My Visit To Ho Chi Minh And Hoi An City

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Ho Chi Minh was the communist revolutionary leader who pushed for the idea that the Vietnamese should be the only masters of their land. This proved to be a difficult path, leading to a series of wars which finally concluded in 1975. But it was only in the late 1980s that Vietnam gained sufficient internal control and stability to open its doors for international trade and collaboration. It is a huge building with specific areas devoted to describing the different life stages of Ho Chi Minh, particularly on how his upbringing and journey outside Vietnam shaped his thoughts regarding colonialism and independence. 

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The day I visited, the museum was filled with tourists and Vietnamese school children. To understand more of the history, I visited the Hoa Lo Prison Memorial. The prison was built by the French colonial masters in late 1880s to lock up Vietnamese prisoners, especially those who harboured the idea of independence. The name “Hoa Lo” means “stove” which came from the name of the street that was famous for selling stoves from the pre-colonial days. To the revolutionists, Hoa Lo was a burning hell. Torture, execution, overcrowding and disease outbreaks were the price to pay for going against the French colonial rulers. Hoa Lo Prison was subsequently used by the North Vietnamese to house American prisoners of war during the Vietnam war which raged from the late 1960s to early 1970s. But the key message of the Hoa Lo Prison Memorial is about the struggle of the Vietnamese revolutionists. 

Located in central Vietnam, and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999 for preserving the characteristics of a Southeast Asian trading port from the 15th to 19th century, Hoi An is only a 45 minute drive from Da Nang which was the first landing site for the American troops during the Vietnam War. Yet, there is hardly any memorial in the city regarding the war. Instead, the city celebrates the contributions by various trading partners during the pre-colonial era. An iconic symbol of Hoi An is the covered Japanese-style bridge known as Cau Chua Pagoda. The bridge was built during the early 17th century by the Japanese to facilitate communication and business with the Chinese communities who stayed across the other side of the bridge. Hoi An is crossed by small rivers which allow easy access to the inner parts of the land. I understood then the importance of having a bridge: beyond the direct benefit of allowing people to travel with ease and efficiency, it also allowed people to interact and hence gain a better understanding of different cultures. With a ticket to the old town of Hoi An, one can visit the elaborate assembly halls of the Southern Chinese communities and the refurbished old houses of important trading families. Hoi An is an excellent example of how globalization was embraced in the early days. 

The rawest part of the museum documented the consequences of the use of Agent Orange by the American military during the Vietnam War. In an attempt to contain the North Vietnamese, the American military sprayed the chemical across Vietnam as part of its herbicidal warfare programme. While this might sound like a plausible path to handicap the North Vietnamese and win the war, the consequences were long-lasting and undesirable, with many generations of Vietnamese suffering from physical deformities. A painful lesson on the abuse of weapons, without consideration of future implications. 

Other than the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City appears to be a young city which is anxious to showcase its development and progress after the Vietnam War. It has the Bitexco Financial Tower, which was the tallest building in Vietnam in 2010, and Landmark 81 which is the tallest building in Southeast Asia as of 2018. However, every development comes with a price. This is a common narrative in a developing country. While the heart of Hoi An as a Heritage Centre is free of air pollution, the same cannot be said for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. 

Since public transportation is unable to keep up with demand, many locals use a motorcycle as their main transport vehicle: I heard Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City referred to as ‘The Motocycle Cities’. While one can become conditioned to poor air quality after some time, I was immediately reminded how fresh air should smell like when I returned home. While big restaurants which targeted tourists lined the main streets of the cities, I noticed that most locals would have their regular meals in a small alley between two buildings: it did not look very hygienic, but I wondered if they preferred to eat in such environment, which provided them with the type of food they desired, or if their wages were simply unable to match the cost of living in the city.

16 December 2021

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