East of India and south of China, lies Indochina. This is the exotic tropics of Frangipani lined streets where people cool themselves with pankhas in the jasmine infused air and where the colors of life are reflected in the mouth-watering food. Romantic images indeed. I have had the pleasure of visiting Thailand and Laos and have walked into Burma or Myanmar as it is now known, with the Indian Army from north-east India. When the allure of the Orient beckoned again, it was time to travel to Cambodia and Vietnam.
In the not too distant past, Cambodia and Vietnam found themselves to be the arena where proxy wars fueled by the insecurities of the 20th century and the quest for new ideologies was played out. Apocalypse Now, Platoon and the horrifying Killing Fields are some of the references from popular culture relating to Cambodia and Vietnam that may be familiar to you. The consequences of these events shaped nations and generations. I echo the words of Colonel Kurtz from the movie Apocalypse Now, which are in turn borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, ‘The horror! The horror!’, when I think of man’s universal and remarkable capacity to inflict pain on its own kind. However, I know that there is more to Cambodia and Vietnam than conflict. This is what I wanted to discover.
There is much to see but time constraints meant that the bucket list had to be slashed, ruthlessly. Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the commercial hub of Vietnam and this is where most international flights arrive. It was known as Saigon before the Vietnam War or American War as it is called, depending on whether you are speaking to a Vietnamese or a non-Vietnamese. Its name was promptly changed in April 1975 when the North Vietnamese Army, led by the vision of Ho Chi Minh, overcame the South Vietnamese army and united the country. This event is now symbolized by the world famous images of a tank storming the wrought iron gates of Independence Palace, the President’s residence, in Saigon. The name of Independence Palace was also changed to Reunification Palace. Reunification Palace is a compulsory stop on the tourist trail. It’s now silent and long corridors are eerie because of the contrast between its peaceful atmosphere and the tumultuous events it witnessed.
Continuing with the legacy of war is the War Remnants Museum. It takes a strong person to visit this museum and I would give a parental guidance warning if you are traveling with young children. The museum drives home the brutality and atrocities of war but to balance it out there is a dedication to the anti-war movement. The grounds of the museum also hold replicas of the notorious prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son Islands and that most infamous of French inventions, the guillotine.
Notre Dame Cathedral, The Opera House and the Central Post Office hark back to Saigon’s colonial past. Many locals still refer to HCMC as Saigon. The Post Office was designed by Gustav Eiffel and I can imagine that its cavernous hall with tiled floor and green painted wrought iron would make posting letters a particularly genteel experience. Beyond coming to terms with its past, Saigon is an energetic city that appears to be resolutely heading into the future. It has its modern buildings, tree lined avenues of designer shops, and restaurants of all levels and variety. I was quite pleasantly surprised to discover Tandoor, a long running Indian restaurant full of Indian diners. No city in South East Asia is complete without a market and Ben Thanh Market is where you can find kitsch and some steals and where transactions are conducted with a smile and flattery.