Monday, August 27, 2012

[HO CHI MINH] War Remnants and Water Puppets

It is an odd combination alright, but I still recommend this pair if you plan to do it in one day. You absolutely need something to cheer you up after the rather depressing trip to that museum. Well then, let's begin with the prologue.

After seeing the few buildings that have served as Saigon’s claim to fame, there was nothing left to do. I could have opted to see some temples or pagodas, and I did see one, but it felt a bit boring for me. HCMC has several museums spread out all over the city. I guess I would have to visit one. As I was already headed west from the Notre Dame Cathedral area, that meant that most of the museums, with the exception of the War Remnants Museum, were already out of the way because they are located in the east and south. No choice. Go with it.

While I was walking I passed by the venue of the water puppet show. And so I dropped by to see the performance hours. If I remember it correctly, there are three, starting from the late afternoon. Since I still had a lot of time, I decided to go to the War Remnants Museum first, which I found a bit hard to locate because of Saigon’s complicated urban sprawl, or maybe the motorcycles just overwhelmed me so much that I lost my sense of direction. The museum is actually easy to spot because of the fighter jets and tanks on display by the entrance. All I could remember, though, is that it is in the same street as Pizza Hut, where I had some snacks and a game of charades with the staff. The first word of the day was ‘water’ and the next, ‘ice’.

Of course, that museum is sort of biased. You are in Vietnam, hello. No love for Americans here, at least based on this topic. However, the photos on display simply don't lie. Regardless of political affiliations or historical biases, you'll also end up feeling a strong pang of horror and gloom as you make your way inside that museum. The pictures speak for themselves and if you pay close attention, you'll see how even non-Vietnamese soldiers (from South Korea and the Philippines, children of veteran US soldiers, etc) fell victim to the Vietnam War.

If pictures aren't enough, you also have a lot of facts on info boards all over the place. This trip is one big history lesson, and this is perhaps, the only tourist attraction in Saigon where you see people coming in with cameras at hand but end up not camwhoring at all. Would you really have the guts to do that? Everywhere I turned people were either holding one hand to cover their mouths in shock or just squinting in horror because of what they were seeing.

Most of the illustrations there are vivid recollections of the events and there is no censorship involved as they just show everything as they are. The most horrifying portrait I saw was that of a Vietcong, or what was left of him or her, lifted by an American soldier with one hand. The caption said that that person was a victim of a rocket or grenade launcher. How could humans do this to one another? It just highlights the fact that we're just viruses on this planet, ready to attack each other for subsistence’s sake. As if we were not human.

I could probably go on forever babbling about statistics and atrocities of war, but you have to see those exhibits yourself in order to get a genuine feeling of how it is like to be reminded of such appalling acts of terrorism. The trip to that museum has really made me thankful that I haven't experienced a war in this lifetime. I hope I never would. Everyone is a victim in times of war and its aftermath is something that you simply do not forget after a few decades or so, as they linger on in everyone’s collective memory.

Hence, it was just proper for me to have a good meal after this. It might seem disgusting because of all the decapitated body parts I saw earlier but all the walking had exhausted me so much. Besides, my imagination knows when to behave, and the charade game with the staff served as a good distraction. I mixed up the three performance times and arrived late for the second one, which meant I had to attend the last one. Or was it the first one and the second one, respectively? Irrelevant. Anyway, I found myself with an hour or so to spare after that meal, and so I went to see one pagoda and even had time to shop for some fake branded long sleeves in a small shop I discovered while walking down the street. It was the first time in my travels that I actually splurged on clothes. I usually just buy a souvenir shirt or two but there I was spending a million dong for those long sleeves. I couldn't resist, they were effin’ cheap!

The water puppet show was the day’s grand finalé. They allow cameras as long as you do not use flash. I even recorded some clips from the show! It's basically a puppet show, on water, thus the name. It serves as a good refresher on Vietnamese culture as the scenarios depicted are those of daily occurrences in the lives of the locals. The scenes mostly involve activities such as farming, catching animals, and some dragon boat race. The entire show is enjoyable even with the language barrier posing a great obstacle. You just have to see those puppets in action for you to get the gist.

What I find fascinating, though, was the mythology introduced in the puppet show. Well, just a couple of dragons and colorful birds engaged in a dance routine but still quite amusing. That show further supports my claim on the similarities between Philippine and Vietnamese cultures. Perhaps we just differ in terms of the mythological aspect as they seem to borrow heavily from Chinese tradition. Overall, a show that is entertaining and educational at the same time. This is what you need after a gloomy museum tour!

A long walk to the guest house followed. I wouldn't dare ride a bus because all the words still seemed alien to me despite the roman letters that I was seeing. The tones do not help in navigation. You might think that you know how to pronounce a certain term only to hear a local say it and wonder how the hell those sounds got written that way. Oh well, language barrier. Tomorrow, Vung Tau! Or not. The next day was spent lazing around the guest house and doing advanced work. The source of funds had to be prioritized. Besides, it was raining. Yes, the rain followed me all the way to Saigon to ruin my day. It was a good rest, though.

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