This week we took a little trip within a trip, and spent two nights in Dubrovnik, a small city on the very southern tip of the Croatian coast. The bus ride from Split to Dubrovnik takes between 4 and 5 hours, depending on the number of stops and whether or not the bus driver decides to take a 20 minute break for a coffee and a smoke, and winds through mountain passes and checkered farmland along the way. Most interestingly, the tail end of the Croatian coast is briefly broken up by a 20km strip of Bosnia and Herzegovina, carved off to provide the otherwise landlocked country independent access to the sea after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. So, as our bus traveled along the coast, we stopped at the international border for a passport check, continued to drive for another 15 minutes or so, then stopped again for another border check as we reentered Croatia!
We had booked two nights in an apartment through Airbnb.com, the same service we used to find our apartment in Paris, and again for the apartment we will have in Buenos Aires. As has been our experience so far, we had a fantastic host family. Marko greeted us upon our arrival with homemade herbed grappa and plenty of recommendations on where to eat and what to see in the city. After we returned from a quick dinner, his wife Jelena and their 2 1/2 old son Noa knocked on our apartment door (next door to theirs) to introduce themselves. On the following day, they had us over for a couple of hours and we chatted about travel, culture, language, and politics over some beers and snacks. One of the reasons we highly recommend this apartment style travel over hotels…you meet some great people and get a real local experience!
As we arrived around dinner time on our first day, and left at lunch on the third day, most of our sightseeing came on day 2. After a quick breakfast pastry from the local bakery, we headed into the Old Town - the main tourist attraction of Dubrovnik. The Old Town is surrounded by a huge stone city wall, about 2 km long. The earliest versions of the walls were erected in the 7th and 8th centuries during the city’s founding. However, the current defensive walls were constructed during the 12th - 17th centuries. The walls are plenty impressive - tall and thick on the land side, and thinner and shorter perched on the top of a cliff on the sea side. But the city itself makes the photo, with the orange tile roofs of the tightly packed buildings creating a beautiful mosaic between the stone church belltowers and green hanging vegetation.
Dubrovnik is very clearly a tourist town, and stood in sharp contrast to Split. While in Split we are often surprised to hear any English spoken by casual cafe patrons, in Dubrovnik, we were surprised to hear Croatian! The crowded streets were packed with tourists, many of which were American. Everything costs a little more and feels a little less local. I can’t even imagine how crowded the narrow streets of the Old Town must be in the heart of summer. So, paying the tourist tax, we bought our tickets to walk the loop on top of the city walls and spent over two hours peering down at the city from above.
What starts as subtle, but over time becomes clear, is the difference in age of the tile roofs. Some are an aged and weathered pale tan, others a bright and new orange and yellow. In the 1990s war during the breakup of Yugoslavia, Dubrovnik came under heavy fire from Serbian and Montenegrin forces for over seven months. More than half of the buildings in Old Town were damaged during the fighting. Since the end of the war, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has been mostly repaired, though a few remaining crumbled buildings can still be seen off the main tourist paths.
After a filling lunch of tortellini, we took a break from climbing stairs and looking at buildings and spent a few hours in the War Photo Limited photography exhibit. Yup, it was as uplifting as it sounds. But despite being emotionally crushing, this museum was fantastic. The current exhibit features the photographs of Yuri Koyrev, who covered the “Arab Spring” movements in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen. Beautiful and moving work. There is also a permanent installation of photography from the break up of Yugoslavia. In addition, there are multiple LCD screens and a table full of books covering past exhibits, including some focusing on Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and child soldiers in Africa. Very heavy stuff, but fantastic work, both from an artistic photograph and a journalistic perspective.
After the seriousness of war, and the overwhelming sadness that comes with the recognition of how cruel we can be to one another, we needed some refresh time. So, we set out in search of the hidden cafe/bar that sits under the walls, perched out over the Adriatic. Many thanks to Marc Sevigny for this recommendation - we found it! Just far enough off the beaten path, this cafe was quiet, with a beautiful view, and time for some reflection over a relaxing adult beverage. Much needed.
After our day exploring the Old Town of Dubrovnik, we wanted a different perspective on the city and took the cable car up Srd Hill, for a view 405 meters above the sea. We timed our visit with the setting sun, but low lying clouds muted any colorful displays. Even in their absence, we got a great view of the city, pushed right up the sea.
We explored the old fortress on top of the hill, carefully avoiding their war museum, and spent time on the multiple viewing platforms. Not only do you have a great view of the city, but also of the mountain ranges on the other side of the hill. We capped the trip off with a bone-warming cup of hot cocoa (it was cold up there!) and headed back down.
We ended our day with a visit with our neighbors and a nice dinner in the Old Town. The next morning, we squeezed in a disappointing boat ride around the harbor (shame on you Excursion Panorama for selling us tickets to your Glass Bottom Boat trip and not telling us that the water was too choppy to take out the glass bottom boat!). Finally, we headed back to the bus station to head back home to Split.
Overall, it was a great little trip to a beautiful city. However, I’m glad we chose to spend our month in Split instead. I feel like we got a much more representative Croatian experience there. But I’m glad we got a chance to sea the Pearl of the Adriatic as well. The pictures were too numerous to put into this already too-long post, so I put them up on Picasa instead. Click here for the full set (only 36 pix, not too crazy!) Hope you enjoy.
We’re not usually tour people. We’d rather grab a map and wander around on our own. That oftens leads us to unconventional places and unique experiences, and it’s served us well on our trip so far. But Buenos Aires is big. I mean BIG. It has a metro area of nearly 11,000 sq. km. and 13M people. We’re going to be here for three months and we need to get to know our new home. So, we decided to enlist some help to get us started.
Among the magnets for take out places we discovered on our fridge, we found a brochure for “BA Free Tours”. These tour guides were advertised to be young, bilingual, entertaining, and work only for tips. This way, you pay what you can afford and what you think the tour was worth. They offered two tours: a morning tour that hits all the biggest tourist draws, and an evening tour that was a little out of the ordinary. The “Aristocratic” tour goes through the fanciest neighborhoods of the city and digs into the cultural identity of Buenos Aires. With the low risk design of the tip system, we decided this tour sounded like one that could help us understand the city and was worth a try.
Very shortly after meeting our guide Juan and the other 10 people on our tour, we knew we had made the right decision. Juan was a 21 year old film student, born and raised in Buenos Aires, and had a casual and comic style with which we were immediately comfortable.
He took us to the typical beautiful parks in the area, but also talked about the true passions of Argentinians: football, tango, polo, and the food of the region - beef, wine, and dulce de leche.
We learned that Argentina has had a rather complex history since their declaration of independence from Spain in 1816. Most of the 19th century was spent at war, first for independence, then with other South American nations and in civil war. It was not until the relative peace of the late 19th century and early 20th century that Argentina flourished and became one of the 10 riches nations of the world, fueled by the agricultural exports leaving the bustling port of Buenos Aires. This trade resulted in a dramatic influx of European immigrants to the country. This massive immigration lead to the mixed ethnic heritage now found in Argentina, and the overwhelming European feel of the city of Buenos Aires. Only ~ 1% of the country’s population is Indigenous, everyone else is a mix of various European ancestry. As Juan put it, “We speak Spanish, look and eat like Italians, dress and build like the French, and act like we’re British.”
This prosperous era coincided with a lopsided social structure, with a small aristocracy having all the power and wealth, and a poor working class supporting them. Our tour took us through the part of town where most of the “palaces” - aristocratic mansions built in this period - now hold museums, embassies, and other government bureaus. This once single-family aristocratic home below is now the Brazilian Embassy.
Political infighting in the early 20th century resulted in power changing hands in several coups. The most well known of these was that of General Juan Peron, supported by his wife Eva (Evita), in the 1940s. ”Peronism” focused on returning power to the people, improving working conditions, and nationalization of key industries. One lingering effect of this inversion of power is the subtlety of the wealthy today. During Peron’s rule, they turned over their mansions to the government and decided to keep what remained of their wealth out of the eyes of the public. In the richest part of town, you see no flashy cars, no opulent building facades. They know where that leads socially, and make sure to put up a pedestrian appearance.
The Peron era was also marked by declining economic conditions. Censorship and repression increased which ultimately lead to a violent coup and his exile in the mid 1950s. The next few decades saw many more coups, violence and repression, military dictatorships, and civil and political unrest. Peron even came back from exile to rule again in the 70s, but died shortly thereafter while in office. He tried to leave power to his wife, also the vice president, but she was overthrown in yet another military coup.
In an effort to appease the populace and distract from the repressive environment and crippling economic conditions, the military dictatorship made a bold move in 1982 to enforce their claim on the disputed Malvinas Islands (aka the Falkland Islands). Hundreds of Argentinians died in this short unsuccessful attempt to reclaim the islands from the British. The war lasted 74 days. As Juan explained, “We are not a warlike people. We have only had three international wars in our history - for independence, against Paraguay in the 1800s, and the Malvinas. We are very good at fighting each other, not so good at fighting the rest of the world.” Our tour took us to the memorial site for these Argentinian soldiers, and we witnessed the changing of the guard.
This epic failure led to the downfall of the military regime and to free elections in 1983. Juan describes Argentina now as “a teenage democracy”. Like any teenager, they are “in love, confused, and unpredictable”. Argentinians are in love with their new democracy - the love to vote and are proud to have their say. But there is still confusion on what it is to live in a democracy. There are frequent protests as people express their distaste for some decision or another. Police enforcement is lax, as a delicate balance is struck so as not to give the impression of reverting back to a repressive police state. So the little things, like this guy carrying a pooper scooper with him, just don’t happen.
There have also been periods of instability in these 30 democratic years. In the early 2000s, Argentina saw three presidents in two weeks as they struggled through a devastating economic crisis. Things are settling down now, and they have enjoyed economic growth and the same president since 2007 - the first female head of state in the history of the country.
Above all this chaos and transition, Argentinians are proud, independent, and optimistic people. They have created a laid back, warm, inclusive society. They have no real ethnic boundaries, and have learned to blur the lines of class differences. Many thanks to Juan for helping us understand the complex history that has influenced the Argentinian identity. We tipped him well. :-)
Throughout our stay in Ho Chi Minh City thus far, we have spent a good deal of time wandering through District 1, the most touristy area, soaking in the sights. There are a few standard destinations on any self respecting tourist’s list, and we’re slowly getting to all of them. Thanks to our cyclo tour, we hit several of the main pagodas. But for the rest, we’ve taken a cab into the district and just walked around.
There are several key buildings worth seeing, most from the French colonial years. The mini-Notre Dame, for example, is pretty clearly from this time period.
The Opera House (Municipal Theater) falls into that category as well.
Even with the statue of “Uncle Ho” (Ho Chi Minh) outside, you can’t hide the fact that city hall is also in the French Colonial architectural style.
City Hall is not open to the public, and Notre Dame and the Opera House were closed when we visited, so all we had to go on was the outside. Right next to Notre Dame is the Saigon Central Post Office, another dominant French Colonial building. But this was open, and once inside, Uncle Ho was there to greet us again, reminding us that despite the style, this was most definitely Vietnam.
After the chaos of the postal system in Argentina, the open, calm, organized functionality of this post office was awe inspiring!
One part of the tourist route that clearly has NO western feel to it is the Binh Tay Market, an enormous Chinese-Vietnamese market. Once inside the walls, it is easy to get lost in the narrow alleys between the hundreds of crowded stalls selling clothing, spices, fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, meats, coffee, luggage, jewelry, appliances, purses, suits sewn to order in under 24 hours, and just about anything else you can think of, not to mention the stands selling prepared food for lunch. Since it’s a big tourist draw, the stall owners are aggressive and you can’t walk more than a meter or so without hearing “Madame! Madame! Come buy! Come look! Do you need X?” ”Mine is cheapest - you need!” Along with the dense smell of bizarre foods and compact humanity, it’s an overwhelming place.
This was one of the only places in the city where I was refused when I asked if I could take pictures. Many vendors turned me away, except for this trinket stall.
And I have to be honest, I sort of snuck this picture of snake/scorpion “wine”. I wasn’t told no, but I didn’t ask either. How could I pass this up?? OK, easy to pass up trying it, that will NOT be happening, but I just couldn’t resist snapping a photo of these deadly creatures trapped in something you’re supposed to drink!
The most common tourist spot in the city is the Independence (or Reunification) Palace. This “Historical Relic” is the anchor point to the tourist part of town. The original palace was built of western style in 1871, during the French rule here. In 1954, when the French left Vietnam, new Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem and his family moved into the Palace, making it their home in addition to its political role.
In 1962, during a Coup d’Etat, the Palace was bombed and an entire wing destroyed. Diem, still a year before his assassination, ordered the western style building destroyed and had a new palace built. The new building, designed by a Vietnamese architect, is what now stands in Ho Chi Minh City, and was built to resemble several Chinese characters symbolizing, among other things, good fortune, sovereignty, education, and prosperity.
I don’t want to turn this post into a lesson on Vietnamese history, so I’ll keep this brief. Diem makes some seriously unpopular leadership decisions, gets assassinated in ‘63, chaos ensues, war, and general yickiness follow. The Palace served as the center of the administration in Saigon throughout the war. In 1975 North Vietnamese tanks broke down the exterior gates, leading to the surrender of current president Duong Van Minh and ending the war. Now the building is used for political meeting and receptions, and as a historical relic for visitors.
Many parts of the Palace and grounds have been preserved in the state they were in over 35 years ago. While the gate has been repaired, those two tanks that broke into the compound still sit off to the side in front of the Palace.
The basement in particular still reflects its prior use as war headquarters and bunker. Strategy maps cover the walls in planning rooms.
The technology used for critical communications looked different back then.
Several rooms were filled with radios, both for use in the Palace as well as replacement parts for mobile devices used in the fields. Many of these units were from the US, and stamped as such.
And as we made our way to the roof, there stands a replica of the US helicopter used for evacuations at the end of the war.
We have heard it is much better than it used to be, but propaganda still reigns in this monument to the “unification of the Vietnamese people”. We stuck our heads in on a video about Vietnamese History, narrated in English. It was very uncomfortable to hear the overtly biased recounting of the “liberation of South Vietnam from the American Imperialists”, not the mention the outright lies. For example, referring to the American protests of the war, they said that self-immolation was a common occurrence (there were five, which was more than I thought, but not nearly the frequency that was suggested in the video). The video also claimed that 80% of US colleges closed in protest of the war.
Luckily, the blatant propaganda we found in this government run memorial seems to be contained, and does not reflect the attitude of the average citizen here. Whatever people here think they know or believe, it does not change the way the interact with us. We have encountered no ill will, no mention of war or our shared violent past outside of museums. We are just travelers, just another tourist with a wallet and a story, and warm smiles come our way.
On our last full day in Ho Chi Minh City, we took one final tour, and honestly, I’ve been having a difficult time finding the right way to write about it. We spent the morning visiting the Viet Minh/Viet Cong tunnel network in Cu Chi, and the late afternoon exploring the War Remnants Museum back in the heart of Saigon. It was a double dose of a close up view of the ugly realities of war. So, you know, a real pick-me-up.
On our bus ride out to the Cu Chi district, a couple hours from the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, we stopped at Handicapped Handicrafts - a government owned facility where craftsmen, mostly victims of Agent Orange, create lacquer art. The warehouse sells thousands of pieces from bowls and wine racks to vases and paintings.
Most interesting was the opportunity to walk through a work room where the craftsmen were busy making these items. We watched as people carefully arranged various shades of broken egg shells to create some of the images.
At other tables, people worked with vices and narrow hand saws carving impossibly delicate designs in wood. A few people were actually using toothpicks to apply tiny dots of paint, one at a time, to create huge pointillism pictures.
Still others were applying the lacquer to the finished products, endlessly buffing them to their famous shine. We were told that some of these products are actually machine made in factories, but it was watching the process of the hand made efforts that was so fascinating. The level of detail and precision of the craftsmen, with great repetition, was astounding.
Not long after the craft workshop we reached the Cu Chi Tunnels complex. Construction of the tunnel system began with the Viet Minh in the 1940s, during the war for independence from the French colonialists. Then, the tunnels, were prominently used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam-American war in the 60s and 70s. Now, a small portion of the hundreds of kilometers of tunnels have been opened as a war memorial and tourists flock to visit.
Our guide, Tung, was a great story teller and had first hand experience with Cu Chi. Not only was he born and raised there, but he also fought there. As a young man he moved to Saigon for work. When the war escalated to threaten Saigon, he was forced to make a choice - in his early 20’s, he must choose to fight with one side or the other. With family back in Cu Chi, he returned to fight with the Viet Cong.
In his vivid story telling, Tung rolled up his sleeve to show us the puckered gunshot wound that goes right through his shoulder. He has one to match in his foot, reminders of a stand off with an American helicopter…one he lost. Gravely injured, Tung retreated into the Cu Chi tunnel system and spent months underground being nursed by the family of a fellow soldier. After the war, he stayed in Cu Chi and worked as a barber. When Cu Chi was opened as a tourist site, he went back to school to learn English and now works as a tour guide, using his first hand knowledge of the area to enrich the experience.
Upon arriving at the complex, we are first brought to a thatched hut, half underground, to watch a propaganda film on the tunnels and their importance in the war. It’s an old film, from back in the war days, and is the most seriously one-sided piece of propaganda we’ll see in Vietnam, with the phrase “killing American invaders” uttered over and over again.
After the film, we wander through a few exhibits filling us in on life in Cu Chi and the role of the tunnels in the war, which were two fold. First, these long tunnels served as hidden supply lines and access routes for surprise attacks, sometimes with hidden doors right in enemy camps. When covered with leaves and vines as camoflage on the jungle floor, the tiny hatch doors were practically invisible.
We were given the opportunity to climb into this access point to see how small it was, and I tried it. With my little 5’3” frame, I could still barely fit, and once I pulled the door over my head, the damp darkness was overwhelmingly claustrophobic.
In addition to strategic tools, since bombing was a critical strategy against the Viet Cong, the tunnels served as shelters, sometimes with whole villages moved underground for safety. During intense periods of bombing, people lived underground for months, fighting insect infestations, disease, and crowded conditions. In these tiny spaces, they built a war effort - feeding soldiers, tended the wounded, fighting malaria, and even build munitions. Having few weapons, they would scurry out of the tunnels at night to collect bomb remnants, harvest any usable material, and build new bombs out of discarded soda cans found at the enemy bases. In the early stages of the war, they would also build all kinds of different traps, which had been an effective technique fighting the French.
However, in the Vietnamese-American war, the heavy use of bombs and defoliating agents exposed many of these traps, and they were slowly phased out of use.
Toward the end of the tour we reached the main attraction - our opportunity to crawl through a few hundred meters of the tunnels. I expected it to be much cooler underground, and was surprised to find out it was almost as warm and humid as out in the sun. We descended the newly built stairs and started the crouched half-crawl, half-walk necessary to navigate the tight space.
As we huffed and puffed and sweated our way through the longest part of the tourist tunnel, we were humbled to know that parts of the tunnel have been widened to accommodate “Western style bodies”. When they were used in the war, they were even more cramped. And completely dark. And insect and disease infested. I can’t imagine…
We ended our tour with a snack of boiled tapioca root - a common meal for the people living in the tunnels. Then, the bus took us back to Saigon and dropped us off at the War Remnants Museum (previously called the War Crimes Museum). The three story building mostly displays moving and graphic photographs from the war.
Displays range from depictions of citizen life during the war, to graphic displays of the atrocities of war. The most disturbing section tells the story of Agent Orange, the dioxin defoliant used during the war that caused horrible health problems to those exposed, both Vietnamese and American, as well as birth defects in the next generation. Many visitors were moved to tears, your author included.
Another room is dedicated to the journalists of the war from all over the world. There is an extensive display from Life Magazine, a very popular publication in the US at the time, and responsible for much of the unfiltered reporting of the war.
There are also several displays focused on the machinery of war - the various guns and bombs and vehicles used. Outside are tanks and aircraft, the most poignant to me being the American Huey helicopter, which thanks to TV and movies is the vehicle I most associate with this war.
After a couple of hours, we were emotionally spent. The museum is decidedly one-sided: a propaganda tool displaying the outrageous things done by the Americans and the “South Vietnamese puppet government” during the war with no mention of the atrocities committed by the other side. But the bias is not what bothered me the most. I felt nearly the same way after visiting the War Photography museum in Dubrovnik, Croatia (described in an earlier post here.) It was not the role of my country and whether or not we were fairly portrayed that got to me. It was sheer sadness at the cost to humanity. We are capable of unspeakable things, and we have executed on that capacity far too often. War is so rarely worth it, and those that make the decisions to enter into it are not the ones to suffer. The pictures we saw of President Johnson or of Ho Chi Minh were behind desks or speaking to crowds of people. The people who bore the brunt of their ambitions were the soldiers in the field - on both sides, the peasants driven from their homes, the mothers who lost children, the journalists who lost their lives trying to tell the real story, the descendants who suffered the genetic mutations of Agent Orange. Generations are lost to war. As Tung said, “In Vietnam, we fought for so many years, we did not know anything else. We had no education but as fighters. Only now, in peace, can we start to educate ourselves to be something other than soldiers.”
We took a cab back to our apartment, ate a quiet dinner, and spent a calm evening reflecting on our day.