We are visiting Bảo Tàng Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh, the Museum of Hồ Chí Minh City, on Lý Tự Trọng Street; it’s our free day in Sàigòn, and we’ve ridden cyclos (xích lô) to get here from Thích Quãng Đức’s shrine. At the gate, we expect the drivers to drift off, but it doesn’t happen; instead, one driver takes charge and dismisses the other eight. Number Nine buys our tickets into the museum for us and starts handing out coupons. Sandy, accustomed to doing for herself, has already bought her ticket and doesn’t want him to take charge of what she’s already taken care of. I’m not fond of the idea either, but he’s pushy; I hand him my money just because it’s easier that way.
Before we go in, Ed takes the time to find out Number Nine’s story. He’s the son of an ARVN Air Force Colonel who was shot down over North Việt Nam. The father spent a good bit of time in prison there; the son is tainted by the father’s sins, which is why he’s a cyclo driver today. ARVNs and children of ARVNS who make a good living are rare in the Việt Nam of today, twenty-seven years after the Fall of Sàigòn.
Right in front of the museum there’s a Citroën 15/Six on display, shown on the left below. I took the picture of the identical model on the right in 1970, stuck in Sàigòn traffic.
There’s also a Huey parked outside, in front of a five-story banyan tree. I still can’t get over my fascination with Hueys. It’s not technical; there are many more advanced choppers today. It’s sentimental; in 1970, a Huey meant something good. You learned quickly how to tell the difference, by sound, between them and everything else. A single Huey or a flock of them, it didn’t matter; they were everywhere, all the time. Even at night, they were either protecting you or were bringing guys in on medevac. The one below was used in Việt Nam’s war against Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
Out back, where the ex-US tanks are, there’s a whole row of cars. A Renault (who used to make tanks), a Simca , a Peugeot 403 , and a Lambretta. I’ve seen them all before. The reasons they’re there seem flimsy, at best lightweight—the Peugeot hauled Vô Vân Kiệt, the Secretary of Sàigòn, around; the Renault might have been used as a makeshift ambulance; and the Simca might have carried communists and weapons—but I’m glad to see old friends anyway.
Lambrettas have always tickled me; cheap and ubiquitous—the taxis, the 4CVs, were confined to the cities—everyone used them, even in the countryside on the farms. And during the American war, they were used to carry everything, not just TNT.
The museum itself has quite a history. Designed by a French architect as a commercial museum in the 1880s, it was once the Governor-General of Cochinchina’s palace, also Diệm’s Gia Long Palace, as well as Thiệu’s Supreme Court building, only becoming the museum it is now in 1978. It provides a home for this multitude of subjects, listed in the museum’s brochure:
It is also, apparently, a popular place for wedding photos. When we get there, we have to go in the rear entrance because the front’s being used as a backdrop. For the next hour, the photographer, the groom and the bride turn up in odd corners on both floors.
“Today, Americans can regain the sense
of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by
refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.”
—Gerald R. Ford, Address at Tulane University, 23 April 1975
If I had been a general in the North at the time, I would have taken Ford’s speech as a signal that there were no more road blocks left on the road to Sàigòn. Six days later, Sàigòn fell and the tanks pushed over the gates of the Presidential Palace.
This diorama shows the Fall of Sàigòn, with the gates sketched in against the Palace in the background. TVs display the liberating tanks and the signing of the surrender papers. I wonder why Revolutionary propaganda always shows young women, fist upraised, leading the masses, but rarely has any substantive role for them other than making coffee.
Besides the Fall of Sàigòn, we have another romanticized diorama, this one showing the August 1945 revolution:
Close by is the music to the National Anthem, Tiến Quân Ca—“Marching Into Battle Song”— written and composed by Văn Cao (1923-1995) in 1944, not by Uncle Hồ, as I had originally thought.
The other panel shows the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, written by Uncle Hồ and modeled, as everyone knows, on the US version.
The horse-drawn peddler’s cart on the left is one I saw in use in 1970; I suspect that none exist any more outside museums.
There are also miniatures in glass cases. The one below shows the American Embassy at No. 4 Thống Nhất Street.
You can tell from the model exactly where I was parked when I took the shot of the guard who is not wearing his uncomfortable, American-style shoes. The miniature is a pretty good one, by the way. I’d be willing to bet that it’s left over from plans developed during the North Vietnamese reconaissance of Sàigòn, not from ones graciously donated by the US Government.
The six-story building is gone, and the street is now named Lê Duẩn. The American Consulate is at the same address, No. 4, but in a completely new building and compound.
There’s a diorama of “Cu Chi Hero Land” which I’m bound to take a picture of. I was stationed in Củ Chi; I know there were many battles nearby, but I never thought of it as a theme park. I’m not quite sure how to take this.
Upstairs, I find some of the “Ethnics of Hồ Chí Minh City” displays. At dinner last night at the “Vietnam House” with Mark Byrnes, Mark Lawrence and Andrew Hunt, we heard some classical Court music, although we didn’t know that that was what we had heard until much later, in Huế. I was fascinated by a particular instrument with a single string, which sounded like a theremin, only prettier. Here it is in a museum case; it’s called a “monochord,” in English, I see, but đàn bầu in tiếng Việt. I wouldn’t mind having one, but my botched attempt at playing the “banjo” with the folk musicians down in the Delta convinced me that I need to think long and hard before trying to get something as big and awkward as a monochord through both customs and bomb searches on the way back. Besides, I haven’t had time to practice in the last twenty years. What makes me think that I could find time now?
Wandering through the upstairs rooms, I spot Mary Kathleen sitting in one of the window seats overlooking the banyan tree, resting. I can see it; we’ve probably all had enough togetherness for a while.
This is my last stop; early Vietnamese money and the plural of abacus:
I’ve had enough museum. I go outside where Ed and several others are gathered, making plans for the next stop. That doesn’t take too much time; several of us want to go to the War Relics Market and we’re prepared to walk. The remainder are going to peel off on their own. Ed takes up a collection for Number Nine, who seems both pleased and touched; he waves goodbye and leaves. The rest of us start talking lunch. I mention phở, trying hard to pronounce it correctly. Ed makes fun of my accent; I pretend offense and flip him the bird. He pretends shock and horror. Taxi drivers watching the exchange crack up. Crazy Americans. I snap a photo of one of the drivers, the one who seems most amused by us. He tosses away his cigarette, tucks the pack into his shirt and gives me thumbs-up before he’ll let me photograph him.
It’s lunchtime. I want phở, but I’m not going to get it. The sun is out and it’s relentless. By the time we get to the traffic circle where Bến Thành market is, we’re hot, hungry and snappish. Finally, we settle on a place that offers air conditioning. We go in; it’s like stepping into a cooler, and it makes me think of my grandmother’s flower shop; all the cut flowers were kept in two frigid rooms in the basement of the house. The doors had latches like old-fashioned ice boxes; you had to lift and pull to open the door. In the super-cooled restaurant, we arrange ourselves around two tables pushed together in the center of the room. I suspect the air conditioning uses freon, because it’s so efficient, but at this point none of us cares to enquire. Ed and Kate share ice cream.
There’s nothing on the menu for me. I talk to the waitress. “Fish?” I ask. She shakes her head. “Tôi ăn chay,” I say. She points at the American-style grilled cheese sandwich on the menu. “No cheese,” I say. She suggests ice cream. “No dairy,” I say. She looks at me. She stares at the menu, then at me. Finally, she points at the one item I’m allowed: bread and butter. Technically, being lactose intolerant, I can’t eat butter either, but I’m usually OK with a little. I nod. She’s more cheered than an American waitress would be, I think, by this small success.
We’re at the restaurant for a long time. The waitress climbs on a table to take pictures of us all.
We ask for the bill. She brings the whole thing as one. Someone asks for separate checks. Ten minutes later, she brings out one check, collects the money, takes it to the cashier, brings back the change. Five minutes later, there is another check, and the whole process is repeated. Five minutes later, another check. This goes on for what seems like an hour before we can make our escape. More people desert the troupe; those of us who are left head for the Art museum, Bảo Tàng Mỹ Thuật, just a couple of blocks away, at 97A Phó Đức Chính Street.
The first thing I’m confronted with in the entrance yard is this reproduction of Olmec Head No. 1, found in San Lorenzo and now in the Jalapa Museum of Anthropology. The original, nicknamed “El Rey,” The King, is over eight feet tall and weighs in at around 20 tons; it dates from 1000-1200 BCE; the caption in the Jalapa (also spelled Xalapa) Museum reads, “Cabeza Colosal No.-1 ‘El Rey’.”
I was lucky enough to see the original, not in Jalapa but in Washington DC, a few years ago when many of the colossal heads went on tour, and I happened to be there for a conference put on by the Pre-Columbian Society of Washington DC (1996: An Unbroken Tradition: 1,000 Years of Pictorial Communication in Central Mexico). It’s a bit like running into an acquaintance far from home, with the difference that when you say “Hi!” they say “Who the hell are you?” The reproduction in the entrance yard here is probably made of sculpted styrofoam, like most of the Olmec Head reproductions, weighing 20 pounds or so instead of 20 tons.
Most of the art in the museum is stiff, didactic stuff, full of gears and yet more upraised fists, upholding the almost unbroken tradition of unviewable revolutionary painting everywhere.
As you can see, Andrew is looking at the wall rather than the painting, Mark Lawrence has turned his back on it, and the unnamed passerby is looking with disfavor on the whole transaction.
There are three floors, arranged in no logical order that I can see, except that ancient art owns part of the top floor. Scattered about, there are a very few nudes, showing tiny, big-eyed Vietnamese women with enormous, Hollywood-style breasts. I’m prepared to say that Western influence on Việt art might not be all bad, but I wouldn’t say that based on what I’ve seen here.
What is fresh and exciting is the children’s art:
Dancing buffalo, happy elephants, liberationist tanks; great stuff. I’d pay money for some of these.
At the exit, there’s a small souvenir counter, and I buy a book named Tranh Cổ Động, which means Posters.
Interestingly, the word for picture, “tranh,” is also the word for struggle. The posters included, many celebrating Sàigòn’s 300th anniversary, are from the collection of Trường Đại Học Mỹ Thuật TP Hồ Chí Minh, or Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts University. The posters remind me, very much, of Russian Constructivist, and Constructivist-influenced commercial, art.
I think it’s possible that some of the posters inside Tranh Cổ Động, especially the revolutionary ones, deliberately invoke the Constructivists.
Outside and across the street, I take a picture of the Thiên Tùng (Thousand Pines) Hotel; this style of building is very common in both private homes and small businesses. Tall, three to seven stories high and just one room wide, they make me giddy to look at them. With all that pink and blue, I wonder if the floors are segregated; one for the boys, one for the girls.
We walk to the Palace hotel; it’s not that far. I have a corner suite with much more overall square footage, but less space in the bathroom. It has the same undersized, curved-bottom tub the other room had, one that nearly requires a step-stool to climb into. I would have expected my second-floor room to have more pressure than my ninth-floor one, but all the rooms have the same feeble water pressure. Outside, on Nguyễn Huệ, the combination clock-tower and light sculpture is lit up, flashing as the traffic drifts by. Sàigòn at night is just as quiet as Sàigòn in daylight. The loudest sounds are the constant horns, but these aren’t American style truck horns; they’re more like bicycle or moped horns. “Beep-beep,” they say, not “BLAT!”
Across Ngô Đức Kế street and up on top of a four-story building, I see a giant pigeon coop. I haven’t seen any pigeon races, but I haven’t seen pigeon on any menus, either.
Later that evening, most of us gather in the lobby and mill around for ten or fifteen minutes trying to decide on a restaurant. Just as we think we’ve decided on the Lemongrass at 4 Nguyễn Thiếp, a tiny street that connects Nguyễn Huệ and Đồng Khởi, Sandy arrives and says that it sucks. She suggests Restaurant 13, on the grounds that Restaurant 19 was good and both were mentioned in a guide book. Everyone agrees that that is a good idea, but we mill around some more. I get impatient. “Let’s go NOW,” I say, and everyone laughs. But we do go.
According to Sandy’s tourism book, it’s common to name restaurants after addresses. Restaurants 13 and 19 are at on Ngô Đức Kế street.
Restaurant 13 is where we find that even Sandy has things she won’t eat. The menu lists, among other delicacies, “Fried fallopian tube.” At first we all think it is some seafood dish, like uni paste in Japan, which is pureed sea urchin innards. Sandy questions the waitress. “Is pork,” she says. Sandy turns a little green, but it doesn’t put her off her feed; she orders something else. I enjoy my crunchy lotus stems and shrimp. Two tables away, two men are flirted with by one woman. They’re speaking rapid Japanese, just like I hear in movies, the men squeezing out words like melon seeds between their gritted teeth, the woman simpering in baby talk. I wonder what their story is.
Tomorrow morning, we plan to leave the hotel at 0700 and fly to Đà Nẵng, leaving Sàigòn and all the parts of Việt Nam I’m familiar with. Terra Borealis, terra incognita.
ARVN: Army of the Republic of Việt
Huey: Bell UH-1 helicopter, nicknamed “Huey;” the workhorse of the VN war.
Main web site: http://www.pauahtun.org