Wednesday, 31-12-2014. Day 133.
Sour Events, Sweet Endings
After getting a crash course in Vietnamese History at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels over the past few days, we decided we were ready to tackle the War Remnants Museum. But first ... breakfast!
We'd walked past Bookworm's Coffee a few times as we wandered about the neighborhood. It looked like an inviting place, so we decided to stop there for breakfast. They have a huge selection of games that are free to play on a bookshelf at the front of the cafe, so we had a lot of fun as we waited for our breakfast. This turned out to be a semi-regular hangout for us (if you're interested, read our TripAdvisor review).
After breakfast we made our way to the War Remnants Museum, but not before stopping in Tao Dan Park for a little recreation. The park is full of interesting statues, and,much to the delight of the girls, a kids' play area.
Playgrounds had been few and far between in Southeast Asia, and we weren't in any hurry, so the kids ran around here a little bit enjoying some much-deserved playtime.
War Remnants Museum
This used to be called the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, but was renamed to its current, somewhat less confrontational title in 1995. The exhibits inside, however, we were cautioned by other travelers, remained quite confrontational.
The museum contains seven themed rooms with such titles as Historical Truths, Requiem, and Aggressive War Crimes. Most are simply photographs with accompanying text, while a few have displays of weapons used by both sides during the war in Vietnam.
The Requiem section was very interesting. It featured the work of many different photojournalists who covered the war. Jackie, in particular, was taken with the work of Dickey Chapelle, a female photojournalist who died in the war.
We didn't spend too much time looking at the Aggressive War Crimes exhibit. It has a lot of very brutal imagery on display, and most of it was too intense for kids—and even most adults. We skipped the section about imprisonment conditions—we got enough of a taste of that at Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi.
Similarly, there was a portion of the museum devoted to Agent Orange and the deadly and long-lasting mutagenic effects it had on those who had been exposed to it, no matter what side they'd fought on. These, too, were hard to see, but the girls were quite fascinated by it. They were asking questions, and I realized just how little I knew about the events of the Vietnam War.
The War Remnants Museum is certainly a place of controversy, but I also learned some things. The war was raging when I was born, and I vaguely remember it ending, but it's not something that's covered in-depth in U.S. grade schools. So
Independence Palace (Reunification Palace)
On the way back to our hotel, we walked by Independence Palace, which is famous for being the home of the South Vietnamese president during the war and is best known as where the Vietnam War ended during the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
We didn't go inside. The crowds going in looked pretty thick and we'd gotten our fill of wartime history at the War Remnants Museum, so we headed back to the hotel and got ready for dinner.
New Year's Celebrations Begin
We wanted to go somewhere sort of special for New Year's Eve, so on the advice of the manager at the Blue River Hotel, we went to the Secret Garden, a restaurant down an alley and up four flights of steps. It was pretty well-marked, though, so it wasn't too troublesome to find. Unlike our rooftop dining experience in Hanoi, this place was filled with Westerners. The food was pretty good, though perhaps somewhat unremarkable (I can't remember what I had), but the view of the jumbotron on the side of the Vincom Center Shopping Mall is unparalleled if you like jumbotrons (some people do; there were a lot of pictures taken of it while we were there).
When we left the restaurant and got back out to Pasteur Street, we found a city transformed. The streets, which were always busy, were not even more densely packed with people and motorbikes. There were hardly any cars; there was too much traffic for them to navigate the streets.
We were heading toward Fanny's for our New Year's Eve ice cream (we had a reservation, after all), and as we got close to Ben Tranh market, the streets got more and more congested. Thousands of people were lounging on top of their motorbikes that were parked right in the street, waiting for fireworks and the countdown show in nearby 23-9 Park to begin.
It's really hard to convey just how packed the streets were. In some spots, the bikes were so close together you couldn't get around them on foot.
A Turn for the Worse
As we maneuvered and squeezed our way through the streets choked with crowds of people and motorbikes, someone stole my wallet right out of my pocket.
One step it was there, the next it was gone. I had been so worried about getting Jackie safely through the crowd, I hadn't been paying enough attention to myself. I looked around, but there were so many people, it was impossible to guess who might have taken it. It was frustrating, and my pride was wounded, but it could have been a lot worse.
But we still had our reservation at Fanny's for ice cream, though, so we fought our way through the crowds and I drowned my sorrows in a 15-scoop ice cream fondue platter.
When that was done, we went back to the hotel where I started the long, painful process of cancelling my credit cards from overseas while the rest of the city said goodbye to 2014.