Beyond Cholon, the scars of history
Founded by Cantonese settlers on a tributary of the Saigon River, Cholon is the symbolic heartland of the Hoa, the Sino-Vietnamese community. Ethnic Chinese residents know her as Tai-Ngon, named for the embankments that buttress the town. On my final day in Saigon I had come here in search of a personal connection. “No need for Vietnamese,” I was told. “Maybe you can talk to people in Cantonese or Mandarin.”
Softly-spoken and curious, Dũng had been recruited by my father’s friend to act as a guide for the day. I met him on a bright Saturday morning, and after a quick introduction he ushered me into a grey minivan. “The driver, he’s Chinese-Vietnamese.” I nodded, noticing the jade Buddha on the dashboard and the red New Year’s blessing that hung from the rearview mirror. “What does that say?” Dũng asked. I hesitated for a moment. Chinese is rich with meaning, but English translations often fall far short of the mark, creating something that is clumsy or even ridiculous. I responded with the best one I could think of. “May you come and go in peace.”
Half an hour later we were standing beneath the clock tower of Cho Binh Tay, the ‘new market’ of Cholon. I looked up at its dusty roof tiles and decorative windows, their whitewashed frames suggestive of porcelain. It was an earlier version of this building that gave the area its Vietnamese name.
Dũng grabbed my arm, guiding me through the relentless waves of motorcycles that bore down amid the swirling traffic. The dimly-lit interior, as it turned out, was a complete assault on the senses. Dodging metal carts, hurried bands of delivery men and hard-bargaining customers, we pushed through the narrow passageways crammed floor to ceiling with wares. “Wholesale market,” Dũng explained, as we looked down from the main staircase at the activity below. Ascending its wide steps brought us to the quieter upper level, shaded from the late morning sun by a long procession of painted bamboo louvers.
Wandering into the food section, we squeezed past women tucking into their bowls of late morning pho, stacks of dried goods jars, boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, and stationary food carts whose contents were piled high behind grease-lined panes of glass. Dũng seemed visibly uncomfortable, wary of his chaotic surroundings as he stood waiting for me among a sea of merchandise. But this was the Saigon that I had been seeking all along.
The first time I heard spoken Vietnamese was in the winter of 2010, when a close friend came by Hong Kong for a visit. Anne was the kind of person you’d find on a poster advertising United Colors of Benetton, the daughter of a French-Canadian father and a mother who was both Vietnamese and Chinese. Her mother had grown up in Cholon after her family migrated from the north, presumably in the period following World War II. Circumstance had then led her to Montréal, whose Chinatown was dominated by Chinese-Vietnamese émigrés.
Uncle Jimmy, a friend of my parents, had a similar story to tell. Although his family lived a comfortable existence in Cholon, they had lost everything in their successful bid to escape Saigon on April 30, 1975 – the very morning it fell. His story moved me not only because of its raw drama and his triumph over hardship, but also because it reflected a painful episode of my own family history. Both my grandfather and grandmother had fled Shanghai under similar circumstances, never to see their parents ever again.
“Where do you want to go to now?” Dũng asked, as we waited on the curb out in the midday sun. I hesitated, considering the options. “A park,” I told him, “take me somewhere the local people go.”
On the road we passed a crowd of foreign visitors filing into Thien Hau Temple, dedicated to the same goddess worshipped by fishermen in Hong Kong. Amid the open storefronts selling festive New Year decorations, a teenage girl lay naked on her side, sprawled across the clay tiles of a road divider. Around her a horde of motorcycles circled mercilessly like loud, hungry vultures. Where was her family? I thought. And more importantly, why was she in such a vulnerable, humiliating position?
We drove through District 1 before being deposited at the entrance of the city zoo. Admiring the pastel yellow walls of the adjacent History Museum, we strolled under lanterns hung in anticipation of Tet, Vietnamese New Year. “Do you come here a lot?” I asked Dũng. “I used to, all the time.” He seemed nonchalant, slowing down as we approached a fork in the path. “I took my wedding photos here.”
We saw eye to eye with two ostriches as they peeked curiously over the wooden fence, and caught sight of a sleeping rhino. But I wondered at the real educational value of the facility as visitors tapped excitedly on the glass, trying to attract the attention of pacing tigers, while others threw miscellaneous items into the orangutan enclosure. Further along I felt equally sorry for the peacocks in full plumage, contained in cages only slightly larger than their bodies.
Lunch was far less disheartening. Even before the trip, I knew that I could not leave Saigon without trying bánh xèo, the crepe-like southern specialty of rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric. “From Mekong Delta,” Dũng said, as we tore into the tissue paper-like skin with our hands, revealing the contents of pork, shrimp, diced spring onion and beansprouts. We wrapped large chunks of the crepe in lettuce and mustard leaves before dipping it in fish sauce. “Do many visitors like to try this dish?” I asked. Dũng waved his hand. “No, most who come here don’t know about bánh xèo.”
The previous day I had paid a visit to the former Presidential Palace – now draped with a hammer and sickle over the top floor, above a spindly frame ready to support an oversized portrait of Ho Chi Minh. I walked the eerie basement corridors, housing antiquated telephones, communications equipment, and yellowing maps of Vietnam. Highlighted in red marker, these recorded zones of military jurisdiction and the dividing line at the 17th parallel. Vietcong routes through Laos and Cambodia – the Ho Chi Minh Trail – were drawn in black.
The palace was a fascinating time capsule, but downright chilling at times. I felt insulted, even violated as I sat in the darkened video room, the old TV set playing a commentary with footage leading up to the ‘liberation’ of Saigon. I stood up from my red seat, ready to leave. This war of ideologies had torn my extended family asunder; as a unit directly influenced by ‘Western poison’, they would have been easy targets of the new order that swept across Asia. Eventually those who made it out scattered across the ocean, towards Canada and the United States. And when I grew old enough to question their decision to emigrate, my grandmother made no effort to mince her words. “We left,” she told me, “because we saw that there was no hope for our country.”
On the front lawn a stage had been set up ahead of the New Year celebrations. It was the 45th anniversary of the Tet Offensive and a young dance troupe were busy rehearsing a number dedicated to the heroes of the revolution. The routine was set to a cheerful soundtrack, pierced by the sound of whizzing shells, explosions and the bursts of firecrackers. I watched as the youths raised proud fists and flexed arms across their chests, betraying a hint of blasé in their passive faces.
Outside the gates Tet decorations lined the avenue, sponsored by Burger King on one side and Domino’s Pizza on the other. Starbucks had just opened its first branch in Vietnam behind a monument to a national hero, and McDonald’s was scheduled to arrive by the end of the year. “It’s incredible,” my father would say upon my return. “Even after the war, the Vietnamese have nothing against the Americans.”
Before my evening flight back to Hong Kong, Dũng announced that there was time to visit one more site. I was ambivalent, half-knowing that it was the one place I had deliberately avoided in the past two days. But deep down I knew it had to be seen.
The War Remnants Museum was utterly sobering, even more so than I had previously thought. Outside a gallery a young woman sat wilting in her chair, on the verge of tears. Inside I joined the wall of despondent faces, each one staring blankly at the graphic images in horrified silence. I couldn’t bear to take photos of what I saw, and so I stowed my camera away, hiding it out of an overriding sense of respect.
In a museum heaving with foreigners, Dũng was one of the few Vietnamese visitors. He seemed pleasantly surprised when I recognised the iconic photograph of Kim Phúc, the nine-year-old girl running in the aftermath of a napalm attack. We followed the slow-moving procession, transfixed by the pictures showing deformed victims of Agent Orange, and a map of thin, knife-edge lines that bled into deep red blotches – a patchwork of blood stains charting its damage across central and southern Vietnam.
We then sifted through images of physical destruction, including bombed-out neighbourhoods of Dũng’s native Haiphong. His eyes became reddened and moist. “Our country has fought many wars”, he murmured wistfully. I knew not what to say, except to give him a nod and a reassuring silence. Still, Dũng confronted these visual horrors with a remarkable sense of humour. As soon as he regained his composure I found myself being pointed to a photo of a GI, snapped as he attempted to cross a swollen river. The man was entirely submerged save his forearms, raised to keep his machine gun from getting wet. “Would you do this?”
Dũng asked me those words with a chirp in his voice and a mischievous smile. Shocked by the innocence of his question, I struggled to find a suitable answer. “No,” I told him weakly. “Probably not.”
I came away from the museum with a newfound respect for the Vietnamese. Three days in Saigon had revealed an immense pride in their culture, a hard-nosed business sense, and the contagious optimism of a nation on the move. But most of all I was struck by their indomitable strength of spirit: a quiet resilience that shone with the sheer capacity to forgive.
I remember feeling terribly helpless when I visited the War Remnants Museum – to think of how dreadful humans can be when it comes to war. I was repeatedly shocked and horrified by the pictures and at one point almost drowned in tears. The story of your grandparents and Uncle Jimmy remind me of similar story about a Cambodian family who had to flee the country through the forests at night to escape the Khmer Rouge regime. Some people had to go through such ordeal in their lives indeed. Yet, it is so heartwarming to see how many of them are moving forward and looking into the future.
Speaking of the brighter side, I would definitely try bánh xèo the next time I go to Vietnam. I’m not sure why I missed the dish, but it seems like I did miss something great!
Absolutely, Bama. The photographs at the museum defied words and left me extremely upset. Hearing all these personal accounts of survival makes me realise time and again how fortunate we are to be living in more peaceful times. Sadly, that’s still not the case in many parts of the world.
A moving piece you wrote here.
Did you find out why that girl surrounded by the motorcycles was lying there naked?
It seems like she was being humiliated for something…
A hard image, I can only imagine.
Thank you Sofie, it was hard to write at times but the article pulled together in the end.
I never did – we saw her in an instant and then we had sped off. On first appearances she seemed to be drunk or hungover, but I doubt that we will ever know the full story…
I believe Kim Phuc, the naked girl captured in the famous photo ended up in Scarborough Ontario (now Toronto).
I have to say that the history of Vietnam is complex and I barely understand all the events leading up to the 20th century. But when growing up in Canada in the 1960’s to 1970’s, yes I did remember the tv clips of the Vietnam War.
Thanks for your blog post.
You’re welcome Jean. Kim Phuc’s story is an extraodinary one – after relocating and marrying in Cuba, she and her husband sought political asylum as their plane refueled in Newfoundland, en route to their honeymoon in Russia. She now resides in Ajax with her family.
James, this is an incredibly moving, thought-provoking post. At the time of these events, I was a fresh-from-university teacher starting out in Washington DC, working in both inner city and suburban schools. Every week brought a new wave of Vietnamese immigrant children and parents to the schools, confused and frightened. As the kids struggled to adapt, we teachers struggled to bridge the immense cultural and language gaps. We racked our brains to find a way to connect … and the answer was FOOD! We invited the families to the classrooms to teach us how to cook their favorite foods. From these shared experiences we were able to learn about and from each other. It was the best teaching experience of my life. And guess what their favorite dish was to cook – bánh xèo! Thank you for this excellent post. All the best, Terri
Thanks in turn for sharing this story Terri, I’m thrilled to know that my photos of bánh xèo brought back such fond memories of that time. Food is indeed a powerful connector – especially when words fail – and I can just imagine the kind of bonding that took place over the fire. Perhaps those experiences could be something to write about in the future.
Hi James, Thanks to your inspiration I’m posting my story with a shout-out to you on May 16. I’m so glad you reminded me of this experience. Many thanks! ~Terri
You’re welcome Terri! I look forward to your upcoming post this Thursday – no doubt it will be a heartwarming read. 🙂
A moving post indeed James. And a glimpse into the vastly different socio-cultural fabric away from the capital, just like in India or similar developing countries. I was surprised too by the depth of emotion I felt at the killing fields in Cambodia. I had thought I knew everything there was to know about those events, but i didn’t on an individual, emotional level and it was heart-wrenching. We can only take away lessons from their stoic courage. And yes, count our blessings.
Absolutely, Madhu. I wasn’t mentally or emotionally prepared to see the War Remnants Museum – in fact I might have been happy to leave Saigon without visiting it altogether. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m thankful that someone else made that decision for me.
Extraordinary country. Your post adds another piece to the jigsaw of images I have. Can’t wait to go back.
Same here, Meredith. Considering how close Hong Kong is to Vietnam, I wonder why it took me so long to make it over! The flight to Saigon was only two hours and four minutes… I imagine it would be half that for Hanoi.
Someday I hope to go all the way from the Chinese border down to the Mekong Delta, by bus and train. Now that would be quite an adventure!
I’ve read some of your post about Viet Nam. It’s hard to express my feelings when reading something realted to my own country written by a foreigner. But thanks for your kind words and your pictures! Nice to read them!
You’re welcome – I loved my short trip to Vietnam and I’ll certainly be back in the near future!
Great post, especially what you said about the War Remnants museum. Interesting what you said about almost feeling offended by the video about the ‘liberation of Saigon’ at the palace, then being shocked and horrified by the museum. I had similar feelings when I visited the tunnels at Cu Chi, watching a video taking about people recieving medals as ‘Heroic Killers of Americans’. I actually thought that was quite offensive, but then thinking about what I’d seen at the museum I could better put it in context.
You should definitly do the train/bus up the Vietnamese coast, it is indeed a great adventure!
Ah, I didn’t make it out to Cu Chi this time… and there’s not a doubt that I wouldn’t fit in those tunnels! The incredible thing is that the Vietnamese don’t hold a grudge against Americans, even if they called it the “American War”. They seem far more focused on their historic enemy to the north, what with the dispute over the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
Someday I’ll follow the Vietnamese coastline from north to south; that will be one of my dream trips!
I am at a loss for words about your pain of your family. The post traumatic stress spans generations but we can strive to create a better world. As native americans who live on the northamerican and south american continent, we also have our stories of displacement. I understand…
Thank you for those kind words. My grandparents had no choice but to flee China, and we as their descendants have been so lucky to live the way we do because of their actions. When the time is right, maybe I will publish a post on their stories…