Charlie Colasurdo is a Staples High School sophomore. He’s a longtime Wakeman Town Farm volunteer, online features editor for the school newspaper Inklings, and a talented photographer.
Last week I posted a story on Nora Kubach, a Staples grad finishing up a film about Americans whose fathers were killed in action there, and children of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong who died in the same war.
Charlie read it, and emailed me — from Vietnam.
That’s where he was spending April break. I invited him to share his unique vacation with “06880” readers when he returned. Here’s what he wrote — along with photographs he took.
I was incredibly fortunate and excited to spend 10 days in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. Because I visited a family of expats who had lived there for 5 years, I got to explore and experience Saigon in a very nontraditional way, and to photographically document the people, places and rich culture that the city boasts.
Just weeks before I left, I watched “Last Days in Vietnam” in Mr. Drew Coyne’s US History Honors class. The movie showed Saigon at the end of the war, as Americans and their South Vietnamese allies were evacuating from the besieged city. Mr. Coyne and I agreed that revisiting those scenes on the historic avenues of Saigon was an excellent way to connect my trip to what I learned in Westport.
I found the city itself to be stunning — a unique juxtaposition of traditional Chinese, colonial French, and high-rise, modern architecture sprawling over several districts, or “quậns.”
The streets are overrun with motorbikes (almost 6 million!), which makes for interesting street crossing!
Venturing away from the more touristy areas of downtown, we took self-guided walking tours of the crisscrossing alleyways of Chợ Lớn, Saigon’s Chinatown. It’s where the majority of the working-class Saigonese live, away from the noisy main streets. Tucked away down these narrow alleys, vibrant markets sell everything from towers of just-picked coconut, purple basil and mint, and freshly picked mangoes to still-swimming fish to sweet sticky rice balls, which you can buy for 20,000 dong apiece (90 cents). It was a far cry from the Westport Farmers’ Market!
Learning about the Vietnam War from the comfort of Westport, I was never able to get a complete idea of its scale and effects on a country 9,000 miles away. The War Remnants Museum was a necessary but difficult stop, featuring disturbing photo galleries of the atrocities of the war (or as it is referred to there, the “American War”). Despite this one reminder of a darker time, the Vietnamese people I encountered were cheerful and friendly to me as an American, and clearly desired to move on towards a brighter future.
Another highlight of the trip was a photography tour of Saigon’s hidden gems with Tanya Olander, who created the fantastic daily photoblog “Somewhere in Saigon,” featuring street photography throughout the city. My favorite stop was at Tao Dan Park’s “Bird Café,” where Vietnamese hang up songbirds in ornate cages and enjoy the morning songs with a coffee or cigarette.
While there, I discovered how much more a vacation could offer than sitting on a beach or skiing down a mountain. In Saigon I was able to eat like a local, ride motorbikes through the city’s narrow alleys, and meet wonderfully interesting and colorful people, like the market vendors who had very little, and yet nearly always wore smiles.