A walk through Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Arlington National Cemetery
Virginia side of Memorial Bridge, Washington DC
http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/

IMG_6474

I’m not a supporter of war. I’m not saying I don’t support our troops when they’re called upon. I’m not saying I’m not extremely proud of the men and women who have fought for us and the comfortable and relatively safe lives we lead here. I’m not saying I haven’t been extremely humbled by the willingness of every day people to take up arms to defend their country and people. But a quote I read years ago that’s always stuck with me is “war doesn’t determine who is right; only who is left.”

I’m not going to write this post about my feelings and beliefs towards acts of war; I don’t want to open the debate, because I believe it’s too sensitive and personal. But yesterday marked Purple Heart Day in America, the day they choose to honor the men and women who have been wounded or killed in military service, and I thought it an appropriate and poignant time to share a few photos from my visit to Arlington National Cemetery in January. To call over 600 acres of tombs an overwhelming experience would be a disrespectful understatement. I wasn’t at all prepared for the enormity of it, or the impact seeing all of those tombs would have on me. It wasn’t easy to walk through, yet I felt it was a necessary walk, not just for me but for everyone. I think that in order to continue to justify the waging of war and hatred and taking of lives, everyone should walk through here; it completely takes your breath away to be standing among so many lost souls who needn’t have lost their lives so violently and horribly…

IMG_6478

 

Crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

IMG_4893

There are some experiences you can have when you’re travelling that really get to you. That get deep down within you and make you think. This was one of those.

Before sibling and I visiting Vietnam this time last year, I ordered a copy of Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History; I’ve always been a history nerd and found military history the next most interesting after Egyptian history in high school. I knew that Vietnam’s history was quite multifaceted and complicated, and I was interested to learn more, so I devoured the almost 800 page volume in the weeks leading up to the trip; by the time we arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnels, I was pretty keen to finally see if all first hand.

History crash course (because long winded blog posts can get a bit boring): The Cu Chi Tunnels are an absolutely enormous network of interconnecting tunnels underground in the Cu Chi region of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong soldiers in the 1960s as communication and supply routes, as well as hiding spots and living quarters, which the area above ground was being bombed and razed.

IMG_4889

IMG_4890

These tunnels are beyond tiny, with our bigger Western frames crawling through hunched ad on all fours for the most part barely getting through. And it was pitch black darkness, too – if it weren’t for the few small lights that had been installed for the sake of us tourists, we’d have been in big trouble. Oh, and those smiles? Nervous ones – we’d just been swooped by a bat. Yup. There are bats in there, FYI.

IMG_4907

IMG_4932

The area around and above the tunnels has also been turned into a tourist/educational site, which typical scenes re-created so that visitors can get an inkling of an idea of how it really was…

IMG_4904

IMG_4921

An unexpected highlight was getting the change to shoot an M16 machine gun – I’m not at all one for firearm-related violence, I’m horrified by the lax gun control laws in America, and am incredibly grateful to live in a country where you can’t just pick up ammo at your local K-Mart. However, being able to pick up one of these pieces and fire away in the controlled environment of the shooting range was an absolutely unreal experience!

IMG_4919

Another highlight was ending the trip with our tour guide over green tea and a simple snack of boiled taro with the most incredible salt/sugar/crushed peanut side. He told us that this was common for Vietnamese people to eat in war time, as it was the only thing they could really afford – he actually didn’t eat much, nor did he enjoy it, because he said he ate so much of it growing up and it didn’t bring back the best memories…

IMG_4941

I know a lot of people give this a miss when they visit Ho Chi Minh City because they’re there to holiday and relax and have fun, not to be depressed and educated about shit that happened in the previous generation. But it’s really worth the visit. Especially if you get a great guide, like we did, who can teach you so much along the way. I’m also really glad I read that book beforehand now – knowledge is power, and being able to see if first hand after reading about it, learning about the past and seeing the ramifications of the decisions and mistakes that the world made that brought Vietnam to that point should empower this generation to not make the same mistakes. Maybe more people should be reading about history and visiting “depressing” sites like this when they travel…

IMG_4892

Walking the streets of Cairo between riots, 2013

It’s hard to believe this was two years ago, almost to the day… Throwback Thursday it is, indeed.

3.10

I’ve written a bit over the past year about the life changing time I spent in Egypt back in 2013, but haven’t really yet touched on the fact that we happened to visit in between flare ups of rioting and fighting. The trip had been booked and paid for well in advance, and we weren’t about to cancel it without an extremely good reason. The official travel advisories stated that in the week we were to be there, it would be sufficiently safe; that was good enough for us! We were only in Cairo for a few nights, anyhow, and didn’t think we’d be getting too close to the troubled areas of the city anyway.

Turned out we arrived a day before the rest of our tour companions did, and our brilliant guide Medo had an offer we couldn’t refuse – a private tour of the city. Absolutely; we figured it’d be our only real chance to see it safely. It was a confronting experience, but I’m glad we did it.

3.5

The first thing that was blatantly obvious, was that I stood out like an elephant wearing a tutu. I felt like a zoo animal being walked around on a leash for the day. I was covered up, wearing pants, a long sleeved top, closed shoes. I left my hair out to cover my neck and partially hide my face. I wore sunglasses, and all of my tattoos were hidden. I wore no jewellery other than a simple black leather bracelet, a silver necklace chain and my wedding ring, turned around so that the diamonds were in my palm. I did my best to keep myself hidden in plain sight. But I couldn’t hide the fact that I was a lily white Western woman, with freckles and auburn red hair. That made me different enough for unending stares. The strange thing was, they weren’t rude stares; merely inquisitive. I didn’t feel like people were offended by my presence, I just felt like they were very curious about me. Medo put me at ease instantly, letting me know that I was as much a tourist attraction to them as the Nile was to me.

The second thing was the damage that had been caused as we reached Tahrir Square. Windows had been smashed. Buildings had been gutted by fires. Cars upturned. Store front boarded up and spray painted. It was exactly as it had been depicted in the media, yet I still wasn’t ready for it.

Again, Medo urged us not to worry; he explained that the locals understood very well that their livelihoods relied mostly on tourism, and as such, if any rioting was to break out, we could rest assured we’d be left completely untouched and unharmed. The riots were a hell of a lot more organised than we’d been led to believe from the media reporting, too; they were planned and announced, for the most part, in advance. That’s how the news reporters knew where and when to turn up. Hotels also let their guests know when to avoid the square for these pre-planned events. Real life on those streets was far less frightful than the news would have had us believe.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We came from Melbourne to Cairo; “polar opposites” would be the phrase that first comes to mind. Coming from such a safe city, being afraid to leave my house for fear of fighting or rioting is not a notion I have ever had to entertain, not even in my most ridiculous dreams. I’ve never avoided an area in my city for fear of my personal safety. It’s second nature for me to walk around with whoever I want, wearing whatever I want, doing exactly as I please. I know that not everyone has that privileged, yet it’s not something I’ve ever considered myself lucky to have had. I’m glad we weren’t there on the day of a riot, because the aftermath was scary enough for me. But honestly, other than being the unwitting and uncomfortable centre of attention, I felt surprisingly comfortable in Cairo with Medo as our guide. The locals were as curious about me as I was about them, nothing was hidden, it was all put out there for the world to see. Somehow, that’s more comforting. It was an encounter I’ll always remember, and something I’m so glad I had the opportunity to experience.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum & Museum, Hanoi

I was so happy when Sibba agreed to let me drag her around to a few historical sites on our last day in Hanoi – I’m a history geek! I’ve read a lot about the Vietnam war and the decades leading up to it (and the aftermath of the decades after it), learning a lot in the process about Ho Chi Minh and what he did for Vietnam. Upon checking our map, I realised the Mausoleum and Museum were within a stone’s throw of each other, so we decided to visit them both, first thing in the morning (we’d heard they get pretty busy later in the day).

Hanoi map

Sibba and I actually walked the 2.5km from our accommodation at the Quoc Hoa Hotel, which was actually not too hard to navigate… until we accidentally stumbled into some sort of military compound (Google maps thought it’d be quicker to cut through it rather that walk around it) which we were sternly and swiftly told off for, and I imagine the armed guard said something (in Vietnamese) along the lines of “Idiot Australians! You can’t just walk through here!!!” His shiny uniform and large gun made his point, even if we couldn’t understand his words.

Anyway, we got there in the end, and first walked down through the enormous Ba Dinh Square leading to the Mausoleum. It was magnificent, silently commanding a quiet respect from the visitors. Despite his wishes to be cremated upon his death, he was instead embalmed and entombed in this Lenin-style mausoleum in the centre of the square, in the city where he read his Declaration of Independence in 1945 and thus establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The 25 words or less history (not literally, I tried!) is that Ho Chi Minh received a French education, spending time in France, the UK, the USA and Russia in his early years. He became a Vietnamese Communist leader, taking the roles of both president and prime minister of North Vietnam, as well as leading the Viet Minh movement. He was fighting for Vietnamese independence, bringing the North and South together under one rule. There is, of course, a LOT more to it than that – I’d recommend reading up on it if you’re interested! Anyway, the mausoleum brings in hundreds of visitors every day, mostly locals actually, paying their respects to Uncle Ho. Tourists come in by the bus load too, and it is nice to see that for the most part, people were very respectful.

IMG_5560

After spending some time under the watchful eyes of the guards and the big, grey structure itself, we walked over to the Museum, which was a real surprise. Built in the 90’s, it’s a supremely modern building, with an even more surprisingly modern interior. It’s dedicated to the plight of Ho Chi Minh and revolutionary fight for the country against foreign powers. The entrance fee was tiny, only a few dollars, and there was a lot to see – you can read a little more about the museum on their website, but I’d rather tell you about my impressions rather than re-telling something that already exists.

Upon entrance, you’re immediately faced with the first collection – mostly photographs and letters written in Vietnamese. It was interesting to look at, but even the descriptions were in Vietnamese, so we really didn’t have much of an idea of what we were looking at. We progressed up the stairs to the second collection in the second level, to be faced with a sort of ante-chamber, filled with the presence of an enormous, bronze Uncle Ho.

IMG_5565

As we moved through one of the few entrances, we discovered the complete opposite of the simple, primitive display downstairs – an ultra-modern museum, with beautiful displays telling the story of the history of Vietnam…

IMG_5571

IMG_5573

IMG_5574

It was well worth the visit and the tiny entrance fee – even Sib was fascinated! It was set up in such a great way that you really couldn’t help but learn, and you lingered at each new exhibit for a little longer than you expected to. It was also really interesting to note that there were more locals than tourists there; it seemed that they continue to be very interested in their culture and their past. I think that’s incredibly important, and was really wonderful to see.

I thought it was a fantastic place to see and spend some time in – we certainly stayed longer than we expected to! I would really recommend a visit if you are in Hanoi, it was a beautifully modern glimpse into a complicated past.

IMG_5568

 

The Hong Ngoc Humanity Centre for victims of Agent Orange

IMG_5442

So, it’s a bloody long drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. Around 3 – 4 hours, traffic dependent. With both my sister and I having a history of car sickness, we weren’t particularly looking forward to spending upwards of 6 hours in a mini-van, but kept telling ourselves it’d be worth it to see Ha Long Bay. Clearly, it was worth it. BUT the drive honest to God was NOT THAT BAD! It helped that we had an absolute star of a guide who kept us informed and entertained for the most part, but taking a break half way was a fantastic too. As we were pulling in, he explained that the place we were visiting was an a centre that specialised in some beautiful art work; paintings and photographs were recreated by the resident artists, copying them from an original print onto a canvas by way of embroidery. The results were stunning, we were told. He then told us that the resident artists were also survivors/victims (I guess it depended on how you wanted to look at it) of the Agent Orange chemical used in the Vietnam War.

Basically, in an attempt to deny food, water and cover to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, the United States used a herbicide called Agent Orange to defoliate large chunks of jungle. An unfathomable approximate of 3 – 5 million people were affected by the herbicide (it’s hard to find legitimate numbers on this with claims from the US that the Vietnamese purposely made the numbers higher than they were..); countless deaths, cases of cancer, still births, mental and physical disabilities, nervous system disorders and babies born with horrible deformities was the result. As a result, that leaves a lot of now adults without the ability to work and earn a living, often classed as “burdens” on their families. This centre is a place for them to go to, where they are taught this art. They can also live there, and earn a modest wage; ironically enough, that sees these “burdens” becoming the main bread-winners for their families.

IMG_5440

We walked through the centre, silently, reverently I guess. I didn’t want them to feel like circus animals with my camera pointed at them, but a few seemed quite happy to have their pictures taken. I didn’t take many; it didn’t feel right. We watched them work away, some silently, others chatting and laughing amongst themselves. It seemed like a good environment; safe, productive, uniting. The work was beautiful, and I purchased a small picture of my own to take home. There were other items for sale as well – carved wooden goods, statues, scarves, knick knacks.

IMG_5438

Suddenly our huffing and puffing over a long car ride seemed not only insignificant, but incredibly selfish and bratty. This stop was not only to recharge our batteries for the next hour and a half in the car, but it recharged my heart as well. It gave some phenomenal perspective, which is absolutely necessary, particularly when you are travelling.

IMG_5439