Ho Chi Minh City
Thursday, February 25
Back on the road again, this time to Da Nang for our short flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the ending of our five-week sojourn through SE Asia. In case you’re wondering, we did try to train it to several places but we couldn’t find seats or, at least not the seats everyone told us to reserve (soft sleepers with A/C). Not wanting to discover the joys of traveling in the ‘hard seat’ class coupled with the advice to get a berth as far from the toilets as possible, we decided to fly on the extremely inexpensive and efficient Vietnam Airlines. Plus, the shorter travel time allowed us more hours for exploring.
Similar to Bangkok, Hanoi, and Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City’s airport was modern and easy to navigate and soon we were on our way to our airbnb.com studio apartment. Recommended by Joe and Kim whom we met on the Living Farm rice tour in Laos, we were eager to try “The Mothership”, the complex’s nickname.
Owned and operated by an entrepreneur who lived in the U.S. as a youngster and studied at Boston College, Thu worked on Wall Street only to return to his home country to take advantage of growing tourism. He and his partner Christina have opened several airbnb accommodations in Vietnam. They promote connectivity with other guests as well as interacting with the hosts, such as Giang (on the right, 1st photo) and Duc (2nd photo) whom we often found working in the greeting lounge equipped with an honesty bar and fridge.
The modern and airy Mothership was a perfect spot for us to drop our bags. Although, I must admit I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland as I stepped into this oasis of a New Age salon as I entered the wifi password “joy factory”.
Friday, February 26
The War Remnants Museum qualifies as a must-see in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon when serving as the capital of the French Protectorate (1862-1954) and South Vietnam (1954-75). This museum provides an in-depth view of of war brutality and atrocities, beginning with the Vietnamese struggle for independence led by Ho Chi Minh in 1946 against the French then bleeding into the American War or what we call the Vietnam War.
In spite of changing the initial name from ‘The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government’ to the tamer ‘War Remnants Museum’, a visitor understands you’re peering at history through the eyes of the victors. And, the U.S. was definitely not a victor.
Photographs accompanied by explanatory text and billboard-size charts chronicle the battles between opposing forces as well as the horrific acts against civilians.
Two exhibits feature photographs which compelled our attention. As much as we wanted to turn away we felt trapped by the same pull that causes one to slow down and stare at gruesome traffic accidents.
The Requiem Exhibit, several rooms filled with both foreign and Vietnamese journalists’ and photographers’ war coverage (a collection published in 1997)
and an Agent Orange Display, walls telling the history of how this containment not only defoliated the land but killed and maimed those in its path.
I won’t show the photographs. You can probably find them on line; but, what I hadn’t known was the effects of Agent Orange continues today with children still being born with deformities. We were shocked to discover that Agent Orange is a gene toxin, which affects the DNA of its victims. The mutant DNA is passed on through childbirth and mother’s milk and has been passed down through multiple generations.
As many foreigners state, yes, it is one-sided and full of propaganda; but, yet crimes committed by US troops did occur including one I wasn’t aware of:
Yet, I wouldn’t doubt similar acts by the Viet Cong could be considered crimes as well. Individuals who are law-abiding in one situation can be brainwashed and indoctrinated with hate in another.
Even with its bias what the War Remnants Museum does invoke with its presence is the universal call to peace, something the world sorely lacks today.
The museum also reminds us that the US doesn’t always support other countries’ own fight for independence as ironically stated by Ho Chi Minh: In a 1967 meeting with two American editors… ‘At one point Ho reminded Mr. Ashmore and Mr. Baggs that he had once been in the United States. “I think I know the American people,” Ho said, “and I don’t understand how they can support their involvement in this war. Is the Statue of Liberty standing on her head?”
This was a rhetorical question that Ho also posed to other Americans in an effort to point up what to his mind was an inconsistency: a colonial people who had gained independence in a revolution were fighting to suppress the independence of another colonial people.’ (Sept 4, 1969, Ho Chi Minh NYT obituary)
The museum closed for lunch, so we accomplished our touring of all the exhibits in two parts. In between we enjoyed a great lunch recommended by the every-helpful Duc from Christina’s.
but we skipped one delicacy…
then walked to the Reunification Palace (formerly the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace). Anyone who saw the footage in 1975 of a communist tank bashing through the main gate on April 30 would recall the desperate fleeing of U.S. diplomats, advisors, and residents and the surrendering of the South to the North.
HCMC boasts of a new prosperity seen in its gleaming skyscrapers
and flowery parks free of debris.
Like Hanoi, leafy boulevards invited lazy strolls as the day became hotter under the noon-day sun, but unlike Hanoi I felt the humming of a city oiled by foreign investments and dressed with high-end stores selling luxury goods found in Paris and London.
On our way back to our room we booked a Saturday tour for the other must-see: the Cu Chi Tunnel located 70km NW of the city. Having grown-up during the Vietnam War our travels couldn’t help but include sites from that era.
Saturday, March 27
Being told to arrive by 8:00 am sharp we ended up at the tour group office ahead of schedule clutching a breakfast bag from the local bakery and keeping liquid intake to a minimum in fear of what lay ahead with regards to facilities. Spotting only three other individuals we thought it would end up being a small group for the day; however, as we were led down Backpackers’ Ghetto on a main street just up from our place, our leader kept stopping at other establishments along the way with the end result being a busload of tourists and a departure time of roughly 9:30am by the time we made it to the bus stop and then patiently waited for our transportation.
Glad I hadn’t drunk too much of that coffee, we set off for our drive through the typical maze of scooters (note the little boy’s helmet :)…
and a stop at a laquer factory, which employs disabled Vietnamese similar to the set-up at the rest stop when heading to and from Halong Bay.
Unfortunately, we were rushed through the manufacturing process to ensure we spent time in the store; but, we did glimpse one of the artists applying pieces of egg shells to one of the items.
Once at Cu Chi Tunnel we met our guide for the next few hours. In spite of the crowds and the site’s transformation to a tourist attraction, I still felt the stillness and eeriness of standing where once a small village lived, worked and fought below ground.
The tunnel actually originated in 1948 when the locals used it to hide from the French. The Viet Cong later expanded upon this idea resulting in over 200km of tunnels through six villages and connecting to a river… all dug by hand.
As the guide demonstrated certain booby traps
and Max volunteered to squeeze into one of the tunnel’s hiding spots,
I realized this day would fall under what my sister has aptly labeled one of my husband’s “Disaster Tours”.
I couldn’t help but be amazed at the clever methods the Viet Cong used to minimize detection or confuse pursuers, such as sandals fashioned out of tires with the soles crafted to leave tracks in reverse
… fake termite hills used for ventilation (they disguised the openings with American soap and other U.S. products to confuse any sniffing dog patrols used the the U.S.)
… and disguised mounds, connected by underground chimneys far from the cooking fire, for dispersing cooking fires’ smoke as wisps mingling with morning mists.
The opportunity to shoot a military-grade weapon (an AK-47) meant Max donned ear muffs to do just that. Having fired a rifle only once before in his life, he was amazed and a bit daunted by the power, range and accuracy of the weapon.
The tunnels have three levels: the first is 3 meters (roughly 10 ft); second, 4-6 meters (13-20 ft); and, the third, 8-10 meters (26-33 ft) deep.
Fortunately, we only went down to the first level. Even that was claustraphobic with quite a few of our group opting out of the experience.
In addition to the historical significance of these tunnels I also made the discovery of why one never hands one’s camera to one’s husband if said one is bent over and in front of him.
At least you get an idea of the size and how these people lived for many years – people who happened to be a heck of a lot smaller than I am.
There was an exit point that some used, which I might have done had I known part of the crouching was through darkness. And, yes, it was a relief to see light at the end of the tunnel (couldn’t resist).
At the end of our tour a film was shown that portrayed the victors as celebrated heroes (no surprise).
As we travel I’m constantly reminded of the joys of meeting new folk, and this tour didn’t disappoint. One of our fellow travelers was studying at Boston College with a year abroad in Singapore. Hailing from Italy (but with absolutely no accent) he also was on the school’s water polo team. We mentioned our Kiwi friends’ daughters who once played that game and commented on how we’d heard how brutal it was (they’d exit the pool covered in bruises and pinches from the opposing team). He laughed and agreed. Voyagers such as this are fascinating to me. I’m curious about their lives no matter where they’re from or where they live. I mean to be discussing Boston College water polo while touring the Cu Chi Tunnel in Vietnam. Who would have thought it? Got to love it.
Sunday, February 28
With tourism booming many Vietnamese are eager to participate. In addition to lodging, Christina’s also offers tours, one being a free city tour. The reason it’s free is so university students wanting to become guides can practice their English.
Our guide for the morning was Linh, a junior at the local university. We really wanted to just share a meal and conversation with her; but, because guiding visitors, as well as using English, was more helpful to her we selected some sites we hadn’t seen and headed off to the heart of HCMC government quarter.
Both buildings had been built under the French colonial rule. Notre Dame Cathedral, built between 1877 and 1883, was the first stop.
The next site was its neighbor, the Central Post Office, constructed 1886-91. At first I was thinking why visit a post office? But, then I read it had been designed by Gustave Eiffel. With its innovative skylight, ceiling vents, and maps of Vietnam and Saigon, I found this building much more interesting.
Our formal walking tour ended in front of the People’s Committee Building (built 1902-08) and HCMC’s first pedestrian mall. This vehicle-free plaza opened a year earlier in time for Reunification Day April 30. We posed amidst the playful spouting water for a portrait until chased out by a chastising guard.
At a coffee shop along the plaza Linh provided an impromptu lesson in chopsticks
then we headed back stopping at one of the exercise stations where all three of us practiced our swinging prowess.
Occasional conversations with locals we’ve met along our walks provided interesting perspectives on North vs. South Vietnam, such as the the man pictured below with Max and Linh. He served as a soldier in the South Vietnamese army.
After speaking with him he agreed to pose with this napping truck driver while promising not to wake him.
Returning to the Mothership we asked to take photos of Linh, our lovely young guide, and Huong, a beautiful staffer at Christina’s. With gracious hosts such as these it seems a no-brainer to travel in this country.
For dinner we had arranged to meet up with some friends, Sharon and Dave White, who happened to be in HCMC. It’s always wonderful seeing familiar faces from home, and the four of us walked, talked, ate, and walked some more.
Monday, Leap Day February 29
Our last full day we simply took in more of HCMC on foot. We did end up taking a photo of our alleyway and its outdoor cafes.
Earlier in our strolls we had noticed some grilling. Looking closely I saw the tail wasn’t curly, which I had expected thinking it was pig.
We subsequently discovered our street was one of the few in HCMC that served grilled dog since it had lost some of its popularity in recent years. No, this, along with chicken feet, was another delicacy we weren’t tempted to try.
Homeward-Bound (March 1-2)
We left early the next morning for Ipswich.
Thinking back on our five weeks in SE Asia I realize, once again, how fortunate Max and I are to travel to a country, mingle with its people, see its sites, and savor their culture. To then read about that region in various publications immediately places it in a richer context. Case in point, a recent article referenced upcoming Vietnamese elections with more independents applying for candidacy: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/world/asia/vietnam-election-mai-khoi.html?_r=0
And, a lengthy interview with Obama included a specific mention of Vietnam: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/
We can’t take our traveling for granted. It’s too much of a privilege, and we’d be spoiled brats to do so. So, here’s to curiosity about the world and satisfying it however one can… whether by reading, viewing film and TV programs, conversing with others, or traveling. Interesting folk surround us wherever we are–at home or far away. Just by asking a question of a fellow human being it’s amazing what one can learn.