BY BUS (and no pictures)!! I hear you say in disgust – but there was a reason for the bus ride. The road between the Cambodian capital and the Vietnam capital is almost entirely flat, very busy and dusty and wholly without interest. So we had a choice of 3 days tedious cycling or a 7 hour bus trip. Not a tough choice really – we opted for the bus. So sorry for those of you who were expecting us to cover every centimetre of this trip under our own steam but we have disappointed you. But then the first rule of this trip is “there are no rules” and so there is nothing stopping us catching a bus if that seems the sensible thing to do. There was less reason for no pictures – we just never got the camera out!
The bus journey passed and we negotiated our way over the border. It was frankly easier being in a big group on a bus as the bus crew do this every day and so shepherded us through the stony faced officials at the border. There must be a “border guard” face just as there is an “Anglican voice” (“Let us pray …” is always said in the same tone). The border guard face is a mixture of disbelief, distrust and boredom – assuming a stern disposition based on the idea that everyone trying to come into a country has ill-intent, bored as hell and just waiting for someone who has their stamps in the wrong place on their passport so they refuse entry. Luckily boredom won out over malice and we got through without difficulty.
And so the bus proceeded to Ho Chi Minh City – formerly known as Saigon – and now referred to universally as HCMC. Wow – the number of motorbikes is mind blowing. Hundreds line up at every junction or traffic light. The Tom Robinson song about “stop on red but leave on amber” does not work here. Motorbikes (occasionally) stop on red and leave when the red light is still on but it is counting down to a green. 5 seconds early seems standard. And we arrived at Sunday lunchtime when the city is “quiet”. We have not yet experienced the traffic during the week.
We worked our way around to Mr Biker Saigon who we had been corresponding with, and met the wonderful June who helped us find our way around. After depositing our panniers we went to a mobile phone shop to sort out credit for our Vietnamese Sim Card – inherited from a fellow biker who was going the other way – and then found an ATM. There are about 30,000 Vietnamese Dong to the pound so calculating the price of things is not going to be straightforward.
Then to the War Memorial Museum – which tells the story of the Vietnam War(s) of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s from the perspective of the victor: i.e. the Viet Cong. The message was that this museum commemorates the sacrifices of the Vietnamese people in achieving their independence from colonial rule. Whilst all of that is true, it is not the “whole truth” but then that is impossible in war.
It is probably fair to say that neither France nor the US comes out of the story told by this museum with any credit or dignity. The overall message is not subtle – the US and France (supported by troops from New Zealand and Australia but, of course, not the UK since Wilson said “No” to US and French demands on repeated occasions) backed the oppressor against the people and the people fought back and won.
All war is tragic, horrid and many of the victims were either civilians or conscripts. The average age of a US dead soldier was 19, and many had little, if any, idea why they were there apart from the fight the spread of “communism”. The fact that they were fighting to support a corrupt but western supported regime which violently oppressed its own people was not highlighted. They were fighting against Vietnam being taken over by a corrupt communist regime which would oppress its own people. It is easy now to sit back and reflect on the pointlessness of the war and on the flaws in the “communism domino theory” which drove it. The fact is that many young men died fighting, a nation was nearly destroyed by Agent Orange deforestation and hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, died of disease, starvation or worse. Today, Vietnam remains a “communist” country in the sense of having a one-party system, but that is the norm of much of the world. Its economy is thriving and its people are largely free to decide their own futures (as long as they do not take to criticising the Party).
The grim history of the Vietnam war was terribly depressing. For me the strongest message was a contemporary political one – the need to avoid political dogma blindly driving policy decisions. I worry that precisely the same right wing “think-tank” thinking that foresaw communism spreading through Indochina in country after country if battles were not fought drove the invasion of Iraq, and is now dominant again in the Trump White House. It is sadly one to watch.