HCMC and surrounds 8-11 August 2008
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is still often unofficially called Saigon though officially this refers to the city centre only. The City is much more modern and high rise than Hanoi and was not part of the communist heartland and thus has more western influences. We met a French speaking lady who told us she’d had a few conversations with locals (the older ones are predominantly French speaking)many of whom were fairly anti the communist regime though this isn’t something to be discussed aloud. It was a reminder that history is written by the winners and whilst all we have heard is of the “liberation” of the south there were quite a few Vietnamese on the side of the Americans who didn’t want communist rule. As well as the Saigon army there was a class of “intelligentsia” – lawyers doctors journalists – who had done fairly well under the old rule and wanted it kept – or a gradual taking over of power from the French. These people were taken to camps for “re-education” when the Saigon army fell and the Americans left which must have been a bit grim. To this day little is told of what went happened to the Vietnam who were on the “wrong” side - and when I tried to ask I met with silence a reminder there isn’t free speech here. On that note other than the first page I completed most of my web blog on Vietnam when back in Thailand, as after my first section on Hanoi my page was blocked. I can’t see why – maybe as I mentioned Uncle Ho by name – it was lifted in my final week there but for almost 3 weeks I couldn’t access it at all, whilst people overseas could. Any books or websites which are seen as having “unsuitable” content are blocked by the government. Presumably I was cleared after due investigation!
We stayed at a little family run guesthouse in the Co Giang area. It was a lovely old building tucked away down an old alley and we were very much part of the large extended family. The charming elegant silk pj clad grandma spoke to us constantly in French which made for a slightly one side conversation! She obviously felt very comfortable with us to the extent of sitting cutting her toenails right next to where we were enjoying breakfast!
Whilst a very busy City choked with traffic HCMC was well set out with attractive central park areas and some nice old French buildings on wide tree lined avenues. Being a bit tired on our first day we just had a look around taking in the Notre Dame Cathedral and Old Post Office which was also in French style. The latter was built at the end of the 19th century and is a striking building complete with a large portrait of Uncle Ho gazing calmly down.
We took the obligatory cyclo drive around town. We are getting accustomed to being pushed into oncoming traffic ..so that now we barely bat an eyelid!
We found a nice café to enjoy a French style cheese platter and whiled away the afternoon! In the evening we took a cruise down the river. It is pretty much a working river and we passed people loading and unloading goods, as well as the beautifully lit up junks, more a tourist feature now. The city centre looked lovely at night all lit up, the town hall being a particularly stunning piece of architecture.
The next day we set off to see the Reunification Palace. It is a bit like walking into history as the building which was the symbol of the South Vietnamese government is preserved exactly as it was in April 1975 when the communists took power. There is one addition – a viewing room at which you see a historical video complete with statue of Uncle Ho- we missed the showing though!
The house has a real 1960s feel …the basement with maps and old fashioned phones is like something out of an early James Bond movie. There is also a helicopter on the roof next to a notice to commemorating where various bombs dropped. A replica of the tank which made headlines around the world when it crashed through the gates to signify the beginning of the new rule remains outside.
The next day we were up early to go on a trip to Cu Chi a town about an hour’s drive from central Saigon still in the HCMC province. This was a big centre for the infamous VC tunnels and the ones here (over 240km stretching to the Saigon river and all the way out to the Cambodian border!) allowed the VC to control a huge area within “enemy “territory. The tunnel systems which were all dug by hand were absolutely incredible. They were built on several levels interconnecting through trap doors and incorporated hospitals, command centres, sleeping quarters weapon factories and kitchens.
In order to disguise the necessary air holes and smoke from cooking fake hollow termite mounds were created, which filtered the smoke so it didn’t attract attention. The areas around the tunnels also had many booby traps …so if walking through the jungle you trod in the wrong place – which was easy enough to do it was so well camouflaged – you got impaled by sharpened bamboo! It made us feel sorry for the poor kids who were brought out here from American and Australian with very minimal training. Often the tunnels were so well hidden they were in the middle of American strongholds so secrecy was highly important. For this reason the VC ate tapioca a lot, as the root grows underground so it could be grown in the tunnels without being seen from above. We got to eat some on our tour with crushed peanuts and it was actually quite nice, a bit like sweet potato.
It was a bit like a school trip all of us in little groups looking round at the various exhibits including bombs and bomb craters! We got to try out the tunnels ..some of them were so tiny only a child in our group was game to try!
We went in convoy along one you could go for up to 100 metres but I bailed out as soon as possible after about 20 metres ..it was hot and dark down there and pretty claustrophobic. At the end we went into a class room with a large map and saw a propaganda film made by the VC in 1967. It was really quite chilling – including scenes like one sweet faced little girl from the village being decorated with an award for killing the most Americans, and groups of gorgeous toddlers sitting smilingly sharpening bamboo stakes which went to make all the horrific traps mentioned above!
We drove back to Saigon and finished off with a visit to the War Remnants Museum. This was incredibly chilling with a lot of documentation of US war atrocities much of it taken by American photographers. There were many weapons being displayed and horrific pictures of torture victims and children affected by napalming and the Agent Orange gas. Whilst it was obviously very one sided it really was a shocking reminder of how horrific war can be to everyone involved.
This was our last night in Vietnam and we went to do a bit of shopping in the large undercover Ben Thanh markets which sell anything and everything. We loved Vietnam but all good things come to an end and on Monday 11th August we flew back to Bangkok.
We had a few days there staying again at the Atlanta where we re- acquainted ourselves with their very regal Siamese cat. We didn’t do much other than rush around organizing visas (have got Cambodia and Laos organized – Myanmar is still up in the air we’re not sure if we can drive there yet) and found time for a walk around the beautiful Lumpini park. We then headed back to Margi’s and as of today – 25th August – we have been chilling out down in Ban Pe. Andrew has been building Margi a chicken shed and I’ve been getting this website up to date but other than that we’ve been enjoying a bit of a break just relaxing and enjoying Margi’s hospitality. Next stop – after maybe a couple more diversions nearby -when our visa runs out on the 9th September is Cambodia and from what I hear we might need all our energy to deal with their roads!!