the drain. My friend had never been to Vietnam and I only had a 4-hour stopover in Saigon from Siem Reap years ago, so we decided to give Vietnam a go. It turned out to be quite a trip.


The mix of Chinese heritage, French colonial history, US-Vietnam War and globalization give into the mélange that present Vietnam is. Their history alone seems filled with endless fighting against occupations—kicking back the Chinese up the Mekong River after a millennium, pushing the French out after a century, and sending the Americans packing after over a decade. Not that the footsteps didn’t linger to this day.


The Chinese left indelible remarks on the cuisine (noodle and pork, check), religion (the mix of Confucian and Tao otherwise known as Konghuchu in Indonesia, check), and even fashion (a cheongsam with higher side slit that makes up áo dài, check).


Although their language is now only spoken among the elderlies, well-heeled youngsters and tour guides, the French left architecture, patisserie and the love for operas—while their latter-day socialist brethren befriended Vietnamese independence patriots.


In fact, “patriot” is pretty much the only word bestowed upon any Vietnamese since in the narratives on museums or official communiques we saw, not that I was suggesting some was unrightfully so.


The Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, named Maison Centrale when French colonialists built it in 1896 as their largest and most secured prison in Indochina, made Guantanamo Bay look almost humane. Foot shackles were used throughout, even in solitary cells. Windows were few and small, rations were often rotten, walls were painted black and as if the imprisoned souls needed more crushing… a guillotine awaited death row convicts in all its glory. Now a museum, it’s full with memorabilia and mural tributes for Vietnamese patriots, the latter which eerily reminded me of Indonesia’s own Lubang Buaya monument.


The Vietnam government later used it to imprison US Air Force pilots during 1964-1973 Vietnam War, including John Mc Cain whose aircraft got shot down in 1967. The pilots thought it was an irony to dub it “Hanoi Hilton’, perhaps ironically unaware that compared to the conditions during the French colonial time it was considerably indeed a Hilton.

More of the Vietnamese side of the war was featured grandly, vintage American military relics and enlarged pictures of napalm bomb victims include, on the War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels in Saigon. Rightfully Vietnam was telling its side of the story; twice I’ve been to the Museum and twice I admitted how eye-opening it would be to those having learned about the war solely from the America’s, or God Forbid, the Hollywood’s perspective.  As for the Cu Chi Tunnels, though I’ve trekked into the Japanese WWII tunnels in Sumatera and the Egyptian pyramid, the multi-level, short-ceilinged Tunnels, some of which were snaking into Cambodia, were literal hellholes. We went into a replica of the first level, and those minutes felt so inhumane I couldn’t imagine living there for years during the war. 

Yet while the black-and-white communism video shown in the Tunnels were so outdated it was hilarious to watch Western tourists urged to watch it in 2016, the socialism rah-rah quickly got tiresome as we ventured into more historical sites during the trip. Hey, I’m an Indonesian, I’m not blind to what greedy European countries did back then as they did to us in four centuries prior to our 1945 independence, and the US was especially pesky during the Cold War, but at some point, especially at sites related to the late President Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, I felt like being repeatedly forced to gobble the equivalent of Soeharto-era Monas diorama of the century-plus French occupation and the decade-plus US-Vietnam War.


Ironically, outside the Government-run venues, some of them were housed in drab Soviet-style edifices I must say, Vietnam was bustling in colors and commerce. We were staying in backpackers’ districts, yet beyond Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market where the outlier shops were Government-run with fixed prices, everything else was up for grabs in good bargain. We even got to haggle for day excursions, metered taxis, credit card surcharges and, most ironically, shops specializing in vintage communism propaganda. On his memoirs Robert McNamara might’ve correctly regretted the mistake of going into the Vietnam War, yet as capitalistic sensibility roars so audibly perhaps it’s the Americans that inadvertently left the last watermark. I laughed a lot last week as I often couldn’t tell the left from the right

Can I tell all about Vietnam in one column? No. Do I still recommend a visit? Heck, yeah. In fact, go soon. If Trump were to deliver on his promise to kill the Trans Pacific trade deals, Vietnam’s roaring economy would be one of the first to suffer. But right now, left or right, if you wing it Vietnam feels just about right. 

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/11/26/urban-chat-left-or-right-if-you-wing-it-vietnam-feels-just-right.html

This entry was posted in Art & Culture, History, Politics, Travel & Tourism, UrbanChat. Bookmark the permalink.

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