When we landed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (formerly Saigon), I was expecting to be immediately surrounded by communist propaganda portraying the evils of western capitalism and the virtues of dear Uncle Ho and socialism. Instead, the taxi ride into the city revealed a thriving, modern city complete with bustling markets, neon lights loudly advertising the newest electronics and friendly people going about their daily lives (usually on overloaded scooters). We did eventually find the propaganda, but it appeared to be reserved for the museums and tourist sites.

Our first encounter with propaganda was at the War Remnants Museum (15,000 VND). This gem of a “museum” documents the American War fought between Vietnam and the imperialist aggressors, the United States. There are no mentions of a war between North and South Vietnam with the communist North seeking to capture the capitalist South. Instead, the whole war is portrayed as a sort of liberation action with the heroic North Vietnamese army freeing the enslaved south from the evil Americans and their wanton use of chemical weapons that have apparently been the cause of every birth defect in the country for the last 50 years. One of the more interesting exhibits for me was a wall of photos and biographies of war photographers along with samples of their work (Her especially enjoyed the bit about Georgette Louise Meyer, AKA “Dickey Chapelle

Communist Party T-shirt

Communist Party T-shirt

.”) The grounds outside the museum are littered with captured and destroyed American military equipment. I proudly posed in front of a fighter jet before I thought better of it and realized that the pilot of the jet had likely been either captured or killed. It put the ridiculousness of the museum into a much more sinister light for me.

Our next visit was to the Reunification Palace. The building was the residence and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the war and was also the site of the war’s end on April 30, 1975, when a tank crashed through the gates and Saigon officially fell. A replica of the tank is on the grounds with the tank’s guns still pointing at the building and the crew’s names triumphantly on display. The 30,000 dong entrance fee (US$1.50) includes a guided tour. Our guide was very friendly and spoke excellent English. The interior of the building is like a time warp to the 1970s. All of the furniture and equipment in the building at the time of capture is still there and on display including the old school dance hall on the top floor and radio equipment in the basement that looks like it belongs in an episode of “Get Smart.” Her and I commented to each other on just how delightfully retro the decor is and how much of it appears to have come back into style today. It seems the only changes the captors made are the large Communist and Vietnamese flags draping the conference room wall behind an oversized bust of Ho Chi Minh. This is where the tours begin. The tours end in what looks like a high school’s dimly lit hallway. Here visitors have an opportunity to subject themselves to a 20-minute video rewriting the history of the Vietnam War into one of the USA invading the South and the North Vietnamese army liberating their occupied comrades. The video is a bit jingoistic, but the music track is amazing with at least one song seeming to have no lyrics other than “Ho Chi Minh” and “Vietnam” repeated ad nauseum (Every once in awhile, the ingrained words start rattling around in our brains again, and we burst into song).

Although the official state line is one of hardcore dedication to socialist principles, it seems that the free market is alive and well in Saigon, and the locals are willing to part with their ideals in the interest of making a buck. On our nightly jaunts around the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker’s ghetto we encountered numerous restaurants, bars and shops all seemingly run independently and busy with customers. Many of the clothing shops even carry T-shirts openly mocking communism and Ho Chi Minh — nothing too over the top, though. Our favorite was the “Communist Party” shirt where Marx, Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh are all drinking and partying with Lenin wearing a lamp shade on his head. You can find several day and night markets around town with plenty of cheap clothing and tourist trinkets for sale. The variety of restaurants in Pham Ngu Lao was excellent with Vietnamese, Thai, Indian and Western cuisine all easily and cheaply available.

One of the most pleasant experiences we had in Vietnam was on our first night in the country. We happened to arrive in Vietnam during the last weekend of the Chinese New Year, known as Tet, and there were many spontaneous celebrations occurring. The most impressive was a group of traveling acrobats who performed a traditional Lion Dance. The acrobats put on an amazing show with pairs of men dressed as lions dancing and leaping across pedestals set up in the streets. The bright colors, amazing acrobatics and cheerful crowd were a wonderful welcome to the country of Vietnam.