If you are ever in a city and want to go on a great tour, investigate til you find a company that will do ‘by donation’ student tours! I’ve done one in Munchin, and one now in Ho Chi Minh, and they’ve both been unbelievably fantastic. Boon, who gave my tour, is studying English and Law at uni, and was a lovely, kind hearted soul with a lot of knowledge about the history of his city and country.
Today, I learned alot about the history of Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam. Colonized by the French, the first thing the French did was build three buildings: a cathedral, a court house, and the post office. The church, the law, and communications… totally vital for the successful running of a major city at that time. The cathedral was built between 1877 and 1880, and with the erection of the bell tower in 1895, it became the tallest building at that time, at 190 feet or 58 metres. Every material used to construct the cathedral was imported from France. (which baffled me, as there are sooo many brick factories in Cambodia, I figured Vietnam probably has the same sort of industry – which it did, but he French wanted French materials, so it got them!) The bricks came from Marseille.
In 1959, Rome gifted a statue of Our Lady Peace to add to the cathedral. The cathedral was blessed, and became known as Notre Dame Cathedral. In an interesting twist, in 2005, it is believed the statue started to cry, in the month of October. The tear trickled down the cheek of the statue…. it was never confirmed by the Catholic Church, so its still a popular spot for Catholic tourists to see if they can catch a glimpse. My awesome tour guide, Boon, figures it was rainy season and it was… rain!
We also visited the Independence Palace. This large building was the home to the President of Vietnam during the 1970s Vietnam War. It replaced the previous palace which was bombed, and had the French influence. The new palace was designed by a Vietnamese architect, and had very specific purpose and meaning to almost everything. The building was stormed during the Fall of Saigon in 1975, when a tank rammed through the gates. Built between 1962 and 1966, I especially liked the columns… turns out they were meant to emulate bamboo – a symbol of protection, and also they allow alot of wind flow to cool the building, sunshine to keep electricity costs down, and they allow those inside to see out very well, but it is impossible to see in through these structures. Inside, the 1970s top of the line decor is maintained, and I toured the palace, everything from the conference room to the banquet hall, cabinet room, a room to welcome international guests and another to welcome national guests, the living quarters of the President, and his wife, and the bomb-proof massive bunker in the basement.
Colour schemes and feng shui played into the decor of each room – yellow to invite people in the banquet hall to feel hungry, green for calming in the meeting rooms, and red in the welcoming rooms to indicate the power of the President. It was an awesome tour, very thorough. I love how Asian cultures create meaning and purpose for everything.
Next, we headed to the War Remnants Museum, which was fascinating to read the Vietnamese side of the Vietnam war.
“History is written by the victors.” – Winston Churchill
The museum grounds had actual original US military vehicles, one room showing the history from the Vietnamese standpoint, and another with alot of US photos, and a massive room showing photos of those affected by Agent Orange. It was very difficult; seeing war and the horrible things people create to harm one another is always disturbing and puts a damper on one’s spirits. Its good to know about these things, but it certainly isn’t easy to go through it. Boon talked about how he first went to the museum at age 6 or 7 and was extremely frightened by it. And, he confessed, it still frightens him. I can see why, and it must be different reasons, I would imagine.
Outside, you could see “Tiger Cages” – cells and cages they kept humans in. Some were cells with no light, and access above to guards to visually keep their eyes on the prisoners, and some cages made of barbed wire where they would keep 2 to 3 in the small cages and 5 to 7 prisoners in the larger cages. They weren’t tall enough for the prisoners of war to sit up straight in. The wall had a list of all the ways people were tortured. It was very unpleasant reading that caused me to shudder, be disgusted and horrified. There were bats living in the small building with the prison cells; a nice touch and I felt the only positive of the Tiger Cage replicas.
I didn’t want to end on such a negative note, so I saved my favourite part of the day for last. The post office. Now, the Ho Chi Minh post office looks like a train station. Its pretty humourous. Communications was key, and it was built by the French between 1886 and 1891, as displayed over the front entrance. It is said to be designed by the same architect who designed the Eiffel Tower! There are two statues outside. To one side is the first Asian astronaut to go into space; Pham Tuan was a Vietnamese pilot who went into space with the Russian space program. The other side has another statue, which has meaning that fails to escape me.
Inside is the way to send international mail (post boxes around the city only send domestic mail, Boon told me), you can use phone booths, check the time around the world, see city and Vietnam maps from the time the Post Office was constructed, and you can see a big painting of Ho Chi Minh. BUT… the best part of the post office is the man, Ngo, who translates letter. Ngo started working at the post office in his twenties, and worked through the war, translating. I spoke with him for a while, he learned French in school, starting from the time he was 7, but he learned English when he worked for the post office, starting at age 36, from Americans. Ngo rides his bike to work every day, Monday to Friday (he takes Saturday and Sunday off to rest at home with his wife who doesn’t leave the house now as she’s too fragile, she just watched television) and loves his job. He doesn’t get paid any more, but he still goes to work daily, as it gives him a sense of purpose. Apparently he even often writes love letters! A filming crew made a Vietnmaese documentary of him in 2012, and he kindly translated two post cards for me from English into Vietnamese. Family and friends will receive them in a few weeks, I imagine. I commented he must have alot of secrets and interesting stories from letters he’s translated, but mum’s the word, he wasn’t telling me anything! He just winked and gave an enigmatic smile. He’s 86 years old, partially blind and reads letters and sometimes refers to dictionaries and loves his job! A lovely, cheerful man, he is a hero to me, and a lesson in determination and life’s commitment to us all! It was the best part of my day, I’d say!