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.