The beginning of the end

I’ve been here for a year now and I have one month left. I haven’t even left yet and nostalgia is already sweeping over me like the dirty sewage that floods the streets when it monsoons here. All the things that usually annoy me are becoming endearing and as the end is nigh I am regretting choosing to leave.

I also realised that I spent a lot of this blog just uploading holiday photos and not really any of ‘real’ Ho Chi Minh City, as in the tiny alleys, the street food, the crumbling facades of old colonial buildings, the crowded skyline, the manic streets and heaving roads. So, I pledge henceforth, for my remaining time here, to actually say some useful and interesting things about Saigon, instead of not-so-humbly-bragging about my beach holidays.

So, to begin this new wave of posts. The other day three Vietnamese friends and three other US and UK friends had a meet up. I’ve noticed that when arranging social events my Vietnamese friends are very organised, the day is assigned and events planned, it’s almost contrived, bordering on ‘forced fun’. This particular day we were told that we were going to ‘cook and then chat and then play games from 9am until precisely 3pm. To be frank, beforehand I wasn’t looking forward to it, I was tired and had other things to do then partake in a strictly regimented social session in broken English where social and cultural barriers can hinder a lot of conversations. But I can happily say I was extremely wrong. It was a great day which ended in us scaling the roof of a 30 story apartment block at sunset. Here are some photos one of my friends took on their very swish camera.

Us and the food we made from scratch. My offering was banoffee pie made without an oven, a whisk, proper biscuits or a cake tin. But the Americans and Vietnamese had never had it before so it had nothing to live up to!

overlooking the city from District 5.

I’m not sure why I’m doing the YMCA, in the wrong order, and no one else is.

Looking out into Districts 5 and 10 at sunset.

District 1, 3 and 7 in the distance

The ubiquitous Bitexico tower. The landmark that helps you figure out where you are in the city.

A noteworthy point in the day was a discussion I had with one of the girls. She asked what I studied at university and I told her I’d focused a lot on Vietnamese history. She was really interested and quizzed me about it at length. I have to be really careful when I talk about the war so as not to offend people, especially given that they only ever hear one perspective here. This was SO evident when talking to her. Her family were from the north and her view of Vietnamese history was so entirely one dimensional. You know you hear of people talking of ‘the great leader’ in places like North Korea? And you don’t think people really believe it? Well, she really, truly did. She said she loved Uncle Ho (which is normal, you hear that a lot) and described him as almost super human, she spoke of the Vietnam War as if she’d been indoctrinated. Espousing how Ho Chi Minh was following the great example of Lenin and how people in the South ‘needed’ to be re-educated after reunification in order to think correctly. Some of what she said was opinion, some things were stated as fact but I knew where incorrect. It was really bizarre and a bit shocking, she is so lovely and SO intelligent, she’s in the process of applying for grad schemes with KPMG, PwC and the like. But to hear her talk like that made me so angry at the way history is taught here. She expressed utter horror that Ho Chi Minh was never awarded a Nobel peace prize and believed that everybody in the country wanted to be communist and unified. I understand that the education system is biased here, but I’ve never heard it so extremely. For example I mentioned (sensitively) the famous ‘boat people’ who tried to escape Vietnam as northern forces came down the coast, she said they’d misunderstood and shouldn’t have been scared, I tactfully said they might have been scared because of the massacres in places like Hue committed by those forces, she said that never happened.

We also spoke about the government of Vietnam, and how the people don’t choose their leader. They elect local party committee members, who then vote in regional ones, who then vote in party members, who then choose the leader from the one party. So at lower levels people really get little influence. She believed this was the most favourable way to govern however because the government knows best. It was interesting but I had to be so careful, I was tiptoeing on ice every time I said something for fear of upsetting these deep seated notions. Nevertheless she said she really enjoyed talking about it, as did I, so alls well that ends well.

More updates coming soon!

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