Good Morning Vietnam!!

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 18, 2011

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

So after our long battle with poor health Tom and I are now ready to wipe the slate clean and start traveling again with a new sense of adventure and excitement. We are actually really sad to say goodbye to Bangkok; it has become our home for the last few weeks and has been a wonderful base for us to recuperate in. However it was time to leave and so we made our way to the airport for our short flight to Vietnam. Since the beginning of our trip I have been really excited about Vietnam and no matter who we have spoken to since we have come away, everyone who had been to Vietnam has loved it. Our flight was really smooth and before we knew it we had landed at Ho Chi Minh City (it's such a long name it’s easier to call it HCMC). Although it is officially known at HCMC the city is better known as Saigon; it was called Saigon until the end of the Vietnam War when it was renamed HCMC in honour of Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet Minh. I’m going to lay all my cards on the table now; my knowledge of the Vietnam war is pretty much zero, so coming to Vietnam is going to be one heck of a learning curve and hopefully the blog will be a great way of thinking through some of my thoughts about the war and of understanding such an interesting piece of modern history. As soon as we landed and were taxing toward the terminal we could see old American military aircraft, such as helicopters and fighter-jets, parked in a disused section of the airport; that was our first sign that the Vietnam War has utterly permeated Vietnamese life, culture and environment. Once we had got through the airport checks we were pounced on by taxi drivers but we decided to save a few pennies by getting the local bus into town, we asked the driver to tell us when to get off and settled down for our first taste of Vietnamese life.

Wow! What a first taste it was! Saigon is absolutely teeming with life; there are thousands of motorcyclists on the roads here and there is no sense of driving on the correct side of the road, people weave in and out of each other like a school of fish and, to their credit, we only saw one minor vehicle scrape during our 6 night stay here. The bus took us deeper and deeper into the bowls of the city and with every turn the streets got busier, louder and brighter. By the time we arrived at our bus stop it was already dark and the roads were lit by hundreds of flashing neon signs dangling from the sides of skyscrapers; on first impression it reminded me of Hong Kong. After a little to-do with a Vietnamese lady we managed to find our accommodation. When we were trying to book our accommodation online we found it really difficult to find the sorts of cheap guesthouse which we normally stay in so we had booked into a slightly more expensive hotel (only by a pound or two). When we got to see our room we were practiacally doing cartwheels; for the first time in living memory we have air-con, our own private bathroom, a tv, a fridge and 24 hour hot water!! We felt like kings and queens! It doesn’t take much to make us happy! That evening we headed out for our first Vietnamese food and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The Vietnamese national dish is a noodle soup called Pho, so I decided to give it a go while Tom wanted to have some comfort food and went for the steak and chips. I can honestly say that the Pho noodles I had that night was one of the best things I have ever eaten, period. Tom nearly fell off his chair when I let him have a taste and from there we decided that this was the best café in the whole world and that we should eat here every night.

The following day I was feeling really worn out, the journey over here must have tired me more than I first realized and I ended up dosing for most of the day. It is a shame but since we became ill we have to take things really easy, so we settled down for the day and enjoyed our lovely air-con room and tv. The next day we were feeling much better so we headed out for our first day of sight-seeing in Saigon. First place on our agenda was the Reunification Palace. In order to understand the significance of the palace you really need to understand the ins and outs of the Vietnam War. Okay, so I don’t want to give a full history lesson in the blog, plus I don’t want to spout off about things I don’t understand myself, but I guess that a little bit of history would be important here. So here goes my attempt at a short overview of the Vietnam War (apologies for how rubbish I am, this is more me trying to work through it all for my own understanding): following a long struggle with France for independence, Vietnam was separated into opposing northern and southern countries and, depending on which side you agree with, the northern communist country invaded the south in an attempt to gain control. In the midst of a civil war between the communist north and the democratic south, the USA began to aid the south arguing that they were trying to stem the flow of communism spreading throughout Asia and the rest of the world. Over the next 10 years the north slowly crept into the south and no matter how hard America fought they could not defeat the northern troops. In 1974 America withdrew from Vietnam and within one year the northern troops invaded the southern city of Saigon, thus defeating the democratic troops and reuniting Vietnam into one country. There is no way of knowing just how many people died during the War, however estimates say that over 3 million Vietnamese people died with nearly 2 million of these being civilians. With all this in mind the Reunification Palace is very important because it is the site at which the northern troops overthrew the republican army and forced the southern president to admit defeat and surrender to the north; in effect the Palace is the site at which the Vietnam War ended. Today the Palace is still used for meetings and to hold events, but most of the time it is just packed with tourists.

The Palace had a very odd style because it was made of 1970’s era breezeblocks and the interior was mostly grey. The ground floor and upper levels consisted of luxurious meeting rooms and conference halls and weren’t that interesting, however the basement levels had a lot more in store. The basement is the place where the southern prime minister oversaw the progress of the war and was full of underground bunkers and concrete rooms. We were only allowed to visit the first level of the basement but beneath us there were an unknown number of levels and bunkers which were used as an evacuation point in case the Palace was bombed. The rooms we visited were full of communications equipment like telegraph machines, radios, typewritiers and there were hundreds of old maps and pin-boards on every wall. In the grounds of the Palace was one of the actual tanks which had been used to smash through the gates by the northern troops; the image of the tanks driving straight through the middle of the palace gates and up to the front door is iconic here in Vietnam. The Reunification Palace was great introduction to the history of Vietnam and made us want to learn more about this amazing country. In the evening we went to see a local Vietnamese Water Puppet show which turned out to be bloody brilliant! Our seats were right at the back but this actually gave us a fantastic view and even though we couldn’t understand a word of what was being said we loved listening to the wonderful traditional music and singing.

The following day we visited the War Remnants Museum which has a reputation for being extremely hard hitting and explicit. One thing we have found in Asia is that there is no pussy-footing around the harsh reality of life and this is especially true of the Asian approach to war. The museum was very informative but it was even more heartbreaking. There were very graphic photos showing people being executed or tortured. There were photographs of mutilated corpses, seriously injured soldiers and civilians, mountains of bodies, dead babies. It wasn’t long before I had to leave; it was incredibly hard to see that as human beings we are capable of creating such love and happiness, but also so much death and destruction. Coming from my lovely comfortable Western life I have always been protected from the horror of war but here in Asia there is nowhere to hide: Vietnam suffered horrifically during the war and they are very honest when portraying the physical loss of their people. Obviously the museum was filled with Vietnamese propaganda but despite this there was no way of denying the death and destruction which this country has faced. I didn’t end up looking around any of the exhibits other than the war propaganda posters section, however Tom completed a full tour of the museum, although he hardly said another word all day and it took a few hours before the colour finally came back to his face. As he was looked at a map of one of the hardest hit villages an elderly Vietnamese man stood next to him and pointed at the map and told him that he had lived and fought in this village during the war. It was a very poignant reminder that Vietnam is a country of living history; everyone you see aged from their mid-50s onwards will have lived and possibly fought during the War. You can’t help but wonder how men like this feel now that they see hordes of Westerns coming into their country and visiting the sites which were previously bombed into ruins. Our first few days in Saigon have been very interesting and I only hope that we continue to learn more and more and gain a greater understanding of this beautiful country. It seems that Vietnam is a giant classroom as much as it is a country.     
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