The final stop on Imprint’s Vietnam Tour was Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as it is officially known today. The locals still refer to it as Saigon and that seems appropriate. I must admit, Saigon was not my favorite stop. It is a big, busy, bustling city. It is obviously the beating economic heart of modern, flourishing Vietnam, so it is an important stop. But personally, I liked the ambiance of Hanoi and Hoi An much more. However, Saigon has some worthwhile sights and is an important springboard for destinations in the south of the country. After a morning flight from Hoi An we had a tour of the city which included some of its famed colonial architecture. We saw their Notre Dame, Hotel de Ville, and the neo-classical Post Office building. Perhaps all my travels in Europe for Rick Steves has jaded me against European Colonial architecture. They were beautiful buildings all, but failed to excite my travel imagination.
More enjoyable for me was the War Remembrance Museum. The courtyard is filled with American planes, helicopters, jets, tanks, cannons, armored vehicles, and all manner of war machines. It was fun having daughter Maia to pose in front of the captured armaments. Like the Hanoi Hilton, this was an effective propaganda institution, characterizing the US as evil capitalist aggressors. I did not find it offensive, merely instructive.
The inside of the museum was dedicated to photos, explanatory panels, maps, and global press excerpts used to tell the story of American aggression, though there were plenty of bombs, missiles, ammunition, and small weaponry to go around. Most of the ground floor was devoted to the American anti-war movement of the 1960s. Images of violence on American campuses and stories of prominent objectors line the walls. The experience prompted many questions from Maia and I realized the Vietnam War was a part of our history we had never discussed. Bringing that to light and prompting discussion is another of the hidden values of travel. I found great delight in taking her around to show her famous images I had grown up with. Among them: the South Vietnamese officer executing a Vietcong (pistol to temple); the village girl running naked after her clothing had been burned off by American napalm; pictures of Sgt Calley, the self-immolation of a Vietnamese monk, a US helicopter being pushed off a Saigon building at the end of the war, and many more. Maia wore down quickly, but I was energized by the walk down memory lane, albeit, a sad and unfortunate lane to be sure.
Any sting that might have been felt from the jingoistic perspective of the museum was assuaged by the kindness and hospitality of every Vietnamese person to which we’d been exposed on the trip. We were consistently met with kindness, openness, and inclusion. Quite assuredly, many in our group came with certain trepidations about this tour. The Vietnam War is a deep scar on our cultural psyche. But this is the power of travel: to change perspectives and broaden our vision. I start every tour with a Marcel Proust quote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” That has never been more true than in Vietnam. On the last night, when we were sharing highlights, Maia said it best. She said, “What I learned on this tour is that Vietnam is more than just a war.”