Our last stop in Vietnam was the highly anticipated Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to by the locals as Saigon.
After a nine-hour bus ride from Dalat, where I read the whole of The Fault in Our Stars, (what a tear jerker), we were, as anticipated, dumped on the side of a road in the early hours of the morning. Not a new concept to us, we’d already phoned ahead to find out the location of the hostel – which was luckily only a five minute walk away.
As we only had two days to explore, we were up bright and early the next morning, cameras in hand to make the most of the city.
“Are you sure you want to take those with you?”, said the owner of the guesthouse as we walked downstairs, “There are a lot of stealings from tourists here.” Great start.
We’d already heard many stories of tourists having their bags stolen, most of the time grabbed by people on scooters, but these stories were all from fellow western travellers. So hearing the warning from a local, we promptly locked our valuables in the safe and only took discrete money belts.
Refusing not to take any photos at all I took out my compact camera instead of my SLR, which I frankly wasn’t prepare to lose.
I only remained regretful of leaving my SLR locked away for a few minutes; Moments after leaving our street, we witnessed a drive-by mugging. Luckily the owner of the bag managed to grab it in time and the would-be thief left empty handed, this time.
Please note: HCMC isn’t a dangerous place for tourists, but do keep your valuables well hidden. We never took bags out with us but lots of people do. Just be wary of your surroundings.
Still quite groggy from our late arrival, we decided to save the War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels for the following day and spent the first wandering around the city.
Little-known fact, HCMC is home to a replica Notre Dame, built by the same architect during the French’s occupation. Unfortunately the doors were locked when we arrived, but it was still worth the visit. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t quite the same as paying a visit to Paris; the stifling heat and thousands of scooters act as a constant reminder of your whereabouts.
Amusingly one of the highlights that day was visiting the city’s post office.
Built in the early 20th century, it is by far the most beautiful post office I have ever set foot in. Deciding there was no better time to send christmas cards back to our families, we obliged and bought some handmade cards from the locals outside. After affixing the required four stamps to the envelope we each ceremoniously dropped them into the central post box.
Five minutes later, James was back at the box trying to get it open. For some reason he’d only gone and written ‘For Mum x’ on the front. Now if that actually arrives, it will be a Christmas miracle!
By the afternoon and after a very lovely beverage at The Tea Leaf & Coffee Bean, we decided we were awake enough to start our Vietnam history lesson. After visiting Cambodia wishing we’d known more about the country’s background, we each made an effort to read up on the Vietnam war.
In a nutshell, here’s what you need to know…
1883-1945 Cochin-China, southern Vietnam, and Annam and Tonkin, central and northern Vietnam, along with Cambodia and Laos make up colonial empire French Indochina.
1946 Communists in the north begin fighting France for control of the country.
1949 France establishes the State of Vietnam in the southern half of the country.
1951 Ho Chi Minh becomes leader of Dang Lao Dong Vietnam, the Vietnam Worker’s Party, in the north.
North Vietnam was communist. South Vietnam was not. North Vietnamese Communists and South Vietnamese Communist rebels, (known as the Viet Cong) wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and re-unite the country.
1954 North Vietnamese begin helping South Vietnamese rebels fight South Vietnamese troops, thus BEGINS the Vietnam conflict.
April 30, 1975 South Vietnam surrenders to North Vietnam as North Vietnamese troops enter the palace in Saigon, ultimately ending the Vietnam conflict
As we were already in the city, we decided to pay a visit to the Reunification Palace. The palace which was stormed by North Vietnamese troops, ending the war.
The palace is known as ‘the White House of Asia’. Although I’ve never visited Washington DC, I do imagine the building to be similar.
We decided to skip forking out more for a tour guide and made our way around the palace ourselves, starting with the grounds which is home to a number of replica tanks and planes.
The palace itself was beautiful and interestingly as it has been left as it was when the president surrendered in 1975, it’s like entering a time warp.
I found the most interesting part to be the basement. This is where the president and his family hid during the war. The rooms were bare concrete and stifling hot. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live down there. After twenty minutes I was happy to get out.
War Remnants Museum
A visit which we’d all been highly anticipating was the War Remnants Museum. A shocking look at the brutality of war and its many civilian victims.
While the displays were unsurprisingly one-sided, many of the most disturbing photographs illustrating US atrocities are from US sources themselves, including those of the infamous My Lai Massacre.
Sure to look at every photograph and read every information plaque, it took over two hours to walk around the museum. There were many photographs and displays which were extremely hard to view, but this place is about educating further generations to the atrocities of war.
One of the rooms I spent most of my time in was the exhibition on Agent Orange.
A mixture of herbicides and defoliants, the U.S. Army used Agent Orange to destroy vegetation and the food sources of the Viet Cong (North Vietnamese Communists and South Vietnamese Communist rebels).
The effects of Agent Orange are still clear in current generations. As a result of a contaminated water supply and breast milk, children today are still being born with terrible debilitating defects. This includes severe physical deformities, mental and psychological disabilities diseases and shortened life spans.
It was interesting to learn that a number of US Troops received compensation pay outs for their exposure to Agent Orange. Currently, they do not and have not ever given aid to the Vietnamese casualties of this horrific toxin.
If you’re interested in knowing more about the effects of Agent Orange. Please read here: www.agentorangerecord.com
Once back in the UK I will try and hunt down the photography exhibition which I viewed during our visit. Unfortunately I cannot find it right now.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Just 40km from the capital Saigon, the Cu Chi area is a tunnel network of over 250km and was home to the Viet Cong during the war. The network, parts of which were several storeys deep, included countless trapdoors, constructed living areas, storage facilities, weapon factories, field hospitals, command centres and kitchens.
From ground level you’d never know you were walking above a honeycomb of passages.
Our tour guide Jack (whose name Im sure wasn’t actually Jack) was a fountain of knowledge, as well as a fascinating man. When asked by one of the group how he felt about the Americans he replied, ‘We are all friends, there is no problem. It was not our war, but that of our leaders.’
One part of the tour allows visitors to try their hand at crawling through the tunnels, which have amusingly been made bigger for western tourists. The length of the particular tunnel is 100m, with hatches every 20m to allow people to exit. The lack of air was stifling and I only managed a grand total of 40m.
The tour guide also took us round to see examples of the bamboo traps the Viet Cong sent, as well as tricks which deterred the dogs of enemy troops.
There’s also a shooting range where you can spend an obscene amount of money firing bullets. Not for me thanks – even posing next to an original bombed American tank was too far passed my comfort zone
I think I learnt more about the Vietnam War this day than any other.