Just don't mention the war...
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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The first thing I noticed on the way in here from the Cambodian border was the seeming progress Vietnam has made since the end of the war. You couldn't tell from the smooth roads, upscale cars and bars, and the generally modern buildings all around that this was one of the most bombed and blasted countries in history. Weaving through the monstrous traffic around town gave us time to take in the startling architecture, from grand colonial hotels on the waterfront (of the Saigon River) to the new ultra-modern pencil apartments that have a distinctive flair of design and make maximum advantage of the scarce real estate. Relative cleanliness, with garbage men and street sweepers actually on the job, probably amazed me most.
Once again I'd been pleasantly surprised by a city I'd given no credit in my presumptions. Still, I shouldn't be too naive and presume that the rest of the country will have been as fortunate as this.
The main sights around town are war related, so let's get back to the topic we shouldn't be talking about. The Cu Chi tunnels are a network of underground fighting and transportation routes used by the Vietnamese to fight both the French (in the war of independence to 1954), and the Americans (to 1975). Revolutionaries with a Marxist bent established the first 50 or so kilometres as a way of penetrating the French southern stronghold of Saigon (as it was then known). After turning fully Communist and irking the US enough to have them invade, another 200 kilometres of tunnels was subsequently dug and again was used to harass and infiltrate the enemy, causing a real thorn in the side of the US throughout the 'American War'.
The massive firepower of the US necessitated the construction of three layers of tunnels, at 3, 6 and 8-10 metres. The shallowest layer was generally used for daytime living. The second level was used for troop movements and the third to escape from heavy bombardment, as heavy bomb craters could reach up to 6 or 8 metres in depth. People lived like this for years on end so many modern conveniences and protective measures were developed to make life as comfortable as possible whilst being completely invisible to air and land based forces above. However, under the cover of darkness these veritable moles could surface safely to breath fresh air (as well as bring terror to the enemy in their sleep).
Still, more than 10,000 Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communist) soldiers and 14,000 civilians are estimated to have died in connection with tunnel operations making it a high risk venture whichever side you were on. Tourists have been able to visit the site since 1991 and despite a few Tussaud-style mechanised figures about the place, the attraction is quite comprehensively, objectively and tastefully presented. Ironic though that one of the most invisible aspects of the war is now the most visible in peace.
Eye-openers include the massive bomb craters you can't help but notice here and there, some decidedly nasty-looking examples of spike traps that were used against the Americans, the firing range, and the 90 metres of tunnel you can worm your way through if so inclined. Anyone who's done it will vouch that it's hot and sweaty work down there! Many thanks to Mr Khahn for his energetic and knowledgeable guidance through the tunnels.
Next stop was the War Remnants Museum, wisely renamed from the "Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes" in order to stop offending large segments of their tourist base. This is decidedly more one-sided in its message but many of the exhibits certainly speak for themselves, pulling no punches in displaying deformed foetuses in formaldehyde solutions along with pictures of decapitations, massacres and victims of chemical and napalm bombings.
Graphic and gruesome in pursuit of its 'educational' objectives (i.e. that such atrocities should not be repeated anywhere at any time in the future), the message is blunted by such a subjectively aggressive portrayal; although the hordes of school children filing through the place will no doubt have their hearts and minds harden concerning the US - at least until the next likable pop, TV or movie personality comes along.
After all that martial history I thought it time to get a bit more spiritual and cultural, so headed north via cyclo to the Jade Emperor pagoda. Not quite the eye-popping multi-level structure I was expecting, but still very calm and meditative inside. Not the decor mind you, that seemed pretty dark and tempestuous with large, angry statues flanking a hazy altar covered with smoke-dulled but imposing multi-armed deities. Still, a steady stream of worshippers seemed content and contemplative in the incense filled alcoves, so I took a few silent happy snaps and retreated to fresher air outside.
With a little daylight remaining I headed back into town via some of the trendier districts and checked out the riverside in more detail. Tran Hung Dao, hero of the 13th century for beating Kublai Khan back to China three times, holds a prominent position overlooking the river. A small Bonsai forest of unknown purpose was equally compelling, just sitting there in neat rows beside the murky river waters. Bizarre.
The Ben Thahn market wouldn't stay open for me that night, so I lashed out on a tasty roadside stall dinner for $1.50 (inc. beer) in the absence of any real shopping. On the way home I did come across some stalls (you never have to go too far here), and I almost splurged on a Mona Lisa until wisely thinking that she wouldn't travel so well in my backpack, so it would be best that another lucky shopper take her home instead.
That, in essence, was my time in Ho Chi Mihn City - glamourous and glitzy as a Broadway production, liberal and progressive as probably no other place in Vietnam can be. It will be interesting to compare it with Hanoi and the stops I make in between. We shall see...
Next stop -> Mui Ne. Mmmm... sandy.
Words from the Wise # 92
"Whenever human beings are repressed, there appears an uprising and struggle."
Ho Chi Mihn