SE Asia Trip Dispatch: Part Three (Saigon Part Duex)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

On June 11, 1963, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire to protest the treatment of monks by American-backed President Ngo Dinh Diem. This act led to the steep decline of the support of the President, and is widely believed to be the end of his reign, culminating in his assassination in November of 1963 with the backing of the Kennedy administration, and ushering in the beginning of even higher tensions in the country.

Today a poignant memorial stands at the intersection where his self-immolation occurred, another reminder around the city of the troubled history of the country. Incense is burned at the base of the statue, and candles are burned in honor of his sacrifice.

I came to the statue by cycle rickshaw, an extremely touristy activity (a word I try to avoid at all costs on this site), that I can’t say I’m too proud I took part in, but come on, if you’re offered the chance to ride around the streets of Saigon by open bicycle for a small fee and with a knowledgeable guide, it’s hard to say no. The embarrassing part came when I realized I was out of money and I was forced to work off the trip for the rest of the day by doing my own tours, but at least I got a little bit of exercise.

In the heart of the city is Notre Dame Cathedral. Begun in 1863, this massive cathedral took almost 20 years to construct, and its 190-foot towers surely must have been the tallest structure in the city for decades (of course it is now quickly being overshadowed by the numerous tall glass towers that have recently gone up).

I finished the day up by visiting the War Remnants Museum, a museum dedicated to the American War. Numbers can be bantered around — over 2 million Vietnamese alone were killed during the conflict — but until you see the pictures and read the descriptions by those who lived through it can you begin to attempt to comprehend the carnage. The museum not only includes various military equipment left behind after the war and a good description of the events that took place, but  it also includes a poignant exhibit documenting the devastating effect that Agent Orange had on both those who it was used against as well as those handling it.

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