I only had a few hours to recover from having my heart wrung out at the Saigon War Remnants Museum, because I’d scheduled a full-day Ho Chi Minh experience that included an evening food tour by motorcycle. The rest of my group had only booked the half-day version of the tour, but the guide was coming back for me at 6:00 p.m., so I had to pull myself together.
“Are you better now?” he asked me in the lobby. He hovered around me like he thought I might faint at any moment — which was probably a real risk at three in the afternoon, but I was feeling a bit stronger after a bath, a beer, and a good cry. Eventually he decided it was safe to put me on the back of his motorcycle. Even though it was raining.
In the poorer countries of Southeast Asia, a motorcycle or scooter is often the only mode of transportation people own, so riding in foul weather is a matter of course. Luckily I travel with a sturdy rainshell.
We went to a local restaurant where I was introduced to several local delicacies. Unfortunately, I don’t remember one bite of the food because the conversation took some surprising turns.
First, my guide kept apologizing for what we had seen at the museum. His English was broken and heavily accented, so it took me a while to understand the rest of what he was trying to say. He was trying to tell me that he knew it was bullshit.
“When we are young, we go this museum, we learn this history, and it is all we know. But we get older, we give each other books. We read. We learn more truth.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to this, so I just cocked my head.
“Do you know what we call Liberation Day? We call it ‘Trying Day.’ You see?”
I didn’t see. “Trying day?”
“Trying. Trying.” He mimicked a tear by trailing his fingertip down his cheek.
“Crying. Crying Day.”
“Yes. We didn’t leave when the Americans came. But when the North Vietnamese came, thousands of people left Saigon.”
I looked around nervously. There were only two other people in the restaurant, a young couple who didn’t seem very interested in us. But I couldn’t help feeling like soldiers might jump out and take my young companion away at any moment.
“Won’t you get in trouble for talking like this?” I almost whispered.
“Yes, but I don’t care. They beat me up all the time, but I keep talking. I don’t care. Do you know what we call the police? We call them ‘pigs.’” He giggled and repeated himself. I had the impression of a young teenager taking great glee in using a naughty word. I was glad to know that he didn’t buy into the version of history he’d been raised with (I wish I could say the same for people in my own country) but he seemed very naive and he was treading a dangerous line. I had no desire to see him beaten, or to find out what might happen to me if I was caught participating in this subversive conversation. I kept trying to bring the conversation back to the food, and somehow we got through the meal without any police beatings.
But my new friend didn’t want to let me go after the meal. I had the impression he didn’t get a lot of American tourists on his beat (we tend to travel in packs and busses; I rarely meet other Americans in my travels) and he wanted to talk more. We went to a rooftop lounge where I enjoyed a Mai Tai and he enjoyed telling me more about his police beatings and the wave of secret knowledge shared among his young subversive friends. HIs stories were fascinating, I’d love to share them with you, but I’m afraid I will put him at risk if I write about him any more — and I won’t give his name, age, company, or any other identifying characteristics.
I’m so grateful to this man for opening up to me. His reassurances can’t return me to the innocent, propaganda-filled state I enjoyed before my visit to the museum — I wouldn’t want to go back into that ignorance — but he did help me process things at a more sophisticated level.
As much as my guide (and my history teachers) would like to believe in a simple, good-guys-and-bad-guys universe, humanity is not that simple. To some people, the “Americans-as-War-Criminals” version of events presented in that museum is the one and only truth. They lived that experience. And like always, the “real” truth — if such a thing exists — is a confusing stew of conflicting perspectives that one can only understand by getting very comfortable with murky grayness.
Eventually the conversation wound down, and we talked about family, dating, marriage and daily life until the day was blissfully over and I could go back to my hotel and sleep off the emotional overload. I also had to pack, because the next day I was joining my group for our trip to Cambodia.
I had no idea I was about to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.