When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) I waited for a piano to fall on me or to be eaten by a polar bear. The previous two stops in Vietnam, while interesting and beautiful, were filled with some strange events. So you can imagine that since I wasn’t overly thrilled about six days in HCMC and they turned out to be my best days in Vietnam, I’ve thought a lot since then how one’s perspective of a place, of issues, of people are shaped and how easily they can change. This got me thinking a lot about the notion of perspective and how seemingly small things can shape the lens through which we see the world and our actions in it. I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing, it just is. And that’s what HCMC gave me more than anything, a new perspective on perspective. No need to wrap your head around that; I’ll explain how.
I have always been interested in history, especially anything having to do with global development, human conflict and the struggle of ideals. Working at a military college, I’ve become even more interested since I teach officer cadets, some of whom are the future leaders of my country and will deal with these issues directly. It’s no surprise then that we study world conflicts and their by-products at length through novels, movies and discussions and the occasional rant by yours truly.
I’ve been interested in the Vietnam War personally for decades, and now introduce the topic in some of my classes. Therefore, it was important for me to visit as many Vietnam War sites while in HCMC, for my own interest and for the street cred it’ll afford me with my students during one of said rants.
However, I was a bit sceptical after reading many reviews that said some of these sites promoted a Vietnam-centric perspective that just isn’t accurate. So there I was at the famed War Museum, looking at US military vehicles – tanks, helicopters and planes – which were obviously downed and/or captured. I walked through a section of the prison where torture and death were synonymous for both American and South Vietnamese soldiers. I saw the various photo galleries with graphic images and stories of the dead – war correspondents, civilians, and the Vietnamese soldiers on both sides of the war.
I went into the room designated to the horrific effects of Agent Orange, targeting those who were blanketed by the chemicals while fighting, civilians just trying to live in their broken country, farmers trying to make a living on poisoned land, and the next generation of children who resembled science fiction characters only the vilest minds could conjure up.
I spent time looking through the controversial ‘Humanity Exhibition’ designated to the POWs – the most famous being US Senator John McCain – and their supposed “wonderful” treatment at the hands of the North Vietnamese. I read all of the propaganda posters, many from other countries depicting the US and South Vietnamese agenda as evil.
Then there I was at the Cu Chi Tunnels, a 2-hour speedboat ride up the Saigon River, to see how the North Vietnamese and Vietcong lived and fought during ‘The American War’, as it’s referred to there. Over 250km of sophisticated tunnels and chambers were built by farmers in the 1940s after the French colonial period and completed some 20 years later. They were used by Vietcong guerrillas during the war and a base for the infamous 1968 ‘Tet Offensive’ that killed roughly 65,000 people from both sides including 15,000 civilians. They were much more than simple hiding spots as I originally thought; they served as elaborate supply routes and contained hospitals, living quarters as well as weapon and food caches.
I was able to crawl inside these dark tunnels and imagine the dankness, the disease, and the inevitable decay of both the physical and mental state of those who were down there. I learned about the lengths they went to in order to conceal and defend themselves from the enemy, their ingenious yet horrific torture devices, and some of what they did to care for each other and their cause.
And for the first time, my perspective of the war shifted. For the first time, I felt sad for them and their sympathizers and what they endured during that time. Before you draft an angry email to me, think about the notion of perspective first and how they must have felt that the world’s superpower for whatever reason, right or wrong, picked them to make a model of, to show to the world the evils of communism and what allowing it to fester in Vietnam would mean on a global scale.
I’m not saying everything I saw was accurate or that much of what went on at these places was just or humane. What I am suggesting is that they have their perspective as those who lived through it on their side.
I spent much of my time at these sites wondering what others there were thinking, if anyone felt like I did, a sympathizer of humanity, not sides or divisions. Thankfully, I met a young American on the tunnels tour whose father actually fought in the war. Not only did he think it was all done tastefully but his father apparently went back a few years ago, went to both locations, and thought the same thing. We had a really interesting conversation about perspective and we agreed (as did his father) that even if their version wasn’t done in a way to make us comfortable or wasn’t aligned with our history books, who are we to disagree or judge? It’s their version, their reality, their perspective, which makes it valid just because it does and because it’s theirs.
So as my time in HCMC continued to surprise and impress me, from the downtown core, markets, museums to the great people I met and drank too many beers with, I realized that perspectives are malleable, truths change, opinions sway. And that’s a positive thing, the best thing about travelling the world, actually – an education on what others think and feel and know as fact that you can’t get anywhere else.
For my last night I thought I would have the ultimate adventure that was probably braver than anything I’ve done – a city tour on the back of a motorcycle. And for those of you familiar with Vietnam’s (lack of) road rules and constant motorcycle congestion, you will understand that this is the most badassery I’ve ever shown in my life. For three hours, I rode on the back of a bike driven by a 100-pound Vietnamese girl, weaving in and out of traffic like a boss, over bridges and on highways, stopping in five districts to eat, drink, walk around and talk about the city, each neighbourhood crazier and livelier than the next. Not only did I have the time of my life, but I also realized just how safe it is to be on the back of a bike.
The last perspective I ever thought would change but am happy did.