Saigon - or HCMC if you like

Trip Start Sep 14, 2009
Trip End Aug 16, 2010

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Sunday, January 10, 2010

Leaving the Mekong Delta, again by bus, this time in a 44-seater to be safer, we set off on the five hour trip to Saigon, or Ho Chi Min City as it is now called. In fact locally it is still known as Saigon and so we decided it was a nicer name to use than HCMC.
After being dropped off again some 5km out of town we took a taxi to the backpackers area, where we had picked a hotel out of the Lonely Planet book and whilst it was good, it was a bit above our budget so Issy and I set off to find a place to stay. There were quite a few touts trying to get us to stay at their hotels for which they receive a commission and we went with one down the infamous back alleys of the old town, stepping over people making and eating their food it on the pavement. The deeper we ventured down the maze of alleys, the tighter Issy held my hand. Although there was nothing to be scared of, it was fairly daunting to be led down the dim passages from one poor hotel to another. After a few attempts we decided that the original hotel was best and so ditched the tout only to face the task of finding our way out and Liz and Ady again. I guess I must have learnt something at Cub Scouts because miraculously we found our way out with no problem. Most of the hotels in Vietnam are very narrow and tall. This is due to the cost of land and also the fact that taxes are paid on frontage. The result is that there are funny looking buildings sometimes seven stories tall and only four metres wide and obviously a mountain like climb up numerous stairways to get to your bedroom. Great for your thigh and calf muscles though. The higher up you go on the hotel floors the cheaper the rooms. Hence we were on the 7th floor!
Saigon is a city that is going through a massive transformation. Huge modern glass buildings are popping up everywhere and the downtown area is full of chic boutiques and restaurants. Suffice to say we didn’t go there much, preferring to stay in the old part where the atmosphere that I had seen in old films still prevails. Crazy markets and bustling streets with hawker stalls everywhere.  Crossing the road was in itself a life threatening event. We all held hands in a long row with me at the for front of being  hit first. We had to walk slowly across allowing the motor cycles to take their own evasive action.
You cannot go to Vietnam without being touched one way or another by the war (or rather wars if you consider the French occupation). Of course here it is known as the American War and we visited the War Remnants Museum where you are greeted by a number of US planes and helicopters that remained in the country after the war finished. The museum is a fairly graphic portrayal of the grim impact of war and whilst inevitably heavily laden with local propaganda, it still eludes me as to why any country would feel the need to destroy the lives of so many people on both sides, for no logical reason and certainly no logical gain. The pictures of the war itself inside are stunning, showing many of the images that have become infamous in subsequent films. Actually it was a bit too strong for the kids and so Issy and Ady stayed outside whilst we finished going around. We never knew the extent of chemical warfare that was deployed and the continuing effect of the Agent Orange substance can still be seen in the streets today through malformed children and adults.
We also visited the Cu Chi Tunnels that are about two hours north of Saigon which is where the Viet Cong, occupied a large area that the American Forces were unable to infiltrate despite carpet bombing the whole area to nothing. There were 200km of underground tunnels that were incredibly small measuring around 50x30cm so that the large framed Americans were unable to follow the locals. They have dug out a “tourist tunnel” that is twice the size of the old ones, but still it is a squeeze to get through and you literally have to sort of crouch down and waddle through like a duck. In fact, it was very hot, dimly lit, claustrophobic and pretty hard work to shuffle down the 200 metres from start to finish. There are four “escape” points along the way and Issy and Liz decided that enough was enough at the second. I was of course  pleased to have to help them exit to the fresh air outside but was dragged back down by Ady to finish the tour.
From here the Viet Cong resisted every attempt to destroy them and whilst suffering large casualties, they survived the end of the war. There were also examples of the traps that they set up to catch and kill troops including pits dug into the ground with bamboo spikes tipped with poison. There was also an array of land mines that are still killing and maiming hundreds of people each year.  Inside the area is a shooting range where you can shoot anything from a Colt 45 to a huge Rambo type machine gun. I paid my $10 and went down with Aidan to fire an AK47. Liz and Issy were with us to watch but when the first person fired his rifle next to us we all screamed in pain at the noise. It was the largest most shocking bang I have ever heard. I had no idea that it was sooooooooo loud and cannot imagine what it would be like in a war situation with those things going off all the time around you. Anyway, undeterred we put on ear protectors (we found out they were for show only as they had no insides to them) and I took aim with the AK47. The guns are strapped down so that you can’t run amok and there are targets to hit some 50 yards ahead. You had to be sixteen to fire the gun and so at the beginning Ady was not allowed to have a go. The soldier next to us saw his long sad face and so changed his mind and gave him a couple of bullets at the end. He managed to shoot it and hold on during the recoil and probably got closer to the target than I did. There was a prize for a bullseye, we went home empty handed!
The trip to the tunnels was combined with a visit to Caodai Temple which is a multi faith church in Vietnam with some 2 million followers. The Temple itself is fabulously decorated in bright colours and the central focus is the “all seeing eye”. There are four religions that are included in the faith, Maoist, Buddhist, Catholic and Hindu and each has it’s own colour associated to it. We were there for a short service where we were allowed to observe from the galleries above. A strange place,  that seemed very serious as there were “quiet police” everywhere although I suppose by having four religions they are covering all bases.
On one weekday we took a taxi out to a theme park where there was a water park for the kids to cool down in. On arriving we found the water park section but it was cram packed with screaming school kids on day trips out. There wasn’t any space in the place at all and so we reluctantly decided to give it a miss and visit the rest of the park which had an archaic log flume, dodgem cars where we were the only dodgems  so the guys manning it took pity on Issy and Ady and proceeded to chase them around in other cars. An ice sculpture warehouse where Issy and Ady spent a freezing 20 minutes looking at the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Big Ben amongst others. They were apparently lucky to make it round the whole exhibition as they took it in turns on posing to each other for photos on the exhibits until a burly security guard shouted at them to get down.
In front of our hotel was a long thin park, where at night, we went to watch hundreds of people who would flock to and take part in mass aerobic sessions, games of badminton in dim street lights, play keepy-uppy games with feathered shuttlecock type balls, and basically chill out. At around six in the morning there were Thai Chi groups that we heard about. We didn’t actually make one funnily enough!
Saigon had a nice feel to it and we enjoyed our time there with the contrasts between modern and ancient Vietnam still evident.
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Ian Kirkwood on

Another great blog. Having read the book, I am so envious of you having been in the tunnels! I hope you have not been buying all those Iffy Villa shirts on the markets!!! Enjoy

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