Vietnam is one of my favourite countries to travel in. It’s a dynamic and vibrant country with a very colourful history, a history that leaps out at you at almost every corner. The recent, post WWII history, of the French War, the American War, The Chinese Border War and the Cambodian War have obviously had a huge impact on the country that is Vietnam today. The collapse of the great benefactor that was the Soviet Union, and the need to reform their economic policies along similar lines to China led to the “open door” of 1991 and subsequent massive and rapid development and growth.
Welcome to the Socialist People’s Republic of Vietnam, would you like a Rolls Royce with that? (Downtown Saigon)
Rolls Royce’s like above, share the streets with posters celebrating the successful revolution that created modern Vietnam
the giant Bitexco Tower, complete with equally giant helipad, some what symbolises the modern dynamic atmosphere of Vietnam
To be in Vietnam, a socialist/communist republic with a predominately Buddhist population during Christmas, which lets face it is technically the celebration of the alleged birth of Jesus Christ, was certainly an interesting experience.
In the centre of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, the area that was once Saigon, the Christmas decorations would rival any city in the world. From all around Ho Chi Minh City, in the days leading up to Christmas families flock to the city centre to view the displays, mainly sponsored by commercial entities, and to have their pictures taken standing in front of those very displays. The trend seems to be to dress children in “Christmas clothes”, loosely resembling the “traditional” outfit of Santa Claus/Father Christmas. Piled onto the standard form of transport in Vietnam, the motor scooter, families make the pilgrimage to the city centre, putting up with massive traffic jams to take their place in the crowd and snap photos of their children and loved ones in front of the various displays.
Hitachi’s displays had an international theme, here snow falls on the Sydney Opera House for Christmas (accuracy is not important obviously)
Saigon by night has long been a sight to behold, with the city’s French influenced architecture attractively lit, but Christmas takes it all to the next level. Fairy lights adorn kerbside trees, towering high rise are decorated with everything from neon falling “snowflakes” to giant smiling Santa Claus heads.
the Central People’s Committee framed by giant commercial towers with neon snow flakes on the facade
Traffic comes to a halt as what seemed like the entire population of the city flocked downtown to “celebrate” Christmas
The Christian side of Christmas is not lost on all of Vietnam, there is a significant Roman Catholic population in Vietnam. Downtown Saigon is home to the Notre Dame Cathedral, built by the former French colonialists who ruled Indo-China until the end of WWII, and who were bogged down in a brutal bloody civil war that preceded the subsequent American War against the “evil communists”. Like most of the Catholic Churches I saw, the cathedral too was decorated with flashing Neon lights and other colourful decorations.
It is easy for us in the so called west to forget what led to the people’s uprising in Vietnam post WWII. After the French withdrawal and the division of the country into Communist North and non-Communist South, the regime ruling the south used brutal methods to oppress and control the South Vietnamese people, often under the guise of Catholicism, as the regimes leaders were “extreme” in their Catholic views. Buddhists, some of the most inoffensive people on the planet, were persecuted and virtually forbidden from practising their faith. Most people would be familiar with the well known photographs of Buddhist monks setting fire to themselves in the streets of Saigon in protest against the oppression they experienced under the then South Vietnamese regime.
June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon, Vietnam
For Christmas day itself I needed to escape the crowds of Ho Chi Minh City so I took a 40 minute flight to Phu Quoc Island for the day. Phu Quoc sits in the east of the Gulf of Thailand, close to the Cambodian border, in fact you can actually see Cambodian territory from the tip of Phu Quoc. Sao Beach, which translates into English as Star Beach but for some reason the English name used is Long Beach, is for me the perfect place to spend Christmas Day. Having lived my life in the tropics of the southern hemisphere, there is no room for a white Christmas here, and whilst I am in the Northern Hemisphere, it is technically Winter, but the beach of Phu Quoc will do nicely for my Christmas needs.
But even the beautiful island of Phu Quoc can’t escape Vietnam’s brutal history. First the French, and then the Americans, used Phu Quoc as a prison for “reprogramming” Vietnamese revolutionary soldiers. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese never survived that “reprogramming”. At its peak, US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters regularly flew hundreds and hundreds of captured “enemy” combatants to Phu Quoc where the South Vietnamese jailers used brutal torture to convince the soldiers of the error of their ways. Mass graves were still being excavated as recently as 2008. Prisoners bodies were recovered with nails driven through their skulls, fingers severed and many other obvious signs of the techniques used to “reprogram” the revolutionary soldiers.
a “Tiger Cage” used to “reprogram” revolutionary soldiers captured by US forces during the American War. Two prisoners would be housed in a such a structure
Whilst I was at the site of the prison on Christmas day, a bus load of elderly Vietnamese men arrived. I asked my good friend Tan Le Phu who was accompanying me, what that generation of Vietnamese thought when they visited such a place, a place littered with the evidence of the brutal Catholic Diem Regime backed by the mighty US ,military machine. I asked “do they feel anger?”. HIs response, almost indignant, “Why?”. Why would they be angry he said, these things happened, it was a different time, lets acknowledge them and move on. And move on is what Vietnam does well, forever reshaping and rebranding itself all under the guidance of the central people’s committee. The late Senator Edward Kennedy said in 1993 in an address to the US Senate, using Phu Quoc as an example, that had the undeniable proof of the US Government acting as an accessory to the abuse of justice (such as those that took place in the Phu Quoc prison) the American people may well have viewed their government in a different light.
So Merry Christmas Vietnam! And may you have many more……
View Phu Quoc in a larger map
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