Saigon and Cu Chi

First impressions of the old southern capital.

If put simply Hanoi is a traditional city influenced by communism with a hint of modern. Saigon on the other hand is a modern city with a hint of tradition and communism. In explaining this there are several important factors, one being that while Hanoi has over 1000 years of Vietnamese history the Vietnamese only came to the Saigon area 300 years ago. Then of course Saigon remained part of a western leaning capitalist country until 1975 and still today the city is the Vietnamese economical powerhouse. This change is very visible in the city, we did not see a single western fastfood joint in Hanoi but dozens in Saigon. While the roads and cities of Hanoi or Hoi An are lined with communists flags or giant propaganda posters there are hardly any in this city. Ho Chi Minh City is simply what I expected a modern Asian metropolis to be like before I went travelling.
Our hostel was behind the kitchen of Mexican restaurant which meant that every time we walked to our room we walked up a smelly crumbling staircase full of sleeping cooks that where taking a rest. Our room was not ideal either, no window, but at least it was only a 4 man so we occupied most of it.
On our first day of Saigon we decided to go visit the War museum. On they way there we walked past the Notre dam cathedral, an impressive church with a statue of Mary in front of it (the influx of Catholicism that we have witnessed so far in the south is also very visible here).
The museum had a variety of American and French war equipment in front of it, everything from 1900’s French artillery to American flame throwing tanks. The museum can be divided into several parts, I recon il call the first the “propaganda section”. This section was full of pictures and flags send by European communist parties and youth movements to show support Ho Chi Minh. While there was undoubtedly a lot of support in the west for the north I think this part of the museum over exaggerated it a tad. This floor also contained an exhibition about what the government has done for the war victims and showed the stories of a few that where injured in the war such as a girl who won gold in the paraolympics. On the next floor where photos of American soldiers and the stories behind them. Some where ones we recognised such as an army private gazing emptily into a camera or the silhouettes of a group of American soldiers walking on a rice paddy in front of the sunset. Other photos where horrible to look at such as a before and after photo of two Vietnamese boys being executed by GI’s or an American soldier carrying the blown up corpse of a comrade. Detailed stories of American war crimes gave the museum a very eerie feeling. We also saw the original print of the photograph showing a girl running away from her village that suffered from a napalm attack next to US GIs. The many interesting things here such as stories about the life of American troops or displays of their equipment where overshadowed by the horror stories and I left this exhibition feeling somewhat sickly. One thing that I always find shocking about the war here is that it happened so recently (compared to the other wars I have studied).
The next section was all about Agent Orange and its effects on the Vietnamese. Agent Orange was a defoliating agent dropped on the jungle to kill the plants and reveal the positions of the Viet Cong. While not very harmful to the person who comes in contact with it there a great genetic consequences for the following generations. Graphic pictures where on display showing babies with multiple heads, children with arms bigger than their torsos and other such horrible birth defects. We saw quite a few people that had such disabilities on the street, and while they are not necessary agent Orange victims there is a chance they where. The day at the museum really helped us three understand the Vietnamese and I recommend anybody visiting Saigon to go. It was also interesting listening to Harry compare what we saw in the museum to what he learned about the Vietnam war in school as he studied the War most intensely out of us three.
One thing we failed to find in Saigon was a restaurant selling pho and when I asked the receptionist she said that pho is a northern thing and better the further you get up north. Instead we had this pork peanut dish that was rather tasty.
Our first day trip from Saigon was to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, an underground tunnel system that witnessed heavy fighting during the war.
The trip left next day from the backpacker district area close to where we were staying. We where on a small bus with a mixture of young western backpackers and older Asian tourists from China and the Philippines. This bus stopped of at a factory that employed war and agent orange veterans although we did not see any, merely their produce, fine marble like paintings made from egg shell that pictured everything from the standard scene of a sunset rice paddy to American Hollywood stars. We had a look around and then found a quiet little spot to play cards to the great interest of a Chinese tourist to whom I had to explained the game in detail. After a little frenzy (the bus almost drove off without us) we continued our journey and soon arrived at the site of the tunnels. After buying our entrance ticket (around 5$) and crossing through an underground entrance we came to a jungle with big bamboo huts half submerged in the ground. In here we watched an ancient video on an even more ancient tv that described the “American killer heroes” and showed staged footage of young Vietnamese soldiers taking out scores of American tanks and troops. During this 20 minute video the words “American killer heroes” where repeated numerous times as where “imperial evil American troops”. Once we left the hut we started walking through the jungle with deafening explosions going of around us and the sound of gunfire rattling ahead of us. We had the opportunity to go into one of the tunnels for a photo or climb on top of a tank that was left there by the Americans. We also saw the traps the viet cong used to create fear among US troops, horrible contraptions mainly made from bamboo or scrap metal that would injure and kill GIs in the most terrible ways. Our guide also told us about all of the tricks the viet cong used to hide, such as wearing sandals backwards or washing themselves with items stolen from the Americans to gain their scent which confused US dogs.

When explaining why the tunnels where so good our guide began listing all the western food he knew reasoning that hamburgers and the like made the soldiers too big to go in the tunnels. Walking through the jungle under the burning heat of the midday sun that was only partially lost in the thin bamboo canopy, under the sound of gunfire and explosions with the tunnels and tanks made it almost feel like we were participating in the battle ourself. The explosions where created by this pyromaniac employed by the people that ran the place to give an authentic experience, which it did but it also proved a bit annoying as the explosions where set of far to close to the people which resulted in my ears ringing for quite a while, which was fine for me but not for the old French tourist with the hearing aid that appeared to be in serious pain. It was also interesting to see the strength of these “mock” explosions as there was always a big ring of fire, full of torn apart plant material where the explosion had been set of.
After walking a while longer through the jungle (a very young jungle as all the vegetation was obviously destroyed during the fighting) past some B52 bomb craters we reached the source of the gunfire, a firing range. Here one had the option to fire various guns, from the signature weapon of insurgents and terrorists around the world, the AK-47, to a heavy machine gun mounted on the back of a jeep. This area was also chosen by our guide to be the rest stop which was an awful idea as you could not hear a word anybody was saying.
Soon our journey through the jungle continued and we saw huts filled with examples of how they made their weapons, sandals and how they cooked without being seen from above. At this point our guide passed around a plate filled with some kind of root that the Viets ate, it tasted like a sugary papery potato.
If we wanted to we had the chance to go through the tunnels to experience what living in them must have been like. The one we walked through was slightly enlarged and concrete but still very small, so small you could not kneel upright. In a kind of squatting position with the backpack in front we inched our way forward until we got to a crossing where me an harry decided to go straight instead of upwards not knowing that we could exit the tunnel here. This meant that we had to crawl for another 20-40 meters in the dark until we reached the light of day. With our quads and backs aching we left the area and got back on the bus to Saigon. The day in the Cu Chi tunnels really helped us understand the spirit that the Vietnamese troops had which enabled them to fight of the Japanese, French and Americans
We had changed hostel after the first night in the Mexican restaurant and where delighted to find that our new hostel was also behind a restaurant, this time a vegetarian one. The hostel was pretty much equally poor in facilities, blood stains on the sheets and bunk beds several meters high, however much better wifi and a roof garden with a nice view made the stay here somewhat better.
So far we have eaten almost exclusively Vietnamese and I can count the amount of western meals I have had in the last few weeks on one hand so we decided to get some pizza, a decision we somewhat regretted as it was the worst pizza we have ever had. Later that day we had a few Bahn Mihs, much more tasteful.
As a bonus to staying in the Mexican place we got a free beer in “one of the best clubs in town” (or so the flyer said) so one evening me and harry decided to go and get it (jamie was still taking medications). After a lot of walking around we finally found it, a modern building with big illuminated letters saying “republic” on it. The club was very modern with a sort of industrial theme, a lot of iron, smoke machines and dark blue lights. The people in here where exclusively Vietnamese and the music was a lot better than in the clubs in Hanoi. While handing in our free beer flyers we noticed something peculiar about the women in the club. There weren’t any. Me and harry sat down on a balcony with an illuminated table and watched the happening while enjoying our Saigon beer. Both of us where rather amused at how we where in a gay club, something you would think they would write on the flyer. Afterwards we walked back to the hostel through the Saigon party area that reminded us a bit of Bangkok, neon lights, old western men accompanied by young Vietnamese women and a lot of drug dealers and women asking us if we wanted to buy their products or services.
Our next trip from Saigon will take us to the delta of the great Mekong river.


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