Some Vietnamese dude I met in the North told me HCMC was like the LA of Vietnam which scared me because I know the LA people that aren’t from LA think they know and it’s the one that sucks: a vapid chasm populated by narcissistic, greedy bastards, nouveau riche, wasted youth and dying dreamers.
And if one chose to look no further than the surface of the city formerly known as Saigon, with it’s high rises, bottle service clubs and fancy restaurants packed with young ballers, it’s designer boutiques and the penchant of many of its dwellers for western music and high fashion, you could very well come away thinking that.
But I also heard good things.
I heard that the North Vietnamese were more conservative and kept their doors closed at night while the south loved Americans and “made the street their home,” many coming together nightly for dinner, conversation or an afternoon workout in the park
and others quite literally…
I heard the food was spectacular
and that if you’re a white guy with a little money it’s pretty easy to find a companion for dinner and breakfast.
Some some streets felt like those you could find in any major city in vietnam. Where you could find a bowl of pho…
a happy water filtration pitcher
a decent safe
a friendly game of Hackyminton
an old lady in a crazy hat selling fruit,
or playing with her cock
While others are purely that of a western-influenced (or infected) Saigon. I mean where else in this pseudo-communist country where you can find “crazy bar,” “crazy chillout” and “crazy night club” all in one place?
or a Vietnamese Eddie Vedder impersonator?
or the Vietnamese doppleganger of Michael McDonald just chilling on a street corner?
I checked into the Cat Huey, a hip little boutique hotel down this dark alley
At first they showed us into the freaky first floor room off the entrance, a completely windowless mock-up of a CSI lab set complete with exposed fluorescent ceiling lights. I immediately had a panic attack and requested an upgrade. And for an extra $5 and they led me to a room decked out like a suite at the W.
Running water – check. Electricity – check. Flat screen - check. Wi Fi – check. Unparalleled view – check.
Shower cap – check.
At dawn the alley in front of our hotel turned into a bustling market.
where you could buy unidentifiable vegetables
or odd-eyed fish. The only strange part of the scene being that I did not see one cockroach be it night or day, market closed or open.
In the afternoon we hit up the Ngô Viết Thụ-designed Reunification Palace.
There’s the front gate the North Vietnamese came crashing through in tanks on April 30, 1975 during the Fall of Saigon.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the bee girl from the Blind Melon “Rain” video
and there she is again, in the front hall by the stairs
The architecture is pretty stunning
and the décor funkadelic. The whole place has a sort of Wilt Chamberlin space pad/Graceland meets Stanley Kubrick 70’s fuck palace sort of vibe.
We checked out the palace dining room,
the grand puba’s secret meeting quarters
and a room where important members of the South Vietnamese puppet regime met to discuss important topics like where and when to kill more communists, how many of them they should try to kill, and who their favorite Brady was.
But no party pad is complete without a shooting gallery…
a screening room
and a helipad!
This feisty old VC lady’s been here since 1973, tending to the Miyagi in the palace garden.
And there’s that kooky kid again! WTF?!
Upstairs there’s a sort of mini museum chock full of giant lies. You can take photos of the pictures, but not of the copies of supposed authentic documents, interoffice memos and letters sent between US, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese forces during the course of the war. After a lengthy peruse, for instance, I noticed that a certain US diplomat sent various “official” letters to various members of the South Vietnamese government in the same year, but listed himself as having a different official title on each salutation. Interesting.
Some of the supposed US communications even read like they were written in broken English. Awesome.
Downstairs, you can live out your darkest warmonger fantasies, no matter how latent, take a seat at a general’s desk and lead thousands of troops to their deaths! Just for the fuck of it — Or I mean as a strategy! (Can somebody say Khe San?)
General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, you’ve got a call on the green phone.
I said green phone! Next to the fucking yellow phone! You know. In the tiny room with the single file cabinet and the pointless hole in the wall!
One thing not many people no about the Vietnam war is the part one young robot took in losing it to the North.
And just as I thought.
Nobody flipped the “Excitation” switch. No wonder shit went south…
They were probably too busy dropping beats to recognize.
This is where my friend Scott will be sitting one day.
He used to make cartoons, but is currently learning Pig Latin to help fight terrorists in space. No shit.
Apparently the key to keeping shit “top secret” is to make sure the door to the “top secret” room makes no fucking sense.
Plans for “top secret” room door: 1) Build step exactly 12 inches up from basement floor 2) Construct door ¾ the size of a normal door. 3) Cover 2/3 of the odd-sized door with opaque glass. 4) Cut hole and insert doorknob exactly 12 inches above previously constructed 12 inch step (far too low for enemy hands to reach and twist in the event of a Palace siege).
Here’s where people listened to things.
and here’s where they typed stuff.
And this where the general slept when shit got hairy (aka when his wife caught him tossing to Swedish Erotica reel-to-reels in the projection room).
We were downstairs during lunchtime, when the basement is supposed to be closed and this guy appeared at the end of our walk through the basement. He began following me from room to room, tidying up in my wake.
I think he’s another original, down there since the sixties, probably thought I was some visiting dignitary after he witnessed the expertise and courage with which I commanded my imaginary army from the general’s desk.
after your palace visit you can relax by the super crazy wicked tree out back
have a picnic
take a nap in the garden
let your children frolic on the grand lawn
check out US planes that have been captured, repainted and misidentified.
Or play on tanks responsible for shelling hundreds of enemy soldiers!
Probably a good idea to let them get their childhood angst out the healthy way rather than unleashing them on the street with a feral head full of fuckshitup, like this kid, who attacked me with a stick as I passed him on the street on my way into the War Remnants Museum.
A great place for any history buff or lover of the macabre.
Outside you can see real life helicopters
and planes used in the Vietnam War.
and this guy (the one on the left with the missing arm) who tried to freak me out by greeting me with his napalm stump. When I didn’t blink and, instead, took it and shook it like a hand, he tried to sell me some books. When I told him I didn’t have any dong on me to buy the books he went off, telling me how he’s not a beggar, how he’s selling me something, how I’m an American somethingorother.
It 180’d my day to say the least. Here Napalm guy is (Napalm Guy representing all of Vietnam of course) acting like shit’s all copasetic, welcoming “BJ” Bill Clinton back in 2000 and saying you know what, the war was totally fucked up, but we’re going to move forward.
And here I am, a generation later, a diplomat of good will, Facebook and I-phones, coming over to set things right in a not so obvious way. Here I am coming over to eat their pho, shoot machine guns, ogle their prostitutes, and this guy has the nerve to accuse me of being an American somethingorther!
Fuck him! Fuck you! I was crazy pissed! I nearly called it there and turned around before I even got to see the dead babies they keep in a fish tank to let everybody know how over the war they are. Hold up – first things second – I digress. We haven’t even gone in yet.
Inside the museum, we perused the collection of tiger cages and
guillotines used by the French against Vietnamese rebels, and then supposedly recycled by the U.S. to use against the North and Vietcong!
We checked out the collection of oil paintings by local artists depicting, oddly enough, Bush-era Guantanamo interrogation tactics…
like the old snake up the vagina trick.
It’s odd, you know, because by looking at these, one might think the conflict in Vietnam was more like a key party at Sasha Grey’s house than an actual war or whatever.
That is aside from the guns…
and more bombs of course.
Here’s a photo exhibit depicting the “Thanh Phong Massacre,” the February 25, 1969 slaughter, by Navy Seals, of twenty unarmed civilian Vietnamese women, children and old people in an isolated Vietnamese peasant hamlet led by America’s own (former Senator) Bob Kerrey.
And here they are, the Hope diamonds of the war museum collection, the world famous Dioxon Twins! Nothing says you’re ready to forgive and move on like displaying your dead in tanks of formaldehyde.
After checking out the dead babies, you can drop your live ones off at the playroom to think about how good they have it.
After wading through the “Sea of Bullshit Propaganda” section, I was relieved to find the “Historic Truths” section.
Where we quickly found a bunch of really dope bullshit propaganda painters and posters (an obvious oversight by the Historic Truths staff).
Did I mention that there’s no air conditioning in most of the museum and that it just was about 132 degrees inside? I’m really dying here, about to give up on heading up to the 3rd floor. But something in me told me to soldier on, so I did.
And boy was I glad, because a floor above there was a photo exhibit (w/AC) featuring the work of Katie’s godfather’s father, Larry Burrows!
Who’s only like the best war photographer in history or whatever.
I shit you not. Even the Vietnamese apparently think so, as 2/3 of the entire photo section was plastered either with pictures he took during the war, or with photos of him.
There were displays on the wall praising his work. Even a copy of the last photo ever taken of Larry, and fellow photojournalists Henri Huet, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto, boarding a helicopter headed for Laos on February 10, 1971. Larry disappeared later that day over Laos when the copter got lost in fog and was shot down by the North Vietnamese.
On April 3–4, 2008, the remains Burrows and his fellow photographers were honoured and interred at the Newseum in Washington, D.C..
Our taste for violence and misery still not satiated, Katie and I decided to take a trip the next day with our trusty guide “John Wayne”…
to the infamous Củ Chi tunnels which were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots, communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters during the war, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.
On the way we stopped at a factory where adults crippled by guns and bombs and mines and Napalm and Agent Orange and Dioxin as children now make lacquer goods which they sell for literally seven times the price as they go for at a typical shop in Hanoi. Good idea.
We arrived at the Củ Chi Tunnels and John Wayne, our Pied Piper of Death, led us with a crazed grin through the blood of young soldier fertilized forests.
Where he showed us boobie traps
and trap doors that led to the tunnel systems below ground.
John Wayne implored a volunteer to climb down and show the rest of us how tight the door really was. Being claustrophobic I said no fucking way. But this tiny Asian fellah was more than happy to accommodate John Wayne’s request.
The crowd was wowed, but John Wayne wasn’t impressed. And after telling us how a fat American woman had gotten stuck in one of the holes just last week, he beckoned a Westerner to take the challenge. And so this trustafarian backpacker took a shot. The dreads were a squeeze of course, but the hippy made it in without incident.
After breaking us in on the trap door, John Wayne encouraged us to climb down this hell hole
and climb 50 feet or so down a body size tunnel on our stomachs to the next tunnel exit, or even farther on down the system, if our panicking hearts were so inclined. I started hyperventilating just thinking about it. But Katie was stoked. Here she is climbing out of the abyss like it’s no big thang.
And here I am making sexy in the soldier’s sleep away camp.
One of my female robot soldier comrades wasn’t convinced that tunnels were a place for sexy. In fact she’d gone so far as to list the reasons why they were in reality, the very last place for sexy.
So I climbed on a tank a gave a pep talk.
Word got back to the other robot soldiers and productivity of recycled weaponry and flavored lube went up 36% for the day.
Even the real live soldier’s were inspired. Here one proudly displays the functions of a variety of booby traps.
Some are for bloodletting. Other for maming. And some are specifically designed to tear your motherfucking nuts off.
Just looking at them makes you want to kill. So I picked myself up an AK-47…
bought some lead…
And let her rip!
We are all warriors at heart. The gene may be dormant, but if I needed to kill a motherfucker for the very last Orangina on earth, it would come naturally. I’m sure of it. Don’t think you’ve got it inside you? Try shooting an AK someday and tell me after 10 rounds or so (enough to get over the healthy fear hump), that you don’t have a hard on. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but it’s a thing. A scary scary thing.
Our day at Củ Chi closed with a screening of another North Vietnamese propaganda film in one of the underground bunkers
where I was joined by this gigantic millipede.
After, we opted to take a boat back to HCMC, not knowing that the drivers would be downing beers the whole way.
But I tried to ignore the danger and enjoy the ride anyway, the one that took us down the Saigon River and through through nearly every strata of Vietnamese society along the way. From those who live in tin shanties…
to those that dwell in high rises
Unfortunately Katie passed out
and missed the Gilligan’s Ark sighting.
And here we are not drowned, or dying from booby trap spike or gun shot wounds!
After our journey into the heart of darkness, we had some pho
with a French expat. I asked him where one might go hooker-watching and he suggested any of the local billiards halls near the opera house.
Right across from the world famous Continental Hotel where Graham Greene lived while writing “The Quiet American.”
Frenchy told us if you meet a hot Vietnamese girl in Saigon, and she’s really good at pool, then she’s probably a hooker. So we put his theory to the test and found a number of spots just around the corner from Coca Suki, where you can play a gentleman’s game of billiards and get your Cocka Sucky at a reasonably price. Bachelors, that one’s on me.
After dipping our toes in the wading pool of sin, we paid a visit to a crazy Jesus fest being held in the middle of Dong Khoi Road.
and then hit up the world famous Fannys for some epic ice cream
where Katie and I watched these young fashionista chicks as they picked at a giant banana split with their Asian Andy Warhol buddy, then strapped on their best camera faces and took pictures of themselves. And not together as a group, consulting each other on the shots, or showing off, but separately, each spending a good forty minutes pouting and making sexy faces for their own I-Phone. So determined they were, filling gigs with the same mugs they were stuffing hot fudge into, like Lindsey Hilton after a hash binge.
Wondering if her own face could possess her the way theirs did them, Katie took a stab at a Blue Steel. Not bad for a first try.
The vanity was spreading like the trend of leggings or plaid, like a virus, like herpes backstage at a Van Halen concert in 1984. I would’ve liked to try my hand at some poses, but I had to get bed early. I had to make a bus at dawn
to a magical place where for a handful of American greenbacks you can pay to shoot a live cow with an RPG.
And no, homie, I’m not talking about Cleveland.