Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!

IMG_6854I don’t quite know what it is that has made me think of Vietnam recently. Maybe it was a casual mention in a conversation that made me realise that I don’t have a very vivid memory of the short time I spent in that country a couple of years ago. It was, after all, just a fleeting glimpse of the fat bottom end of a long thin country – a day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and a few days up the Mekong River.IMG_6933I wandered Ho Chi Minh City in a jet-lagged daze, stupefied by a body clock that badly needed winding and oppressive tropical heat that clung like a blanket. What did I do? I gaped at a few of the tourist sites I was told to look at. I dodged road-wide flanks of manic motorbikes (just wait until they get cars!), ate fishy, chilli-spiked noodles and bought, of all things, a copy of David Copperfield in a savagely air-conned bookshop (an unconscious hankering for the fictionalised Yarmouth coast perhaps?). The rest is a sleep-deprived blur, although I do remember Christmas lights – it was early January – incongruous as a Santa suit in steamy Indochina. The city, as I remember it, seemed an awful long way from the imagined sinful metropolis of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.IMG_6811I am also struck by the visa in my passport that reads: Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon – despite the reinvented name and the occasional remnant image of a wispy-bearded Uncle Ho, it was hard to imagine anywhere more unashamedly capitalist. The new moniker foisted on the city in 1976 seemed an ironic rebranding for a city that was firmly in the US camp throughout the war (The American War, the Vietnamese call it). One can only imagine the victors’ delight in defiantly renaming this southern capitalist city after their erstwhile northern communist leader. But a name is just a name – the USA may have lost the war but it was the West that inevitably won in the end. IMG_6844

IMG_6919As for the Mekong, what stays with me most is its murkyy lifelessness. It took a day or two along the river before it dawned on me: despite fisherman eking a living from the river’s grey waters and insects aplenty, I slowly realised that there were almost no birds to be seen. No dipping kingfishers, no fish-spearing herons, no skeins of geese overhead; just an occasional swallow flitting nervously above the water. The first egrets I saw were dead: a sorry pair on display in a food market, a meagre meal for a poor family. Uncontrolled hunting and trapping, along with severe habitat depletion, appear to be the main reasons for this sad depletion of what, in a previous life, would have surely been a tropical paradise. IMG_7043A river without birds is a like a song without a melody. Things improved slightly as we approached the Cambodian border but really not that much – for the most part, the river remained the ideal film setting for a tropical version of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.IMG_7187IMG_7149IMG_7255

About East of Elveden

Hidden places, secret histories and unsung geography from the east of England and beyond
This entry was posted in Asia, Travel, wildlife and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!

  1. photravels says:

    Interesting musings on the war. If you get to know Vietnamese people you may find that there is no sense of victory, particularly for those who fled, lost loved ones, their livelihood or who were imprisoned for siding with the US. They all soon moved on and look now to the future. They don’t seem to harbour ill will towards the US, in fact many aspire to the life that Americans lead.

    Vietnamese regard Ho Chi Minh with a lot of respect. Saigon is a name used with affection and nostalgia. These days its more used to refer to the CBD of the Ho Chi Minh City.

    So, under the cliches there are many layers to how the Vietnamese think and feel.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Katherine. I wasn’t there long but certainly got the impression – in the south at least – that the Vietnamese bore no ill will towards the US. Completely agree that every country has many layers – I didn’t even scratch the surface with my lightning visit. I was just curious why I did not have particulary strong memories of the place. There again – I did also visit Cambodia, Laos and Burma/Myanmar on the same trip. The last country left the strongest expression, but it was the last I visited (and for the longest time).

  3. Interesting take and good to read an honest reaction to a country. I had similar thoughts about the presence or absence of birdlife going up the Irrawaddy River but one morning I was up very early and so it seemed were the birds, lots of them. I think they have a brief window of opportunity in the cool of the morning before they seek shelter to escape the heat of the day. I might have hit a lucky patch of forest. Blog to come on this!

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