Ho Chi Minh City

Trip Start May 29, 2008
Trip End Dec 19, 2008

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

We got into Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City and were escorted to our hotel. Although the tour guides were convenient, we were relieved to know that Vietnam was one of the last times we would have a tour guide. It's certainly advised to have one but to an extent because half the adventure is exploring on your own, making mistakes, and enjoying it on your own schedule. The hotel was really nice and just like in Cambodia, everything was cheap, which is what we like. That night, we went into town which was, surprisingly, 30 minutes because of traffic. Although we were relatively close distance-wise, it's a labyrinth to try and navigate through all of the motorcyclists. We had never seen so many motorcycles on a street. Think of the proportion of cars to motorcycles on American roads and reverse it and that's what driving in Vietnam looks like. They estimated 6 million motorcyclists alone in Saigon. It's also big business as everyone "Pimps their Bike" and has custom helmets and the whole nine. Some helmets were shaped just like ladie's English hats, ladybugs, bowling balls, etc. Also, they take carpooling to the extreme (I call it bike-pooling) where we literally saw a family of five on one bike, which would make even the most ambitious Mexican van driver envious. After arriving into town, we went to one of the nicer hotels called Majestic and ran up to their rooftop terrace to have sundowner glass of wine overlooking the river and the rest of the city. Thereafter, we strolled through the streets and open alleys of the city and it somewhat reminded us of an Asian-themed version of New York City. Tons of restaurants, karaoke, eclectic bars, and hotels. We ended up going to our guide's recommendation of the Palace Hotel for dinner. It was a real nice dinner on the top floor of the hotel. The food was reasonably priced and good Vietnamese fare. We were now making a habit of ordering Vietnamese spring rolls at our dining stops. They were cheap and real tasty. Although the extracurricular activities were pretty solid in the city, the downtown tourist attractions were mediocre at best. The highlights of the city were the Post Office, Opera House, and City Hall - all breathtaking attractions if you're a mailman, singing fat lady, or politician. We weren't that impressed.

The highlight of Saigon wasn't even in Saigon but 60km north in a town called Cu Chi. We didn't even have this on our itinerary, but when we saw pictures of it in our informational brochures we had to jump at the opportunity. It was one of the best decisions we made in Vietnam even though it cost extra. Cu Chi was the old battleground where most of the warfare occurred in the Vietnam War.   There was a ton of history in this area relating to the conflicts during the Vietnam War. Cu Chi had not only informative stuff on the grounds but also really, really cool interactive stuff to do. Rachel and I went underground in these small holes in the ground where Vietnamese soldiers would hide and take their posts only covered by a small rectangular wooden board. It was kind of surreal in this forest because we were on the real battleground for the Vietnam War and I tried to envision how would it be and you could easily get lost in it as you're completely covered in forest trees, shrubs, mud underneath your feet, and real gunfire in the background (I'll get to this later - we thought it was special audio effects). It was easy to get into the moment and scary at the same time for all the soldiers that were involved. They had multiple bunkers as exhibitions. One of them showed all of the booby traps the Vietnamese placed throughout this area in addition to the landmines. They actually had an initiative 10 yrs ago or so to rid the area we were stepping on of these landmines and also warned us not to veer off of the path because there could be landmines that hadn't been found or detonated. We got a chance to handle one in one of the exhibits. Anyway, we had a chance to see these really torturous booby traps which were technologically unsophisticated, simplistic yet very deadly. I think I'd rather get shot then have one of these things mangle my body. Additionally, Vietnamese soldiers would put make their boots with the soles going in the opposite direction to confuse the enemy and misdirect him. The Vietnamese would also use the same cloth American soldiers used in their uniforms and would bathe with the same soap so that they would not be detected by the canines the American soldiers would bring in to sniff out the enemy. It was interesting that the Vietnam War kind of pitted a superpower with the most advanced technology in the world against primitive military means and those primitive means proved to be very effective. We could see why. Later on they had a tank on display so Rachel and I had to jump on it for a pic. Had to get the Rambo pose in. Also, the Vietnamese had developed an intricate underground tunnel with multiple entry and exit points. Most knew the tunnels by experience not with maps. Soldiers would live underground for months and some starved to death if they were compromised or were right underneath where American soldiers would setup camp. They also had an interesting resting point where you could try real Tapioca and indigenous hot tea. There was also a part where they produced rice paper and made rice wine/sake. The rice wine was potent. Finally, we arrived at where we were hearing all of those realistic gunshots. It was a shooting range where you could use the guns they shot in the war. M16s, AK47s, you name it and it was there to fire off. Rachel and I tried our hand at the M16. Geez, that thing is powerful and loud as hell. It was a really cool experience. Before we left, there were a bunch of Bombshells small and large on display. Check out the pic of them - I especially like the orange one on the left.

After Cu Chi we went back to Saigon for some more War remnants in the War Museum. It was a real fascinating experience although it really felt extremely biased. It was disheartening to see the brutality of the war and the bloodshed it caused. The pictures showed its true colors and was real disgusting at times. We saw some very disturbing pictures of American soldiers that was a disgrace. Although the acts committed by Americans were absolutely deplorable we thought it was interesting that the only shocking pictures and narratives were oriented toward the acts of the Americans as if the Vietnamese were saints throughout the course of the war - I guess that's the type of depiction (propaganda) you get when you have a Communist government controlling the content that can be shown at museums like that. It makes you appreciate the freedoms you have back home that much more. There was definitely an Anti-American sentiment throughout the museum. One thing that completely rocked our perception was that their perspective was that the American acts were genocide although you never hear that in America. Whether true or not, it was, nevertheless, very interesting to hear that perspective. We also saw torture chambers, deformities caused by the chemical warfare, and pictures of actual war scenes complete with explosions and the aftermath.

Later we were dropped off in Saigon. We were kind of on a rooftop bar kick as we had gone to Majestic and the Palace the night before so we went to the Four Seasons for a drink and then tried out the Rex Hotel which was central to all of the moving and shaking in downtown Saigon and also tried out the top interior floor of the Pasharan tapas bar. We checked out a cool little pub downtown and had a chance to try out the different local Vietnamese beers. Another Asian country with good beer. At this point, I didn't know if the bad beer at the previous Asian countries we visited killed my distinguishing beer tasting palate to make these beers taste good, but I was enjoying them, so you have to start from somewhere even if you have to start all over. At this bar they served free popcorn and had darts. We also luckily hit it during happy hour so we got it even cheaper.
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