Independence Palace Saigon – The Prism of History

 

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What is commonly called The Independence Palace, or Reunification Palace was built in the centre of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in 1962. This followed an air raid by two renegade pilots of the then Vietnam Air Force on behalf of the Viet Cong, seeking to assassinate the then President Diem, which destroyed a wing of the then Norodam Palace. The President, who escaped the air raid, instructed that a new Palace to be built on the site, to the design of a Vietnamese architect who won one of the world’s foremost architectural prizes for his design.

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President Diem never saw the finished work since he and his family were assassinated, but it became the seat of power of the subsequent Presidents of South Vietnam, or the Republic of Vietnam as it was known. That era ended in 1975 when North Vietnamese forces took the Palace, a scene reflected in a famous photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the Palace gates.

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For me this is not an inspiring building despite its Architectural awards, but looking at it, and inside it, lets us look at history through a prism and reflect on some of what it means historically. The Palace has subsequently been used for State occasions but it is essentially a destination for tourists exploring Vietnam. The balcony from which Presidents looked down on crowds, is not a convenient vantage point for people to take photos down a wide boulevard lined by a park, the play ground of the French Colonials of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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What strikes you first and foremost about the interior is how grandiose an pompous it is. Throne rooms, extravagant 800 seater meetings rooms ,where the great and the good of that tiny, no longer existing Republic and their visitors assembled to chart the course of the country and to play its important part in the Geopoliticis of the era of the “domino effect”. Today it all seems pointless and irrelevant, with the then famous people who occupied those rooms gone and largely forgotten. But then how many countries do we see in the world with poor people who have been ruled by people where display has far outweighed substance in importance.

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In the basement is a bunker to be used by the President in time of war or emergency. It has offices bedrooms and the then latest communication technology still in place. Despite the fact that it is only 41 years since that country’s demise, the equipment looks stone age. You realise that in the era in which we exist, history is defined not just by time, but also by technological progress, things and people become objects of history much earlier than they used to. History is foreshortened.

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And individuals see this building according to their lives at the time. A woman I met in Saigon who had been in her 30s when the tank crashed through the gates, told me that I should not take too much notice of the incident with the tank, “to be honest” she said, “don’t take too much notice of this drama about tanks smashing gates. In fact we just opened the gates and let them in”. Such is the joy of the prism effect on history.

 

Vietnam- The CuChi Tunnels

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The Cu Chi tunnel system is about 75 kms south west of Ho Chi Minh City, 1 – 2 hours driving, depending on the notorious Saigon traffic. There are 2 main access points, at Ben Duoc and Ben Binh. Ben Duoc is the better known in that it has been adapted to suit tourism with slightly widened tunnels and other attractions, while Ben Binh is where most Vietnamese go and is probably more authentic. I visited Ben Binh on a very wet day, when the experience of being in the jungle was very real. There are some 200 kms of tunnels at varying levels covering a huge area. The area is pock marked with bomb craters since the area became the most bombed in the whole Vietnam war, with bombs napalm and agent orange being used.

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The thought that has gone into disguising the tunnels their entrances and exits and facilities is extraordinary. You approach the tunnels down a path and despite being invited to search for an entrance in a small indicated area its is almost impossible to find. Enter the tunnels hatch, drop down and pull the hatch behind you into the ground and it is immediately invisible. Ventilation shafts come to the surface in cracks in rocks, lookout openings are also like that and almost completely invisible.

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Underground are passages, rooms, where the smoke from cooking was disbursed above ground far from the kitchen itself to protect the area. It is extraordinary to be inside and feel that people lived there for years surfacing fighting returning throughout the war. Some 420 square kms of land was hammered by bombing in an effort to dislodge the fighters in the tunnels, but without success leaving the area a wasteland although now the vegetation has largely been restored. The tunnels were so well hidden that at one stage an American base was established on top of them.

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The site at Ben Binh includes a magnificent Pagoda and memorial to those who fought and died in the war and particularly in the tunnels. Some 50000 names are inscribed on the walls of the memorial and one thing that strikes you very hard is how young many of the men and women who died there were. The building includes a large statue of Ho Chi Minh and is an important memorial in Vietnam.

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Many of us read about the war every day, and were aware of the tunnels, but seeing them and experiencing them adds a dimension to understanding the war and its outcome. It is a very moving memorial all the more so because it is set in the countryside and not in a city, and simply to experience the tunnels for a sort time gives an idea about how hard life must have been for its occupants, living there, fighting there and being bombed incessantly.Vietnam

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The Hippie Trail

 

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I am soon setting out on another journey and while I sit and think of where I am going, what I want to do, who I want to meet and what I want from the trip, I always end up reminiscing about old trips I have made what they were to me and most of all think of the anecdotes that so often make the story of a journey.

In 1967 I left school and took a “gap year” before university and with a couple of friend bought a land rover and set out on what had become known as the hippie trail, the overland route to India from London. Sadly the globalised world has given rise to seemingly globalised war so it’s not possible, but an amazing adventure for a 17 year old.

Three and half months of living with 3 others under, inside or on top of a vehicle is a real “learning to live with other people experience”, not helped by the fact the only place you could get water was from an open tap somewhere, and if you wanted to wash you needed to find a hotel and persuade them to let you have a shower. No email, sms, or phones meant a post restante somewhere obscure every week or so, to write to say you were still alive and receive any news from home.

Having arrived we went our separate ways and I stayed in India for a while travelling around. What do I remember? Goa being just a huge stretch of sand with a few huts and some hippies playing guitar. Spending a week in an ashram with many others, under the guidance of a guru where in return for teaching in meditation we had to carry large amounts of earth to make a huge mound, the reason being that in a recent India/Pakistan war the guru had stood on a mound of earth with his arms in the air and as a result the Pakistani air force bombs had failed to demolish a nearby bridge, the bombs being diverted by his incantations. Being approached one day in Mumbai, Bombay then, and being offered a large amount of hashish at a discount price and when I declined being offered and western girl for the night in exchange for the shirt I was wearing. Declined both. Buying a sitar in old Delhi simply because it was beautiful and when I stood there confused not knowing what was bad or good, being helped by a western man who came over to me and turned out to be George Harrison from the Beatles, Lying on my bed in a cheap guest house under a fan, avoiding the pre monsoon heat and 90% humidity, listening to news of the death of Robert Kennedy and the on-going carnage of Vietnam. Registering with the authorities as an alcoholic so that I could buy a beer in a city that was dry using my alcoholic’s allowance. Sitting on Juhu beach watching the sunset. Travelling on the roof of a train since it was full and having a long stop at one station cause some had died of heat stroke. Seeing a Tiger in the wild. Having to ask all the time for gallons of water since the food was so spicy I could hardly eat. Sitting on the banks of the Ganges at Benares and watching cremations. Drinking water that was green and filled with chlorine pills since there wasn’t anything else. Learning the beauties of Indian music and dipping my toe into the extraordinary world of Indian spirituality. The endless crowds of people everywhere and the friendliness and curiosity of Indian people. And so it goes on.

Hope this trip will bring as many memories although since I am older and marginally wiser they will be different.

Traveling and The Perspectives of Time and History.

 

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History is never far from our minds when we travel, the history of a place a society and that history is a measure of the time that elapses until we finally get there to see it. St Petersburg in Russia, an infinitely “historical” city, is a great place to feel that sense of history and time and explore it.

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The fortress of St Peter and St Paul set on an island in the Neva River gives lots of scope. The island contains the Peter and Paul Cathedral that is the burial place of Tsars from Peter 1st, Peter The Great, through to Nicholas 2nd who was reinterred there in the 1980s. 340 years of history in one room from the founder of the city to the last Tsar executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The fortress was also a Tsarist prison and for those imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. There is a morbid fascination in looking at a cell that housed someone later shot, but there is comfort in knowing that was 100 years ago, so it seems a long time and as such safe.

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Also on the island is a small space museum dedicated primarily to Russian rocket technology in the space race of the 1960s, with particular reference to the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961. So only some 40 years after the chaos of the revolution and the assassination of the Tsar here is a celebration of putting the first human in space, a tiny period of time in historical terms, for such an enormous change.

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Not being technologically minded and being born before technology, it looks, even to my unpractised eye rather primitive. You can see from the space suits that these were physically small men strapped into what looks like something resembling a modern day baby’s car seat, blasted into space in a solid sphere with virtually no control and returned to earth safely. Now only 50 years later we carry phones that are far far more technologically sophisticated than those machines.

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Elsewhere in the city is the Museum of the Blockade, the 900 days siege of Leningrad as it was then, in the 2nd world war from 1941 to 1944. During that terrible siege people faced famine, and you can see in a glass case a sample of the daily ration distributed to citizens at one stage in the siege. For us there is safety in the 70 years that have elapsed which separate us from that horrific time, but then we realise that it all took place only 20 years before the same country put the first man in space, a blink of the eye.

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Time seems distorted by our perceptions of what is fearful and what is admirable

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Travel- A journey into history and time.

 

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It is said that history is a symphony of echoes. Einstein’s equation says that time is like a river that speeds up meanders and slows down. When we travel we come across those two concepts combined and receive some surprising answers. Different places give us a different perspective of what time means in the context of the places we discover and their history.

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Table Mountain in Cape Town, is the core of the city, the city sits beneath it as if in a basket. The mountain doesn’t have any forbidding presence, it is is a comfort, a real everyday presence that give reassurance and motivation to the city. Not for nothing are Capetonians known by some as the “mountianhuggers”. The cloud formations that fall from it at evening are affectionately known as the table cloth. Table Mountain is here now and today, it does not occur to anyone that it is history and that its origins are 300 million years old.

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The Arenal volcano, in Costa Rica, is a real live volcano and the sense of time in that piece of nature, and its history, tend to be measured by the last time there was an eruption, 1968. The excitement of a real life volcano might induce some of us to wish it was more recent. 48 years is the sense of history and time that many create around it. But the real history is that it has been erupting for 7000 years. Time has shrunk.

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The city of London is a place where the past and the present have melded together with history to live in the present. The church of All Hallows by the Tower dates back to 675 and is still a church today where people worship. Time there is a history lesson nothing more. London is filled with old places still used sitting alongside the most modern places that befit one of the great cities of the world.

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At the other end of the spectrum is the ancient kingdom of Angkor and the ruins of its various temples, dating back to 11th century and now simply a place of ghosts, (and tourists), a place where nature has imposed itself in the intervening years and taken back what belonged to it originally in some places. We learn the history, but don’t live it and we marvel that such things could exist nearly 1000 years ago. There, time is very real and not in any way compromised.

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Finally the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, in that country, are as old as Angkor but there is a big difference. In truth no one is compltely certain as to who built Great Zimbabwe. The African oral tradition of history has allowed parts of that history to disappear in the telling of it, and so we are left with a place that hangs in the air in time, with no real reference point as to why and when.

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Our perception of history and its echoes, bend and shape the sense of time in the places that we journey to.

Travel Broadens The Mind – they say

 

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This expression is so widely stated and so accepted that it has almost become a platitude or even a cliché. It suggests that the very experience of travel and exposing oneself to other influences, cultures and experiences ensure a better understanding of the world we live in and the people in it; I subscribe to that.

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I read a blog today, not about travelling but about politics, (please don’t disappear this blog is not about politics!) and the content frankly shocked me accepting as I do the outlook of this phrase. Without going into detail the blog reflected upon the attitudes of the people of one country viewed from the writer’s country. The shock lay in the fact that the writer, who had been to the country he talked about, ascribed negative attitudes and motivations to the people of the other country with a degree and ferocity that bore absolutely no resemblance to my own experiences. These observations by the writer were not apparently, borne of any bad experiences in the country; simply a set of attitudes or one might call them prejudices that seemed to have overcome the supposed broadening of the mind.

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Now I am not naïve enough not to know that politics makes people say things they might not actually feel, nor am I conceited enough to think that my attitudes are always right, but in this case the attitudes were separate to the main thrust of the article, and they seemed to come from the heart. Had I not been to the place I might be inclined to accept them, but that would not have been fair to the country.

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Maybe I’m wrong about the idea that travel broadens the mind, maybe the writer’s idea of travel is simply to visit a resort in the sun where the experience given is so close to that of home that it is almost undistinguishable? Maybe the writer was looking for trouble or maybe so set in the idea of the superiority of their own environment that they could not open their mind to a different one?

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Being an avid reader of travel writers I wondered whether the real truth is that, as my favourite travel writer Bruce Chatwin writes:

“Travel doesn’t merely broaden the mind it makes the mind”?   or

as GK Chesterton wrote:

“They say that travel broadens the mind but you must have the mind”   or

as Paul Theroux has written:

“Extensive travelling induces a feeling of encapsulation, and travel, so broadening at first, contracts the mind”

I am still of the view that travel broadens the mind but I wonder?

Moscow Choices.

 

 

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Moscow is a multi trip city, its big, steeped in history, and lots going on, but there are some places that warrant a definite visit.

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The Tretyakov Gallery, which is housed in a fascinating building, is a State gallery that houses some 130000 Russian paintings. It dates back to the 19th century although the main building that houses it is early 20th century. The history of Russian painting is there and it is a gallery designed in a way that you can walk and look without other people imposing.

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Red Square is well known to all, as is the façade of the Kremlin in Red Square, but a visit inside the Kremlin is a discovery of a varied and fascinating world of architecture and churches and gardens. It is a structure that conjures dark and forbidding images in our minds but those are wrong images. The forbidding façade of the Kremlin doesn’t do justice to what is inside.

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Outside the kremlin can be found the Tomb if the Unknown Soldier. Many cities have such memorials but what is unique about this one is sadly the numbers of soldiers it commemorates who died in Second World War nearly 10000000. That is a number hard to get ones head round and far more than any other nation that fought in the war, it’s the equivalent of roughly the entire population of greater London.

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That sad statistic takes me on to the final place in this piece the Museum of The Great Patriotic War. Being interested in history I have seen war museums in various countries but this one is the most inspiring I think. The museum is set in Victory Park and the museum itself is 14000 sq. metres of exhibition which extraordinary fascinating exhibits and it is very a very moving, experience especially when you come onto another terrible statistic, that over twenty million civilians and soldiers died. It teaches you to understand just how much that terrible period is part of the life around you and inside its people.

 

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Moscow is a big place in a huge country, but these ideas will give some sense of it today and historically.

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