Our arrival in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon), was pleasantly greeted by sunny weather (something we hadn’t seen in days). The largest city in Vietnam (and former capital of The Republic of Vietnam), is home to about 9 million inhabitants. Seeing the city from the airplane painted a clear picture of this massive urban jungle. Side note, apparently there are 4 million motorbikes in the city which make traffic a legendary nightmare.
We planned on staying three days in HCMC with the interest of doing a 1-day trip to nearby attractions. Our first day was laid back, we enjoyed exploring our neighborhood and grabbing a bowl of Pho not too far from our hotel. Interestingly the three locals sitting to our left had also ordered Pho, but their portions were double the size of ours. When I gestured to the waiter pointing out to the discrepancy, all I got in return was a smirk and shrug of the shoulder. Oh well! This meant we’d have a larger appetite at dinner. Later that evening we met up with one of Brigitte’s old friends Lukman (who is currently stationed in HCMC), and he took us to an awesome Vietnamese BBQ place. Beef, deer, squid and live skewered prawns made up our meat selection which was accompanied by rice, noodles, and some salad or veggies. Brigitte couldn’t bear to watch the helpless impaled prawns roast on the grill but she sure enjoyed wolfing them down – we all did.
The following morning we got picked up by the tour bus and headed 2.5 hours north of HCMC towards the town of Tay Ninh. This is where the Cao Dai Great Temple is located which was the first stop on our tour. Cao Dai is one of Vietnam’s religions which incorporates aspects of three other religions (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism) – Victor Hugo being one of their three saints. The brightly colored temple was definitely unique in its own rite as was the Mass ceremony which we partially watched. The combination of white robed Cao Dai followers and the colorfully ornate interior of the temple made for great pictures.
After lunch we headed for the Cu Chi Tunnels, the day’s main attraction. The tunnels played an important role for the Viet Cong and numerous villagers during the Vietnam War – as the introductory video had pointed out. The entire tunnels network stretched over vast areas (even up to the Cambodian border), and 120 miles existed just within the Cu Chi area. During the war this was a place of refuge, artillery transport and eventually a way of life. Thousands lived in the underground tunnels especially during nearby combat operations and B-52 bombings. Most remarkable was the narrowness of the tunnels which prevented US soldiers from navigating them. Today a portion of the tunnels have been expanded and opened to tourists (of all sizes). Part of the tour included following a guide through a stretch of tunnels (for 20, 40, 60 or 100 yards). As I crouched down and stuck my head into the tunnel, a suffocating feeling overcame me and basically sidelined me from the constant single-file flow of tourists into the tunnel. I’m not a fan of confined spaces but I can handle some.. this one was just too unbearably hot and humid, in my mind as unwelcoming as a steam-room with the occasional naked old guy in the corner who just loves to talk to everyone. I wussed out but Brigitte “ratted” her way through to the 40 yard exit, emerging from the hole drenched in sweat (I was proud of her). And that was enough affirmation for me that there would be no regret. After the tunnels our guide escorted us through the forest and showed us a variety of booby traps designated to incapacitate US troops during the war. Most were rudimentary yet highly effective in maiming and killing. Among them was the bamboo trap, a trap door (that once stepped on), opened up and plunged a soldier towards a dozen or so spiky bamboo sticks ready to pierce and penetrate any bodypart. Often the bamboo spikes would have animal feces on their tips to infect those who weren’t fatally wounded by them in the first place. The other traps were mostly made from metal spikes – the metal was recycled from the American bombs. Next, we made our way past a few craters caused by such bombs dropped by the B-52s. Then came shooting range, an opportunity to shoot a variety of Vietnam War guns (AK 47, M16, shotgun, machine gun), at $1.50 a bullet. Brigitte and I skipped this part but a few trigger happy guys from our group just couldn’t resist playing GI Joe. And so we had to wait through the thundering snap, crackle and pops of smoking metal. Naturally we covered our ears as gun fire a mere 20 yards away was very unpleasant.
Our tour ended by 5pm but it wasn’t until after 7pm that we made it back to our hotel (due to voluminous traffic and rain on the ride back into HCMC).
The next day we stayed local and walked around town checking out some of the city’s main sights – City Hall, Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Central Post Office (built by Gustave Eiffel during the French colonial period), the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum.
The Reunification Palace was the former Presidential Palace of the Republic of Vietnam (or South Vietnam). It was there that North Vietnamese forces crashed through the gates with tanks in April 1975 which led to the South’s surrender. The palace was left the same as it was in 1975 which served as a cool time-travel history course for us. The tour guide took us through various rooms of the palace followed by the roof (with a helipad), and the underground bunker. It was pretty cool to get an unclassified exposé of the palace.
Next was the War Remnants Museum, composed of weapons and artillery, (planes and tanks), plus a compelling collection of war photos (shot by over 100 war photographers, many of whom sadly died in Vietnam). Some of the photos were super vivid and telling of the crude face of the war. But the ones that got to me were of children and newborns who suffered the effects of defoliants used by the US (this was the generation born after the war). The legacy of the Vietnam War obviously continues to touch many even today. I’m glad we visited the museum, in my opinion a must for all. Later that night, we met up with Lukman again for dinner and drinks to toast our last night in the city.
The next morning meant goodbye to HCMC and Vietnam as our bus headed northwest for the border.