Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Pedestrian Experience in Ho Chi Minh City

It was a Sunday and my wife and I agreed that she could stay in bed longer while I go out for a photo safari in the streets of Ho Chi Minh.

I donned my most comfortable shoes, put a spare battery, memory cards, Vietnamese money in small denominations, cellphone and a small map in my multi-pocket cargo pants. I stepped out of the hotel around 7:00 AM, expecting to take photos of the empty streets.

But the moment I got out of the front driveway of the hotel, I realized that I was wrong. Early Sunday morning in Ho Chi Minh does not equate with empty streets. It was more like business as usual, meaning that the streets are still populated by the continuous flow of motorcycles. I guess taking a photo of an empty HCMC street is out of the question.

I walked towards the direction I plotted out in my map. Good thing I earned my orienteering badge when I was a Boy Scout. My first target was the Saigon Opera House which was just about a hundred meters away from our hotel. In our hotel room, there were a couple of old photographs of the Opera House taken several decades ago. I wanted to do some comparisons.

When I got to the building, there was a set up for what seemed to be a concert. Chairs were lined up like a theater in front of the main entrance, and a sound system set up with massive speakers was ready for the performance. There was no one else around except the sound technician, who apparently likes Kenny G. One of the jazz musician’s top hits in the 80’s was playing over and over again. The song filled the whole square, to the delight of no one in particular except the technician.

After spending several minutes and more than a dozen frames, I continued my walk. I passed what seemed to be a main avenue of the city with small parks in the center island. I came to a rotunda which I took a video of two days ago, amused at how the throngs of motorcycles weaved in and out of the rotunda in what seemed to be chaos, but at the same time an exercise of concerted riding skills of the riders.

blog_IMG_0007The rotunda is just a stone’s throw away from the People’s Committee Building, which I think is the City Hall. Beautiful architecture, European inspired. A statue of Ho Chi Minh stands in a park in front of the building, depicting the Vietnamese leader with a young child in his protective arms. Typical propaganda material.

blog_IMG_0033I took more than a few photos, including a self-portrait using my point and shoot held my extended arms. I had my bulky digital SLR for my more “artistic” shots while I used my digital point and shoot for my typical “tourist” shots. One more benefit with the point and shoot is that it has video capabilities.

My next destination was the Reunification Palace which was several blocks away. It was a pleasurable walk, however, because of the many sights and sounds I encountered along the way. As a photographer, it is always interesting to see the daily life of a foreign city, especially the areas outside the usual tourist routes. I took delight in watching Ho Chi Minh City life go by.

After several blocks and minutes, I heard loud music playing, the kind which I usually hear playing in Chinese variety shows on cable TV back home. I then notice that there was an increasing number of people on red shirts moving about. Being used to public gatherings, I sensed that there was something going on up ahead. Perhaps a political mass action? That would be an excellent photo subject. My pace became faster.

blog_IMG_0072Nearing a corner, I saw that a park was up ahead, one with big trees and lush greenery. More people in red. I then noticed that there was writing on their shirts. I strain to read it. I forget what was written as I do this write up, but when I read it, I guessed it to be some local bank.

blog_IMG_0062I arrived at the park where a stage was set up, and some children were performing a dance in front of about four hundred people in red shirts and more people who I presumed were regular park goers. I couldn’t make out what were written in the streamers and other posters but from what I saw onstage, this seemed to be some promotional event of an insurance company. I walked around in the park taking some photos before continuing with my itinerary.

blog_IMG_0074It turns out that the Reunification Palace was across the park. I walked to towards the building which was in the middle of a huge piece of land surrounded by tall fences. I could see the “palace” but to me, it didn’t look like a palace, or at least as what I expected it to be. Having seen the palaces in Bangkok, Thailand and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I was expecting the same. The Reunification Palace looked to me like a huge embassy. I took some pictures and didn’t bother to go in. I did notice, however that there were some military relics scattered around the grounds.

I walked on to my next destination, the War Remnants Museum. That was actually my main destination, having been keenly interested in the Vietnam War even when I was a kid. It was about four more blocks away. Again, it wasn’t a boring walk, since there were sights to see along the way.

After a about 10 minutes, I arrived at the museum. I stood at the corner outside the museum compound to rest and watch the intersection. Somehow, Ho Chi Minh intersections has become somewhat of entertaining for me. Watching people cross the street and the motorcycles dodge each other through the intersections amused me.

Then a guy sitting on his motorcycle (he wasn’t riding, just sitting there) said, “Hello!…Hello!….War Museum there!”, pointing to the building. I smiled at him. Thn he said, “You can cross now”. I looked left and right and saw motorcycles coming toward the intersection without seeming to slow down. “You can cross now”, he repeated.

Is he trying to amuse himself by luring me to cross the street and see me get run over by a motorcycle? Or is he genuinely trying to help me. Well, I remembered the advice of other people people who have survived the streets of HCMC. “Walk…and they will swerve around you…”

So I took the step of faith…got off the sidewalk and fixed my eyes on the opposite corner, walking in a steady stride. After a few seconds, I got to the other side…like Jesus walking on water.

blog_P1020413I entered the gate of the museum, paid the entrance and felt like a kid in a toy store as I walked among the war relics there…reminders of a war where a poor nation of farmers beat a super power of the world. Of course, I took photos left and right.

After walking around the displays outside the building, I entered the museum proper where there were more displays of weapons, bombs, ammunition, clothing and photos of the war.

blog_P1020410I entered a room where a sign was displayed beside the entrance: “The Scars of War”. In the simple display cases in the room, photographs of the ravages of war were displayed. Most sobering were those of the effects of the Americans’ use of Agent Orange, an example of chemical warfare.

The high rate of birth defects among the people of Vietnam which were exposed to Agent Orange was shocking. Most of all, the photos of Vietnamese with grotesque deformities was truly moving. The photos of the devastated forests, farms and landscape were compelling. One will understand why there is pain among Vietnamese when they remember the effects of America’s intrusion into their lives more than four decades ago.

Makes you think about America’s war on terror and their presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.

blog_P1020404I spent quite some time in the museum. My previous interest in the Vietnam War was now sobered by the perspective coming from the Vietnamese people. Yesterday I had seen how they were forced to go underground for their safety and protection, now I had seen how they had suffered during and after the war. Truly, this experience will be one of those which will be forever etched in my memory and serve as a lesson on man’s ability to be cruel and to be steadfast.

With more than just photos in my cameras to bring home with me, but more importantly lessons for my mind and soul, I began my walk back to the hotel.

I passed a different route, going through another park which was obviously a Sunday destination for many citizens of Ho Chi Minh City. I was headed for the Notre Dame Cathedral, located just after the park from the museum.

As I was going through the park, I noticed that more than a few times, groups of people, mostly young, sitting on the grass in the park, seemed to be looking at me as I passed by. I could sense that they were looking at me with interest, not a few times giggling as they looked at me.

I began to get conscious, thinking of the reason why. I could think of a few:

1. My fly must have been open. But no, I checked, it was closed.
2. They must be thinking how silly of me to carry two cameras, one hanging on my neck, the other in my hands.
3. They must be wondering how this Asian became so big. I did not see a single overweight Vietnamese man, while I am “American size”.
4. They might have been wondering why I was sweating it out walking instead of riding a motorcycle.
5. They might have wanted me to take their photo.

blog_P1020421I arrived at the cathedral. By this time, the sun was already shining high in the sky, so I kind of rushed myself in taking photos. Besides, I had to get back to the hotel to join my wife for lunch. After a few minutes, I continued my walk back to the hotel.

It was around 10:30 in the morning and I had been walking for more than three hours. I don’t know how far it was, but I’m pretty sure, it was enough to count as exercise. Along the way, I was able to take in Ho Chi Minh City more than what I could have if I had taken a cab to the places I went to.

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