When I touch down in a country I’m visiting for the first time, I enter an ultra-focused state in which my senses are heightened, my eyes magnifying glasses alert to the merest detail. This hyper-perceptive, emotionally over-charged condition is so ridiculously intense that it inevitably lasts only an hour, a few hours, a day at most. Any longer and spontaneous combustion would surely follow. (Maybe it’s the same for everyone, but I can’t know that. I can only speak my truth. Take that as a caution that applies to the series of posts on Vietnam that follows.)
The taxi ride from the airport to our hotel in Saigon was truly unforgettable. It was about 8pm on a Tuesday. The driver spoke zero English. Free of the distraction of obligatory small-talk, I sat in the front passenger seat in my super-sponge mode and absorbed my new surroundings. The windows were wound down, presumably because the aircon wasn’t working. The air was thick and warm, tropical, as expected – and as it turned out, this was about the only expectation that was not to be confounded in the 3 weeks that followed.
Shortly into our taxi journey I became aware of a hum. A few motorbikes came into view. The hum was building, as if we were entering a beehive. More bikes, more and more. Then we were in the middle of it: a maelstrom of buzzing Hondas, not bees! Hundreds of ‘em. Thousands! Helmets everywhere, riding the chorus of engines this way, that way, every bloody way. The taxi was tailgating (no choice there!), motorcycle riders wove in and out and around us, one guy crossed in front of us with his arm out fending off our car, as if bodysurfing across the face of a wave. The driver plugged on impassively, tooting his way through the singles, couples, families and kids atop bikes.
It was overwhelmingly impressive. Pulsing with life. The traffic flowing impossibly through the apparent chaos. So this was Saigon.
THIS WAS SAIGON.
I was all over the place emotionally. In fact, I felt as if I was going to blubber. What the hell?
I had no idea I would react as I did, but I knew that Vietnam was not just another SE Asian country for me. This is undoubtedly the same for anyone in Australia who was approaching conscription age at the time of the Vietnam War – ‘the American War’, as it’s known in Vietnam. Although most of us knew little about Vietnam or its people back then, Australian involvement in that war left no one untouched. We were a country divided, stirred as never before or since.
In my youthful simplicity I saw it as all very black and white. Either you were on our side, or you were the enemy. ‘Our side’ comprised not just the folk who were against the war and outraged at the Liberal government’s “All the way with LBJ” declaration that committed young Australians to maim and be maimed, to kill and die, to suffer and commit atrocities in Vietnam as part of the American offensive against the Viet Cong/China/Russia/Communism.
No, ‘our side’ was the glorious counter culture, the social and cultural freedom fighters who were delivering a new world of enlightened values. ‘Our side’ was rocknroll, the new music that had set the walls of the city a-quake. Was drugs to open the doors of perception. Was sex to liberate a million pimply virgins from the chains of churchy upbringings and the repressions of our parents. New beginnings. New system. The Promised Land, no less. An illusory one, as it transpired, but who could know that then?
And the enemy? Straights, cops, soldiers, the Liberal Party and their voters, and worst of all ANYONE who believed in the Vietnam War. Parents, brothers and sisters most certainly included.
There is so much more to say on this, but this is a blog about my recent experience as a first-time traveller to Vietnam, and I am well aware that the concentration span of online readers is very short (mine included), so I’ll resist the urge to elaborate. If you were there, there’s no need, and if you weren’t, you’ll probably have little interest in my reflections here.
Jump cut. Gough won the election and pulled us out of Vietnam, and so ended the Moratorium marches and protests. Life became a little less meaningful, as a generation of banner-waving protesters settled down to uni studies, jobs and procreating, in many cases eventually selling out all they had once held precious – and in just about all cases, blissfully ignorant of the suffering and privations the end of the war was to bring to the people of the south as Ho Chi Minh’s regime set about exacting revenge on those who had opposed them.
For me, and I suspect many others, the very word ‘Vietnam’ continued to resonate with the excitement of communal action, of rebellion channelled into a just cause, of the romance of insurrection, of genuine shared outrage against the hopelessly – nay, criminally – misguided and pigheaded authorities of the day. And of sweet, final victory against the bastards.
How shallow all that must sound – is! – to those whom the Vietnam war touched more personally. The familes and loved ones of the soldiers who fought over there and never came back, and those who came back mangled, or worse. Who returned to Australian shores to be jeered and spat on, treated as pariahs, as murderers, rather than servicemen who had done their country’s bidding in a dirty war, sometimes at great individual cost. I had no sympathy for them at the time. I know better now.
Then there were the Vietnamese boat people who had supported the south who fled to our country to escape recrimination at the hands of the new Vietnamese government. They came in their thousands, and were welcomed. We knew we owed them something. The least we could do was give them sanctuary, and a new home. There was none of the parsimony or paranoia of today towards sea-borne refugees. And they repaid us tenfold, these industrious newcomers from Asia, changing the face of white Australia forever. Thank Christ that White Australia shame is behind us.
I, like many, regard the Vietnamese as amongst our best immigrants. And there is a sense – and I don’t think this is mine alone – of a special relationship between Australia and Vietnam.
These thoughts and many more accompanied me in the taxi as we made our way to District 1 (where most budget travellers stay). I surveyed glaze-eyed the helmeted hundreds swarming around me, and felt a wave of admiration, and of something akin to gratitude and relief that they had transcended the past, left the war far behind so that there was no trace of it. They had won. Right had prevailed. Their country was their own at long, long last. And who could deny that they were thriving? Just look at this place.
Vietnam – that emotive word that evoked so much – was now more than a word. All these years later, the site of the cursed War that had split the Western world yet united its youth in a way that is unimaginable now, was becoming real for me. No longer a word. A country.
The irresistible energy and thrilling chaos of the city, the noise, the visual assault overtook me and by the time we arrived at our hotel, I was left with only one emotion – excitement at whatever the night, the next day, the coming 3 weeks held in store. I couldn’t have dreamed that I would soon look back on myself and my romantic, emotion-driven inner rave as I sailed into the motorbike fray in that taxi as naive and facile in the extreme.
More posts in this series on Vietnam:
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: The Cu Chi Tunnels
Travels In Vietnam 2011: War Remnants Museum, Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Mekong Delta
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Dalat
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Nha Trang
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hoi An
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Sleeper Bus Nightmare!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hue
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Eating and Drinking!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hype vs Reality
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Reflections & Wrap-up