History Museums Around the World

9 03 2010

After our first round of traveling around Asia (Beijing, Hong Kong, Korea, Vietnam and Japan) I have to say that my three favorite museums are the War Memorial of Korea, War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

These three museums are an amazing asset to the local community and to the world. In my experience, some of the best museums charge less than $2 USD. All three of these museums are unique in many ways, sharing destruction and death.

One of the most rugged and in your face museums that I have visited is the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. As soon as you pay (less than a buck) you are directly faced with military aircraft such as big fighter jets, helicopters and military tanks that were used during the Vietnam War (the locals call it the American War). There are hundreds of bullet holes and dents in these amazing machines. It’s great that they have everything in your face and you have an opportunity to see it from Vietnam’s point of view. The memorabilia, photos and artifacts will blow your mind. I kept thinking that in 50 years from now this museum will not be standing because of the poor quality of the glass and security of the items. The glass that separates items from the public is extremely thin and can be easily broken. I wish that the government or some organization would do a better job to protect this museum so that future generations can see a part of history. The pictures in this museum are very real and gruesome, showing you a version of the war that we don’t see back in America. Nonetheless, it’s definitely an impressive museum.

If you’re ever in Seoul, a must see is the War Memorial of Korea.  As soon as you are in front of the museum you will notice the Statue of Brothers, the elder, a South Korean soldier and the younger, a North Korean soldier, which symbolizes the situation of Korea’s division. The Korean peninsula has seen many wars from neighboring powers. The War Memorial was built to commemorate actors and victims in the wars which led to the modern nation state. The museum also has the purpose of educating future generations by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting various historical relics and records related to the many wars fought in the country from a South Korean perspective. If you truly want to see evidence of how Japan invaded Korea and destroyed priceless art and buildings, travel around the peninsula and see with your own eyes. If you get a chance to go to Gyeongju, which use to be the capital you will see the destruction that was left. I have been told by countless Koreans that Japan doesn’t even acknowledge that amount of damage that they did to Korea. Click here to find out more about the Korean War.

Display of the nations' flags that participated with the U.N. during the Korean War

8:15am was the precise time that the bomb was dropped.

One of my favorite museums of all, is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It’s a funny feeling that you get once you step foot into this historical city. It’s like time stopped here (8:15 am on August 6, 1945 was the precise time the bomb was dropped over Hiroshima). I guess this museum is truly unique because how many other places had an atomic bomb destroy their city. This museum does a great job showing you how it was minutes after the A-bomb was dropped. If you’re ever in Japan, do yourself a favor and visit this part of history. After viewing the whole museum we had an opportunity to walk around this new vibrant city. Everyone says the people have moved on and as well as the city. But, you can’t help to think that one bomb so powerful, that people evaporated into thin air or burned into ashes at the drop of the bomb. Later on that evening as we were walking to our hostel, we had to walk pass the existing A-Bomb Dome. In 1966, the city decided to keep this structure in its original condition as a landmark from the war. The dome was registered on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list in December 1996 as a monument that reminds us of the tragedy of the bombing, according to wikpedia. The city stood quiet as we walked toward our hostel, it was a really beautiful sight but I couldn’t help that the feeling was very eerie. I mean if you think about it, one bomb killed more than 80,000 people instantly. Does the soul ever find peace?

A-Bomb Dome

They said that plants and grass weren't going to grow in Hiroshima for another 75 years - this tree is in the preservation fence of the A-Bomb Dome.

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Attempting to Learn about Vietnam’s Past

21 02 2010

Aside from all of the hustle and bustle of the Saigon, the city has a history that not many know about. Like I said, we learn one side of the story in history class. We learned that the Americans were trying to save the South Vietnamese from becoming a communist country controlled by the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong. But, little did we know how torturous and gruesome war can be, until we went to the War Remnants Museum. The pictures they had on display tell the story of how horrible the war was a how it destroyed parts of Vietnam and its people. They were held in prison camps and exposed to Agent Orange, one of the most dangerous dioxins. The U.S. Army used this dioxin to get rid of the trees and shrubs in rural South Vietnam. Little did they know that it not only caused disabilities among American soldiers, but also thirty years after the war, Vietnamese babies are still being born with physical and mental birth defects. It’s a tragic reality. We actually saw a baby with physical defects that was probably a result of Agent Orange.

Propaganda against the Vietnam War

We also learned about another reality of Phu Quoc Island. Two days before going to the beautiful beach, we learned that the South Vietnamese government with the help of the U.S. Army kept a prison camp on the island, where they would torture and kill the Viet Cong in tiger cages and much more. Tiger cages were a box made of barbed wire. The Viet Cong were forced in these, sometimes three or four people at a time and they would pretty much bleed to death together.

Tiger cages that South Vietnam and the U.S. used to torture the North Vietnamese.

We have to learn these facts through museums and books. The war was really harsh for the Vietnamese, which is the reason why many don’t talk about it. Unfortunately, the younger generation, such as mine, has no idea what the story is behind how we are alive today.





Shopping Madness

19 02 2010

Sixty percent of Vietnam’s population is under the age of 30, according to business-in-asia.com. This interesting fact shows the youthfulness as a country and how Vietnam is one of the fastest developing countries. These characteristics of the third-world country are prevalent in the people. The Vietnamese people are so sincere, helpful, hard-working, kind and open to foreigners. It seems that they are much more accustomed to working with and interacting with foreigners. For example, a lot of the older men know how to speak English very well because they worked with Americans during the war. And a lot of the younger generation knows how to speak English because they interact with tourists from Europe, North America and other parts of the world. Because foreigners usually can’t speak Vietnamese, they communicate with English. I didn’t realize that English is really a language that everyone around the world knows a little bit of and uses even in countries like Vietnam. Surprisingly, the U.S. Dollar is accepted in Vietnam as well.

Vietnamese people will go out of their way to make you happy, especially if they are trying to sell you something and if you’re willing to give them a good price for it. For example, we bought tons of gifts and souvenirs from one lady in Ben Thanh Market. I asked for certain items that she didn’t have, so she went to the next store to get it for me. In addition, Randy bargains like crazy. His strategy is: the more you buy the more of a discount you get, which is true. Walking through Ben Thanh Market is madness. Women will pull you left and right to eat at their place or buy their items. But when we went to An Dong and Binh Tay Markets, there were no foreigners. All of these items are for the wholesale price. Hardly any bargaining can be done here. But, it’s still madness. People are buying things in bulk and lugging it out of the four-story market filled with people.





Good Morning Vietnam

18 02 2010

Being Vietnamese-American and going to Vietnam for the first time was truly a life-time experience, even if it was just for five and a half days. As we went through customs and the airport, we could feel the tropical climate and the hustle and bustle of a city trying to make something for itself. Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City is a city that is rising in tourism and as the world gets to know more of Vietnam’s history and culture, the more people will love it. The first thing that hits you when you leave the airport is the amazing amount of motorbikes! They come in all directions and it seems impossible to cross the streets. But, they’ll just go around you as long as you walk slowly. In addition to the massive number of motorbikes and their courtesy, the people are super nice, sometimes because they want to sell you something, but sometimes just because they are truly sincere and want to help you.

In a city of 7 million people, 3 million motorbikes pack the streets.

As for the food, if there is one word that describes Vietnamese food, it is ‘fresh.’ Everything from the pho, banh mi, seafood, coffee and che is full of flavors like lemongrass, pepper, mint and more. Vietnam’s history is something to discover more and more about, not only because of the war, but because this is where my family is from and where they have some story about the war. In school, we only learned about the Vietnam War, which is what Americans called it. We didn’t learn about the other side of the war that the Vietnamese call the American War. Visiting Saigon and Phu Quoc for the first trip to Vietnam was the right choice because of what we learned. I hope that you enjoy reading the next few posts almost as much as I enjoyed visiting Vietnam.

Like I mentioned, Vietnamese food is FRESH. It is filled with herbs, spices, vegetables, meat or seafood and their staple ingredient – fish sauce (nước mắm). I had fogotten how much I liked Vietnamese food. I didn’t realize how priviledged I was to have that type of food when I was younger, until now. I never knew what I was eating, I just knew that it was good. Now, I know what the food is called, but sometimes I don’t know what it’s made of. So, some of the information I get comes from the Internet.

I loved having pho almost everyday in Vietnam. Pho is a famous dish in Vietnam and around the world. It’s made of rice noodles in a beef broth, with your choice of how much bean sprouts, lime, basil, hoisin and sriacha sauce you’d like. They have chicken and seafood too, but beef (Pho Bo) is the way to go. Another snack or dish that I missed was Banh Mi, which is a baguette filled with thinly sliced carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, mayonaise and meat or tofu. It’s definitely a sandwich that was influnced by the French.

Vietnam's most famous dish, pho

Vietnamese seafood is the best in the world. Korean seafood is different because it usually has a kimchi taste to it. But I prefer Vietnamese seafood, which has more of a fresh, herb and black pepper taste. The best seafood in Vietnam is on Phu Quoc Island. The clams at the Night Market were amazing! The Vietnamese make a dipping sauce with shellfish such as clams, shrimp, prawn, crab and crawfish. The sauce is simply made of black pepper and salt with lime juice. It tastes perfect with shellfish!

Hot pot with baby shark, fresh vegetables and clam at the Night Market in Phu Quoc

Other dishes that are worth trying are Banh Xeo (the Vietnamese version of a crepe filled with fresh vegetables and pork), Bún thịt nướng (Vermicelli with grilled pork or fried spring rolls) and of course spring rolls, fried or fresh. Vietnamese coffee blows away other types of coffee. Its strong taste and sweet condensed milk stirred together and poured in ice make it the perfect drink for a warm morning or sweltering afternoon. But for an even more refreshing drink, try che. Everyone makes their che different. It’s usually made of red or soy bean in a coconut milk and crushed ice. Sometimes, it will have jellies, other fruit or some sort of custard.

But, one of our favorite eating experiences involved a bit of an adventure. Although this ‘restaurant’ is tucked away from District 1 and all of the other restaurants and hotels, this special chef is known for her homemade soups. She was featured on the TV show, “No Reservations,” with Anthony Bourdain. She is known as the “Lunch Lady.” It’s people like her who make the country a better place. She makes her culture speak through her cooking. She’s like a mother or grandmother who spends countless hours preparing a meal from love.

There was no exact address for her restaurant, which in Vietnam is sometimes outside with plastic chairs and tables and considered street food. But this street food was something different, with full service and the best soup in town. We had a small map that we found online and headed toward the area in search of this legend. As we got closer toward the area we asked a few locals where she was located and they knew exactly who we were talking about. Her stand was tucked away in a small alley. This was definitely off the beaten track. Her customers were everyday locals who crave the “good stuff.” This is the type of place where hardly ever see travelers. As soon as we located her stand, her face lit with a huge smile, welcoming us to sit down and try her food. She is an amazing woman who truly has a gift. Anthony Bourdain said that she was one of his favorite street vendors in Vietnam.

The Lunch Lady's Saturday Special - Banh Canh

She often puts a spin on traditional Vietnamese food making her own unique dish. When we went on a Saturday and she prepared a classic Vietnamese dish called Banh Canh. But instead of a pork-base broth she added her own spin with a crab-based seafood broth. The dish included fish cakes, succulent shrimps, thinly sliced shallots, onions, peppers, and a few quail eggs. Anyone who loves food could see the love that she put into this food.

This was one of the best dishes that we had in Vietnam. We highly recommend trying the Lunch Lady’s soup. If you’re limited on time in Vietnam, make sure you make time for the Lunch Lady. Just make sure that you get there after 11am and before 1pm. For someone being so famous, she charges less than 18,000 VND per plate, which is equivalent to $1 USD. Despite her popularity she refuses to raise her prices.