Heavy rains and heavy vibes in Ho Chi Minh City, as heavy news pours out of the West.
The heavens thunder open and the coffee shop is full. Small hot cups of refuge offered in exchange for a handful of U.S. cents. Motorbikes fly by like locusts splashing swarms of poncho-clad pedestrians who pay them as little mind as the drops falling from the sky.
Life beats on to the rainy season rhythm. But 44 years ago Saigon fell to the North, and 34 more Americans are dead from a terrible violent streak…
The news of the twin shooting sprees hits on my first full day in Vietnam, on my way to the War Remnants Museum, an austere structure in the heart of the city’s District 3, ringed by taxidermied U.S. Army tanks and planes.
El Paso and Dayton, back to back, attacked by a pair of geeky extremists. Strange baggage to carry into a place designed to unpack all the ugly truth of the mid-century assault on Southeast Asia.
Inside, the exhibits are placed in descending chronological order. Start at the top, with the story of French occupation and America’s decision to help their European cousins cling to power in a far-off land. Proceed downward, as the French acquiesced and the U.S. took over the butchery, its gory glory captured in grainy black and white and, eventually, splashes of blood red and Agent Orange as the world moved toward a Kodachrome view. Continue through the aftermath of a nation sprayed with bullets and poisons, rebuilding what scorched earth was left to it, and arrive, finally, on the ground floor, at something that resembles peace, or at least Victory.
Somewhere along the second level, about halfway down the brutality ladder, is an exhibit on firearms used in the war. Sounds of shots fired mingle with vibrations of menace still hotly radiating from the heavy artillery surrounding the room.
Photos from the war show guns pointed at temples, triggers primed to squeeze, and all the bloody aftermath, brutalized corpses, laying in ditches or carried over shoulders of still-teenaged GIs. Pools of blood ooze from women and children and elderly farmers with no flesh on their bones.
The throughline of violence hits me then, like the bullets used to send someone else’s solutions through the thickest of skulls.
The American obsession with the brute force method: that confused philosophy conflating Strength with Rightness, a quick flash of muscle to hide a weak mind and shield a glass ego. There is no soul to save.
The bespectacled pair of scum behind the weekend’s attacks afflicted with the same demented mentality as Robert McNamara, and Richard M. Nixon, and Lyndon B. Johnson… one that smacks of all the assumed power of Manifest Destiny and the inherited order of White Man Knows Best.
It was once that only whole branches of government could command enough deadly force to bring this Civics Lesson to the masses, but like much else in the era of globalization, the awesome power has been cheaply cloned and can easily squeeze through Internet signals. (Strength, after all, can be bought for $59.99 in the back of a Walmart and Rightness, mined in your favorite hate forum, is never more than a few clicks away.)
M-16 fire ricochets off the glass display cases that keep the instruments of death around me at bay. I imagine what it must’ve been like to run from the same bloody sounds in Dayton and El Paso, the scene captured by New Age War Correspondents wielding phones that compress the color of corpses and chaos in fleeting real time and send them around the jaded world in a wink.
The courtyard of the museum smells like popcorn. Crowds of tourists pose for selfies in front of anti-aircraft artillery. They smile for the cameras, flash a peace sign for their followers.
In a nearby park, two children frolic jovially in the first wisps of downpour, jabbering on in French, blissfully unaware of what the building across the street says of their forbearers. Discarded museum entrance stickers mark nearly every open surface with the image of doves flying over three dropping bombs.
The walk back to the hostel is muddy and full of clouds. I’m ready for something to take my mind off the day.
Upon arrival to my temporary home, the opportunity comes: the single-serving friends I’ve met are grabbing dinner at the night market, then drinks at the Backpacker Street. Great, I think, wash it all back with some hot food and a cold beer.
But the ocean of neon only makes those black & white memories more vivid. The Backpacker Street is a rave, filled with sweat and cigarette smoke and strange pyrotechnics, where people go to drink and fuck and get their cheap thrills. A perfect frenzied tribute to whitesploitation (or maybe just Westsploitation?), with foreigners still acting as if this land serves no higher purpose than supporting their needs, though instead of the tungsten and coal sought by their predecessors, they’ve moved on to all the ugliest whims reserved only for some far-off vacation.
And behind them all the while are the Vietnamese employees, dutifully keeping the booze flowing and the toilets mostly free of bahn mi-twinged puke stains.
Liberation at last?
If the locals are raking in their fair share of chips, (And are they? Who, really, sees the profit here?) is this the truest manifestation of the freedom fought for so brutally in these streets or a mockery of it?
Impossible to tell on this hazy night in Saigon. The group orders another round of drinks, and I take a deep sip.
2 thoughts on “Vietnam Vignettes: Saigon on a Hot Rainy Night”
Really, really good stuff here BC.
Deep sentiments, my dear girl. And all so true. And eloquent