Saigon Night, Holy Night: Một Giáng sinh ở Việt Nam

When my uncle first heard I was spending Christmas 2015 in Vietnam, he told my father that it didn’t seem like too long ago that he was trying his best to spend Christmas away from Vietnam.  While the entirety of the Vietnam War predates my existence, I took this revelation to heart and treated my time in Vietnam more thoughtfully that I might otherwise have.

Without delving too much into politics, I can say that the current mentality of the government of Vietnam still relies very heavily on a war fought 40 years ago and all the propaganda they can squeeze out of it.  History is written by the winners and there is no place as easily accessible as Vietnam to witness this.

To be fair, neither the Vietnamese people nor the government seem to have anything again American citizens; rather it’s the American government they cajole and celebrate a victory over.  And, interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, the men and women in southern Vietnam, once allies with the US, seem very hush-hush about the war, despite the large, very anti-American War Remnants Museum in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC; formerly Saigon), placed by the Northern Vietnamese Troops after the end of the war in 1975 to remind the South how lucky they were that the Northern Army had prevailed.

Regardless, our journey from Cambodia (see the last part of our adventures here) into Vietnam was fraught with difficulty.  While in Phnom Penh, it was discovered that our travel agency had given us the wrong paperwork for a border crossing into Vietnam.  Fortunately, Nou Sokhien was on duty at Giant Ibis.  He took the time to go get us visas to Vietnam from the embassy and didn’t charge us for his kindness. (Again, I cannot recommend this bus company highly enough.)

Although clearing the visa matter took a few hours, with Sokhien’s help, the matter was resolved smoothly.  Our tour company also showed up at the bus depot to pay–right then and there–for any unforeseen costs we had incurred that day.  Only a few hours after we should have left, we were on a bus into Vietnam.

We crossed the border without incident and, almost immediately I could sense money was around us.  The bumpy streets of Cambodia, lined with wild grasses and wooden dwellings on stilts, became gated concrete houses adjoining smoothly paved roads.

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Nothing says HCMC like motorbikes!

We made it to the Liberty Park View Hotel late that night and, tired from the hours bouncing about on a bus, I crashed almost immediately while Kerensa and Melissa explored the streets of HCMC for dinner.  When we woke up the next morning, we had a whirlwind day planned–morning at the Cu Chi Tunnels and an afternoon spent touring the city.

The Cu Chi Tunnels were…interesting…and going inside a (widened and heightened for the tourists’ benefit) tunnel still made me feel ever so claustrophobic.  I’m not sure if what we saw was our tour guide’s normal demeanor or if he was just very aware of the fact that he was guiding around American tourists, but he kept congratulating us, saying we would “make good Viet Cong” and “yay, Communism.”  I’m not saying I would have been in support of the Vietnam War–I’m pretty sure I would not have been–but I still felt as though, just by listening to our guide, I was failing to respect the soldiers sent over to die in this foreign, hot land of jungles and Cu Chi traps.

The afternoon tour of HCMC was a little better.  We first went to see the Reunification Palace, where the President of Southern Vietnam lived until April 1975.  Then we dropped by the stunning Notre Dame Cathedral and Old Saigon Post Office.  We ended the afternoon with a drop by the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

Then we wished our tour guide goodbye, grabbed dinner at a nearby restaurant, and headed to bed early for our next morning tour: a Christmas Eve boat tour of the Mekong Delta.

That evening, we met up with Clemens and Faye, two Chengdu friends, and headed to Christmas mass.  We passed by a beautiful, super-crowded outside service but walked on when we learned it was (of course) in Vietnamese.  We came to a little English speaking service and…well, celebrated Christmas.  Afterwards, we found a club with a quiet rooftop.  There we grabbed a few drinks and sat around soaking in the warm winter evening.  When the drinks were consumed, the ice cubes melted, and the sticky sweetness of the day had softened into a cool evening, we bid our friends farewell and headed back to our hotel.  The next day, we were leaving for Hanoi.

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