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Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling, vibrant metropolis with something for everyone.  It is quite clean and though space is well used and people live cheek by jowl, there are plenty of beautifully tended green spaces and lots of outdoor gym locations.  Our neighbourhood is clean and friendly and a rabbit warren of narrow streets, lanes and alleys.  A very attractive canal runs through the area with nice green spaces and walking paths along it.  Our host, Mr. Thong, lives in a tiny house, just off the canal.
Thong, our congenial host, beside the canal

Off the street... down a narrow alley...

...then down a narrower alley... Mr. Thong's house
I am not standing in the doorway of house number 187.  The number is the address of the alley that I am standing in.  There will be many individual houses on the alley.

We are well away from the backpacker tourist centre around Pham Ngu Lao street, although we do go down for a visit.
Street in the Backpacker Area

We enjoy local coffee (always served with tea) and pho bo (local rice noodle soup). 
Pho bo for breakfast

Within a two-minute walk of our house is a big southern US-style bar and barbecue place that provides several evening meals, not to mention some great cold specialty beers:  Saigon Special and Phat Rooster!
Super restaurant and bar right around the corner from Thong's house

Huge smoker for great BBQ
 Taxis are plentiful.  They are immaculately clean and the drivers are all dressed in black dress slacks with white shirts and colourful ties.  Some chains have their own ties complete with logos...much like flight attendants on planes.
Despite the fact that HCMC is like a beehive with people buzzing everywhere, there are lots of well-tended green spaces and parks.
Enormous trees along some streets

Traffic to us is a nightmare.  There are three million people in the city and at least three motorbikes for every five people.  It could be worse:  imagine if everyone owned a car!  We were warned about the challenges of crossing the street and we have been practicing since Phnom Penh.  There is no point in waiting for a break in the traffic -- you would be only a skeleton, sitting on the curb!  The strategy is to strike out into the traffic and keep moving steadily across the street.  This requires nerves of steel and some considerable faith in the nature of humanity, but it works!  The ten thousand scooters, small cars and the occasional bus WILL flow around you!  Do not stop, change speed or direction; just keep forging ahead at a steady pace.  You may be sweating and have shaky knees by the time you attain the relative safety of the far curb, but you WILL still be alive and unhurt! 


Just think about trying to cross these streets
 A friend of ours, told us she was standing on the curb trying to summon the courage to cross, when a little eight-year-old girl took her gently by the hand and walked her across the street.
Sidewalk vendor having a little siesta

The Reunification Palace was the home of successive Presidents of South Vietnam right up until the morning of April 30, 1975, when the first communist tank crashed through the gates and brought the regime to an end.  It is fascinating to tour the ornate reception rooms for foreign dignitaries, the President's private residence and the bunkers in the basement.  Henry Kissinger met with the South Vietnamese leadership in these rooms, in his efforts to negotiate an end to the war.

The gates that the tank crashed through
One of many ornate meeting rooms and reception chambers

A UH-1 (Huey) helicopter was always available on the helipad for the president's use

Classic central post office, designed by Gustave Eiffel and built between 1886 and 1891.

The interior has a magnificent tiled floor and features Eiffel's signature wrought iron construction in the barrel-vaulted hall.

Notre Dame cathedral was built by the French between 1877 and 1883.

There is much to see and do here, I think we might have enjoyed another day or two.


Cu Chi Tunnels

It seems every tourist in Ho Chi Minh City takes a tour to see the Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi.  This is usually reason enough for us to give it a pass, as we aren't much into tourist sites.  However a couple of fellow travellers said it was very worthwhile, so we decide to give it a go.

It is very impressive indeed, and we are glad we went.

The first  tunnels were built sometime in the 1940s by the Viet Minh in their war against the French Colonial Forces and then were expanded by the Viet Cong, starting around 1960.  The old Viet Minh tunnels were repaired and within a few years, the tunnel system assumed enormous strategic importance.  The audacious attacks on Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive were planned and launched from Cu Chi.  Eventually, more than 250 Km of tunnels extended from Saigon to the Cambodian border.

The display that we are shown is extremely well-done.  We see camouflaged entrances, various kinds of booby traps, concealed apertures for ventilation tubes and smoke vents.

Squeezing into a camouflaged entrance

Tunnel entrance is virtually undetectable

Obviously, smoke escaping from cooking fires in underground kitchens would be a dead giveaway to US soldiers trying to find the tunnels.  The Dien Bien Phu kitchen leads the smoke through a series of underground chambers.   This allows the smoke to cool and then it emerges through several camouflaged vents hidden in shrubbery.

Hidden smoke vent from Dien Bien Phu kitchen

  We are invited to crawl through a short segment of tunnel and offered a choice between 20 meter, 60 meter and 100 meter long passages.  Everyone (except me) chooses the 20 meter.  Against all expectations (and notwithstanding my mild claustrophobia), I hustle myself through the short section.  In fact it isn't too bad, but then again, this tunnel has been widened and made higher to accommodate western tourists, who tend to be just a tad wider and taller than your average Viet Cong soldier.  Presumably, it would be embarrassing to all concerned to have to dig out some generously-proportioned North American.  The tunnel that we crawl through is also ventilated with fans, has electric lights and is only a meter or so below ground.  During the war, the VC lived in tunnels that were none of the above and as much as fifteen meters deep.  In our short excursion, we also don't have the US Air Force raining death and destruction from B-52 bombers above our heads.

We are shown simulated bunkers where the day-to-day activities of the soldiers were carried on.  The bunkers we see are just depressions with thatched roofs over head -- the originals were buried deep underground.  We try to imagine working in a blacksmith shop, a kitchen, a hospital where primitive surgery takes place with minimal ventilation and almost no light.  Soldiers lived in these tunnels for up to eighty days at a stretch, seldom ever coming above ground.

Treadle sewing machine in a bunker where uniforms are made and repaired

Shoemaker making Ho Chi Minh sandals from old tires

Original Ho Chi Minh sandals for sale in your size

The staple diet of the inhabitants of the tunnels was tapioca made from the roots of the cassava plant, mixed with a little rice.  Our tour guide offers us a taste -- can't say we would like to be forced to eat it for weeks on end!

Cassava roots from which tapioca is made

In the final analysis, the US forces, with every advantage of modern military might and the latest developments in hardware of mass destruction, were defeated by uneducated peasants using essentially stone age technology.

Booby trap:  pit with sharpened bamboo stakes

A rolling trap with barbed spikes made from bomb casing fragments

The demonstration bunker shows men working at a blacksmith forge, creating primitive, but very effective, weapons out of scraps of exploded bomb casings and shrapnel.  Imagine the heat and the smoke and fumes in that tiny underground chamber with virtually no ventilation.

Creating weapons on a primitive forge in an underground blacksmith shop
Working the bellow to feed air to the forge

Sawing a bomb casing apart with a wire saw to use the metal for making weapon and tools

At the end of the tour we come upon a firing range which offers the opportunity to fire an AK47.  I know my bloodthirsty nephew will never forgive me, but I pass.  They charge by the cartridge and I know it doesn't take long to rack up quite a bill with an AK47.  The sound of the gunfire from the nearby range adds quite a bit of realism to our tour.


It was a good day and well worth time and effort to go.

War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City could just as easily be called:  the Museum of the American Genocide.  It is not exactly an unbiased view of the events of that terrible war, but as Winston Churchill once wrote:  "History is written by the victors!" 

We spend more than three hours studying the many exhibits and come away disturbed and with no words to express our feelings.  Many of the atrocities documented here have been well publicised but rarely do westerners get to hear the victims of US military action tell their own stories.

We start in the outdoor area which features a good selection of tanks, artillery pieces, helicopters and aircraft used in the war.





A disabled man sells guidebooks in the display area.  He is missing both arms below the elbow and one leg.  He gets around by hopping.  He is the victim of a landmine, left over from the war.


From there we move into an exhibit devoted to the notorious French and South Vietnamese prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son Islands.  On display, is an authentic French guillotine and the unbelievably inhumane "tiger cages" used to house VC prisoners.



 Displays of weapons and photographs by war correspondents of some of the more brutal episodes are very moving.  Even those who supported the war would be hard pressed to be unaffected by the  the photos of children affected by US bombing and napalm.

On an upper floor, we find the Requiem Exhibition, compiled by legendary war correspondent, Tim Page.  this striking collection documents the work of photographers killed during the course of the conflict on both sides.

The exhibit that has the greatest effect on us is the display devoted to the effects of Agent Orange, not only on its victims during the war, but of the persistent damage that it continues to do to succeeding generations.  Agent Orange is a defoliant and it was applied to huge swaths of the countryside, leaving behind a blasted, blackened landscape of stumps and sterile earth.



The main active ingredient in Agent Orange is dioxin, a known carcinogen and teratogen.  Even at the time, it was known that dioxin causes damage to the DNA, resulting in massive cancerous tumours and bizarre birth defects in children born to affected parents.   The incredibly sad truth is that this damage to the DNA is heritable and is passed on to descendants.  Today there are third generation children born with hideous deformities, caused by their grandparents exposure to dioxin.


Anh Nguyen Van Dam was born in 1979. 



We force ourselves to continue viewing the entire exhibit, but with great difficulty. 

How unspeakably sad!

All through the experiencing of these events and their aftermaths, I keep wondering to myself:  "What if...when the French went home in disgrace in 1954, everyone had just left Vietnam alone to find its own way to nationhood?" 

True, the country may have fallen to communism -- but it is communist now -- and a more peaceful, prosperous country filled with happy, healthy, friendly, optimistic people cannot be imagined!

Imagine if 58,000 American lives had not been lost, as a result of the American War.  Not to mention over three million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians dead between 1954 and 1975.


How lucky we are!

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