Lanza was gracious enough to let me sleep until 11 AM before he dragged me out of bed to tour some of the major sights the city has to offer. Admittedly, going out until nearly six in the morning before a full day of sight-seeing is not exactly ideal, and I do not recommend it unless you enjoy discreetly vomiting in public parks. We walked a distance to the Notre Dame Cathedral, an impressive structure that bears an uncanny resemblance to its much larger French namesake. Unfortunately, we were informed that it was closed and would reopen at 3 PM. Disappointed but not disheartened, we spotted another building with European-esque architecture, which turned out to be a post office. We made it just in time before the afternoon rain came, a deluge so predictable you could set your watch to it. As we waited for the clouds to part, we bought and filled out several post cards for loved ones back home and plotted our next move amongst the sudden surge of fellow travelers seeking shelter from the storm.
The War Remnants Museum was next on our list and although we had planned on walking there, the relentless downpour forced us to hail a cab for the relatively short trip, which we were more than happy to do to avoid spending the rest of the day soaked to the bone. Admission is an absurdly cheap 67 cents, and I found the experience to be unforgettable and sobering. The museum is a modest three story affair, with all the exhibits separated neatly by floor to ceiling glass walls. Each exhibit is labeled in both Vietnamese and English. Titles such as “War Crimes” and “Effects of Agent Orange” are not exactly inviting, but I suppose there is no polite or pretty way to accurately label the jagged shards of war history. Walking in, my constantly whirring mind was already plotting out a post comparing differences between what I learned from the American perspective of the war against the Vietnamese presentation of their side of the story, but as I walked through the exhibits I realized that I had never learned a single fact about the Vietnam War in over sixteen years of education back in the states. And that includes an entire year of Advanced Placement United States history, which only taught up to our role in World War II. My sparse knowledge of the infamous war comes mainly from pop culture and half-remembered references from half-forgotten conversations over the years. While I may have been ignorant to how the war started and ended, the one fact I was absolutely positive about was that it had been a wildly unpopular war, even amongst Americans. When I try to imagine the cultural climate of the day, my mind reels off a black and white film of iconic photographs – a college student screaming in disbelief over the body of a fellow student shot dead at Kent State, a flower being placed gently into the barrel of a gun, a self-immolating monk. I can say, at least, that this one paltry fact was confirmed at the museum. A large portion of the first floor is dedicated to photos of protests from around the world, with nearly identical captions: “Protest in (insert country here) against the U.S. aggressive war in Vietnam”.
My father and I quickly parted ways, as I was grimly determined to read every caption and display in the place. I was okay with going alone, and an irrational part of me had to fight against gritting my teeth every time a group of tourists spoke too loudly amongst themselves or had the audacity to laugh at some joke. It seemed lewd to be cheerful in front of photographs of crumpled bodies of children and enormous swaths of land ablaze under napalm blasts. I was frequently moved to tears as I read survivor accounts describing witnessing their families murdered and villages destroyed. No one paid my open display of emotion any mind as they contemplated a scrap of shot down plane or a quote from a shell-shocked soldier attempting to maintain a grasp on his own humanity. After only two floors I decided I had had enough and skipped the third story to go off in search of my father in the static display of tanks and planes out front.
A quick scan of the lawn did not produce any immediate results, but I did happen upon an outdoor exhibit dedicated to how captured prisoners of war were treated. Unsurprisingly, it was not well. I took one look at a claustrophobic cage made entirely of barbed wire and read one badly translated survivor’s account and decided I could not stomach much more of this. I renewed my search for Lanza, and finally found him near a relic of a helicopter. The war machines on display are so starkly different from their sleek, modern siblings that they almost seem like props from some B-list movie about the war. It is difficult to place them in the sky in my mind, to imagine the young men behind the cartoonishly large propellers and guns. I posed half-heartedly for some photographs, but I think that my father could tell that this was all starting to affect me a bit and generously suggested that we head back to check out the cathedral and try to get tickets for the water puppet show. I will not pretend that I was anything but relieved.
Although the rain had stopped, the gray sky still threatened to open up if we became too complacent to think that it would hesitate to soak us to the bone at a moments notice. We chose the safe option, and found one of our trusted Vinasun Taxi service fleet. An initial language barrier was remedied by my hands folded in mock prayer and the sign of the cross to indicate we wished to be taken to Notre Dame. When we arrived we were surprised to find a sign and an apologetic man, both informing us that the church was closed “due to their celebrations”. Although I could very clearly see a chubby blonde couple in the trademark white sneakers of a tourist inside, we did not object and began our walk to the water puppet show instead. We waited a short while in the cool breeze of a rotating fan before we were ushered into a small theater and shown to our seats, right next to the air conditioner and just below a giant speaker that promised it could blow your ears out if it really wished to do so.
The lighthearted puppet show was a welcome change from the grim scenes I was having trouble shaking from the War Remnants Museum. Three live performers sat on either side of a pool of water cloaked in the front by red velvet, and the characters of the show appeared from behind a bamboo curtain. Aside from a short greeting at the beginning, presented in both Vietnamese and English, the show was entirely in Vietnamese. Had we grabbed a program we would have seen that the show was comprised of sixteen short and separate acts rather than one coherent story line, which would have instantly cured a lot of my confusion. Regardless, the show was quite enjoyable. Particularly memorable acts were a synchronized dance by several intricately decorated fish and a dragon that breathed real sparklers of fire. But the hands down favorite of both Lanza and myself was a courtship dance between two brightly colored birds, which produced a baby bird that gave Momma and Daddy kisses. A sweet scene in any language. The entire time I was trying to figure out exactly how they worked the puppets…the best theory I could come up with was that they were somehow laying on their stomachs beneath the water, maybe separated by glass? Perhaps magnets were involved? At the end of the show, however, several actors emerged from the same bamboo curtain that the puppets made their entrances and exits through. I still have no idea how they pulled off the intricate movements and choreography of the show.
Night had fallen by the time the show let out, and we began an only slightly terrifying trek back to the hostel. The previously mentioned organized chaos of traffic had not thinned out noticeably, and I felt extremely vulnerable dressed in black from head to toe. My father, my hero, my trusty guide got us home safe and sound as always, with just about a half hour to spare before the happy hour that I had come to anticipate with great pleasure. Sadly for us, jet leg reared its ugly head and we were both fast asleep by seven PM and did not stir for the next eleven hours. Anyone who claims they are totally over their twelve time zone jet lag in two days is a liar, and I will say so to their face.