The artist formerly known as Saigon
30.06.2012 - 03.07.2012 36 °C
It’s had a new name since 1975, but it’s also got a lot of modern history. Ho Chi Minh City also has about 10million people with a further 7 million motorbikes calling it home!! Trying to cross the road, it feels like all 7million are crossing that very intersection as you put your life on the line.
When we arrived into what was clearly the backpacker part of town, we got in contact with Mateo and Tuli who we did the Komodo Boat trip with in Indonesia. We had figured we would be in Vietnam around the same time as each other so we organised to meet up for dinner and drinks that night. We had a good catch up on what we had been up to for the last month and plenty of funny stories to hear. Our time for Vietnam is identical and had the same places in mind to visit so we decided that we may as well stick together as we work our way up the country!
The other two had a tour out to the Mekong Delta set for the following day so Tanya and I decided just to have a look around the city. We started off walking up to the reunification palace. Starting off as the palace for the French governors, it then turned into the palace for the presidents of the South Vietnamese governments following independence. During the Vietnam war, the Americans set up state of the art telecommunications and war rooms in the subterranean basement of the palace.
We were shown around on a free tour of the palace. The interesting thing about the palace is that it has been kept as it was when the North Vietnamese stormed the palace to bring an end to the Vietnam War in 1975. The stately palace rooms and underground control centre complete with war maps and communications equipment was interesting enough for the morning and it was the first time we picked up an anti-American sentiment with the way the guide spoke about the war. The gambling room was particularly 70´s looking which made us laugh.
Proclaiming the spot where a bomb landed in the taking of Saigon
It was raining as we left and walked past the two tanks that crashed through the fence in 1975 to unify the country. Next destination was the War Remnants Museum. This used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes until Bill Clinton normalised relations with Vietnam. Although walking around the museum the old intent is still apparent. Tanya wasn’t too worried about going to the museum so she sat at a coffee shop while I went to visit.
There are tanks and aircraft that were left over from the war sitting outside, and the multi story museum in the middle. Now I didn’t actually know much about the political situation of Vietnam War so I found it really informative. Although you need to realise that what you are reading needs to be taken with a little pinch of salt. As the saying goes, history is written by the victors. For example, one part of the museum is reconstructed into the prisons of South Vietnam before the war for holding suspected communist North Vietnamese. The signs when you walk in this part highlight that the torture methods were carried out by the South Vietnamese but also make sure to continually remind the reader that it was while the American government was supporting the South. There is no doubting that this kind of inhumane treatment should never happen, but maybe I’m cynical to think that the North Vietnamese prisons wouldn’t have been holiday homes for the South Vietnamese prisoners that they took.
In case you are also from generations post the Vietnam War and need a little history update, Vietnam first gained independence from being a French colony in 1954. At this point communism and democracy set up in the North and South with the American government fearing the spread of communism they supported the south leading many to view the South Vietnamese government as just a puppet government for America. A gurilla force known as the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (Viet Cong) started to attack the south attempting to Liberate the South to join the North. As the South started losing through poor government and military against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, the US got deeper and deeper involved with full scale war until public and diplomatic opinion turned so much that the US withdrew leaving the South Vietnamese army to be overrun by the North.
One thing that the museum gives a lot of information about is the use of chemical warfare by the US during the war. Another thing that I wasn’t really aware of, but the extensive use of Agent Orange devastated the country. The chemicals in Agent orange are some of the strongest known to man and when these chemicals were spread all over the country it turned the lush countryside into barren wasteland so that the US could cut the supply lines all over the country. The worst part of the chemical agent is the lasting effects that it has had. Genetic deformities have been spread into the Vietnamese generations and even US military personnel. A big law suit was won by servicemen who spread Agent Orange but as a letter says in the museum, How can the man who dropped Agent Orange from his feet be compensated, while the millions of Vietnamese who had it rain on their heads be given no recognition. I certainly felt that using chemical warfare against what was in many ways just guerrilla armies was way over the top and warranted the international condemnation that it received then and still now!
‘To the people of United Vietnam, I was wrong, I am sorry’
So after a slightly propagandist education lesson, I met back with Tanya and went back to the guesthouse via a walk through the park. Lots of people were out for the afternoon plying badminton, throwing balls and kicking around the shuttlecock type thing that we saw lots of in China. Vietnam definitely has more of a Chinese feel about it compared to the rest of South East Asia with the people, food and mannerisms being similar to their Northern cousins.
Later on we met up with Tuli and Mateo again ready to have some cheap Beer Hoi (street beer from as little as 15 cents per beer) before the European Cup Final between Italy and Spain that night. Being Italians, they both couldn’t miss it and i will usually take any excuse to stay up till 4am to watch a football match. We met a Danish bloke to share the beer hoi with and then went onto a bar to watch the game. Unfortunately the game wasn’t such a good result for our Italian friends and Mateo couldn’t even mention football for a few days to follow
Full of hope and expectation through the National Anthem
In the morning we made a trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels. This was a vast network of tunnels that the VietCong used to fight against the US Army for years. After a 4am finish for the football, an 8am wakeup was hard, but at least the bus trip to the tunnels gave us another hour to catch up. Now I need to point out that I know that I have claustrophobic tendencies. Ever since I saw the movie Aliens when I was young, the part where Bishop crawls through the air vent to the relay station gave me nightmares of being stuck in that pipe, not the Aliens! So I was not so sure if i could get myself down into the tunnels. Only one way to find out!
The tourist area is part of what was a massive complex of tunnels that stretched 120kms to the Cambodian border allowing the Vietcong and North Vietnamese to plan their offensive around Saigon. We were first shown around the above ground areas of the tunnels where the escape hatches were hidden, air vents disguised as termite mounds and some traps hidden. The overriding thing that came through was how incredibly resourceful and smart the Vietnamese were. Wearing their shoes backwards so that the enemy couldn’t work out where they were going, to putting chilli powder round the air vent holes to cover the scent from the army dogs. At the escape hatch we had the opportunity to hop in the hidden hole for a photo. I took the chance to overcome any irrational fears
An example booby trap complete with poisoned bamboo spikes
An original unwidened tunnel
A stop at the firing range where plenty of people had paid to shoot Vietnam War era weapons made us realise how much louder a gun battle is in real life compared to what you see in movies when people hold audible conversations with each other. We were then shown how rice paper was made before being taken down to crawl through 100meters of westernised (widened for us plumper westerners) tunnels. At this point all I wanted was to make sure I was the first person through so that I wasn’t boxed in by anyone which would have freaked me out I think. There were exits every 20 meters just in case, but I managed to make it to the end following the guide. Tan, and Mateo crawled through the last 20meters and Tuli could only bring herself to get into the doorway for a photo. I could completely sympathise with her!
At the end of 100 meters I was sweating crazily from the humidity down in the tunnels. I was relieved to stand upright coming out the other side and 5 minutes was enough time for me down there. How the Vietnamese managed to live in the tunnels for years rarely coming above the surface is amazing! Even though the tunnels are wider than original, for us, it was an incredible way to experience life in the tunnels.
We headed back to the city and had an early night ready for a morning pickup to take us to the beaches further up the coast.
Daniel – I think I may have slightly overcome any fear of enclosed spaces. Only slightly though!!!
Tanya – An introduction to the Vietnamese tourist conveyor belt. The tunnels were very well done and made a great day out despite the shopping trip on the way and the charges you don’t usually see. If youre going to go, don’t pay the guide on the bus, demand to pay at the entrance and only pay for what you want (the tea at the end costs 30,000 VND) and we didn’t even get to see the full video, just the last 2 minutes which also cost 20,000 VND. Regardless, the tour was very very good.