Vietnam: 10 things I learned in Saigon

Vietnam: 10 things I learned in Saigon
Motorbike traffic passing a billboard image of Ho Chi Minh on a Saigon evening.

This summer I was in Saigon Vietnam doing research for a class I’ll be teaching in Southeast Asia next summer. I am very excited about this class. Southeast Asia has long had a complicated pull on me, sparked by the U.S. war in Vietnam which raged during my early childhood. Complexities from that conflict are very much with us still – weaving and rippling through our lives across generations and continents. It’s hard to put a finger on, but out of that complexity, these 10 things rise to the surface.

1. Saigon. The name. Everybody calls it Saigon instead of its official moniker, Ho Chi Minh City.

2. Sophie Hughes’ art tour: Sophie is a Brit whose family comes from Wisconsin, and she’s made it her business to be an expert on art in Vietnam beginning with the French colonial period.  She covers artists of the French colonial beaux arts school founded in the 1920’s, and also the artists of the resistance during the 1940’s to the 60’s. She offers poignant insights into the artists who followed the troops during first the French war, and then the American war (which we call the Vietnam War), and propaganda posters made during that time. She describes the arts scene in Vietnam immediately following the war, and finishes up with contemporary art in Saigon today. Hard to believe she can cover so much territory in a half a day, but she does. And with deep insight, good humor, and passionate regard for the people and work she discusses.  Sophie’s Tour visits art galleries and museums where she’s chosen individual works to discuss, and she enhances her points with a selection of further works displayed on her ever-present iPad. Highly recommended if you’re planning a trip to Vietnam. You can find her at

3. The French Colonial Buildings. I was intrigued that multiple people, independently of one another, spoke about the the soft yellow ochre paint on the official buildings. Each person wistfully described the ‘old’ yellow, and how the new color used in renovations just isn’t the same. The tenderness in their voices as they described that faded yellow paint was nostalgia, but also seemed something deeper: a reverence for the past perhaps, appreciation for delicate distinctions.

Two moments in the Reunification Palace:

4. Being in the modernist Presidential – or Reunification – Palace during a long rainstorm. It was a steady and constant deluge. And yet the sun shone brightly during at least half the storm. I went from floor to floor in the palace, peering out windows and off balconies trying to find a rainbow, but I never came across it there.

5. I did find the basement corridors though. The glossy battleship grey, the polished floors, narrow corridors with no end in sight, rotary dial telephones in pastel shades lined up on steel desks… Small rooms, their walls covered by maps of Vietnam and Indochina, Laos and Cambodia, showing battlefields and topography. There was a powerful sense of being in a wartime bunker. All of this would be creepy under any circumstance, but especially so when you’re holed up during a torrential tropical rainstorm.


Three moments at The War Remnants Museum:

6. Coming upon photographs of and by Dickie Chapelle; part of a truly remarkable display in tribute to photographers from around the world who documented the international wars in Vietnam. Chapelle was a woman with a lot of nerve and bravado whose archive I had the privilege of cataloging while I was an archivist at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Milwaukee-born, she talked her way on to the battlefield during WWII, covering the battles on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. She went on to do years of work for the U.S. military in multiple conflicts, earning the unfortunate distinction of being the first war correspondent killed in Vietnam, and also the first American woman to be killed in action.  Chapelle was a virulent anti-communist, and looking at the display of her photographs alongside sombre pictures of her death on a Vietnam battlefield, it occurred to me that she would probably have hated it – being honored on the wall of a museum in a nation where her enemy had triumphed.

7. Also at The War Remnants Museum,  photographs by the great Robert Capa, made on the day he died in 1954. Interestingly, Capa was also a ‘first to die’ in Vietnam. He was the first journalist (which I guess is not the same as ‘war correspondent’) to be killed there. Capa was in Vietnam working on a story for Life magazine. He was attempting to record the affect of the fighting on the lives of peasants, when he stepped on a landmine. The images at the Museum include those from his last roll of film.  It’s gripping and sad to see the last frame of film by a great photographer, knowing that seconds later his life was ended.

8. And, finishing up at the Museum – being asked to leave, by the guard at the gate. He was telling us the place was closed and asking if we could please make our way out the gate. And we were running back to get just one more picture of something we thought was important. And the guard kind of politely, firmly, maybe even a little bewildered, said “please, this way”, and I thought,”oh my God, Americans never know when to leave in Vietnam.”

9. Traffic in Saigon. The ever-present ‘motorbikes’. A constant gentle purr. The diesel fumes. the flow of generosity. Riding through the streets on a motorbike you feel it. Watching from a balcony overlooking Ton Duc Thang Avenue along the Saigon River you see it – the flow of generosity as the drivers make constant subtle adjustments taking each other into account down the street and crossing wide intersections. I’m sure there are accidents, though I didn’t see any. The traffic moves at a calm steady pace. They’re building a subway in Saigon – set to open in a year – and I wonder what effect that will have on the volume of motorbike traffic. I wonder whether next year we’ll see whole families piled onto one small scooter weaving and bobbing along the avenues.

10. Crossing the street in Saigon. Before I left for Vietnam, a Vietnamese friend who lives both there and here wrote “When you cross the street in Saigon, just make the decision to go, and then go. Walk, and keep walking”, he said, “no stutter stepping, don’t pussyfoot, don’t step back and forth, don’t try to second guess the motorbike drivers. If you keep walking at a steady pace, they will decide whether to pass in front of or behind you.” That is all easier said than done to be sure, and takes a lot of nerve. It’s not like just closing your eyes and stepping off the curb. You do look up and down, and wait for a break. But then, once you go, you really do just go.

I’ll be uploading pictures of all these things in the coming days, so stay tuned.


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