Saigon is almost exactly how I read it in class, and how I imagined it would be a thousand times in my head. Times 30. Plus a billion. It is chaotic, the streets crammed with motorcycles that practically kill you; you can feel a slight wind at your side as they just barely miss clipping the sides of your legs.
The culture and country of Vietnam is filled with so much beauty. Not just the women in pointed hats that pass you on the streets of Saigon selling their pork and quail egg sweet rolls, or the girls wearing sun-protective face masks whizzing by on motorcycles. Not just the palm trees lining the streets of the city stocked with fresh coconut ready to buy anytime or the French-inspired colorful architecture that towers over the raucousness below.
Despite the beauty, Saigon is haunted. The streets are haunted by ghosts and screams from forty years ago that fly through windows into the hot and humid air of our 4th floor hostel. It is a city existing in the 22nd century, ahead of us in size and energy but still strangely locked in reverse, moving forward much faster than we do but still so very stuck in the past.
Saigon is only called Ho Chi Minh City by the city’s government officials. If you ask anyone else in HCM where they live, they will say Saigon. This is what our eccentric but lovable Vietnamese guide explains to me as we speed away on a public bus to see the Cu Chi tunnels, 80% of which were bombed by the US as they tried desperately to find Ho CHI Minh during the war. Ellie and I are the only Americans scattered among other Westerners on the bus. On this lovely July 4th I’m not feeling exactly patriotic. In fact, I’ve never felt so alone; and ashamed.
All I want is a pork Banh Mi sandwich, an iced Vietnamese coffee and vegetable pho to take away this weird pain..and help me pretend that I don’t come from the country that tortured so many people, for no reason at all.