This was the third stop in our Vietnam/Cambodia holiday of 2017. Originally called Saigon, the city’s name was changed in July 1976, at the end of the last civil war in honour of the northern communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh City (“HCMC”) is the largest city (with 3.46 million people in 2018, according to World Population Review) and also the economic hub of the country. As such, it does not have the same charm as Hanoi. The name change is still a discussion point among locals, as the North and South seems to tolerate each other, but the love for each other is amiss. The media will use Saigon when referring to crime, drugs or anything negative, but switch to HCMC to celebrate any achievements or successes. Subtle meddling by the government perhaps? Residents prefer the romantically sounding Saigon when they reminisce about the glorious good old days. Both guides we had (as supplied by our tour company: Odynovo) up North and down here, made a point to talk (unprompted) about North-vs-South. Hang up much? A more pressing matter to rather discuss is “What’s up with this relentless humidity?” Give a tourist a break … we are trying to explore, but get constantly distracted by the alluring hum of air conditioning! Even this lady – outside the Notre Dame Cathedral – is looking to the sky for some relief.
We stayed in the centrally located Alagon D’antique Hotel & Spa. The Alagon Group has an unnatural large selection of hotels in this part of the city to choose from. On the roof one can have drinks at the pool, or walk around the corner and have drinks at the sister hotel’s jacuzzi … on your room’s account. Neat. On the ground floor, three sisters shared a communal breakfast area. Clever usage of space. At least our room was slightly bigger than the postage stamp we had in Hanoi.
The Vietnam war – or the ‘American War’, as some locals prefer to call it – not only shaped public opinion, but also the landscape. Unlike the South Vietnamese forces who had backing from the well equipped American army, the Viet Cong had not much luck in the form of a sugar daddy. The only way to outsmart the South was to go guerilla, and go under ground. Literally. Underneath the Cu Chi district northwest of Saigon, they dug an extensive network of tunnels – known today as the Cu Chi Tunnels – which played an important role in the fall of Saigon, that ended the war. The area is preserved and presented as a living museum. It is lush and gives one a glimpse into what it must have felt like operating in the area, a mere few decades ago … minus the well demarcated footpaths of course. Below, a refreshing pond, with the compliments of a B52 bomb.
Although safe (nowadays!), this place is also somewhat scary. There are nasty booby traps all over and then those tiny trap doors that connect the tunnels below with the surface. They built it just big enough for their tiny frames, which renders it too small for the average western invader. We had a very happy and cheerful lad demonstrating it to us. Not. The disappearing act, however, was not bad.
It is a known fact that the Asian frame is more efficient and compact than the Western version, but these access points are ridiculously small, compared to my shoe. Elsewhere on the internet one can find various photos of tourist doing this disappearing trick themselves. We were happy with the demo on its own – no need to get stuck.
“War is always the choice of the chosen, who will not have to fight”
– lyrics from Pavarotti and Bono’s 2003 Ave Maria. (1:27 mark)
As the tour of the tunnel complex continues, one starts to feel sorry for the people who had to live and work here and what the American troops did to them with their fancy (for the time) bombs, agent orange and tactics. But wait. Over here is a display of all the booby traps the Viet Cong built. Simple yet effective structures designed to inflict pain and torture. Shame, now you feel sorry for the Americans. Somewhat conflicted we pressed forth. It is highly recommended to have a guide with you when you visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. Most displays are done in duplicate and your guide will route you to a less crowded exhibition, on your request.
Some of the tunnels were widened to fit Western tourists and the brave are spoiled for choice on length of tunnel to be experienced: 50m, 20m … I was holding out for the 2 meter tunnel, but pension fund accepted the 10m offer. Sucker!
Glad I stayed above ground. Turns out to be a bit of a huddled crawl situation down there.
Random other learning from this outing:
- At one point the Americans used sniffer dogs to find entry/exit points into the tunnels. The people then started to steal American clothing and kept it close to the entrance, to tricks the dogs
- Cooking happened once a day only so that the smoke can disperse in the morning mist and not disclose the location of kitchens
- The leaves around the kitchen ventilation outlets were replaced daily, as the wilted leaves are a give away of heated activity in the area
- Most of the booby traps were built from scrap metal liberated from the Americans or the South Vietnamese Army. Talk about recycling!
- They manufactured their own shoes, with the soles turned around so that when they walk the print points to the direction they came from and not the direction they are walking in. Thus when the enemy encounter the foot prints they go in the opposite direction than that of which the person is actually walking
If you have more money than common sense, you can at the shooting range fire some of the ammunition used during the war. This is a good money spinner for the museum, but a nuisance noise pollutant. Each to their own what they want to spend money on while on vacation: personally I favour aircon and cocktails.
The War Remnants Museum has some confiscated US Army property on display in their front yard and inside the curators are blunt and frank – as one should be about the cruelty of any war. A visit here is not recommended if you are sensitive and fragile.
The Reunification Palace is really a beautiful building. Pity it is not really used for anything specific, other than a building of historic significance.
Inside there are stunning preserved period rooms. It is a bit eerie though. It is almost as if the people that are supposed to be there quickly (all!) went to the toilet. In the basement is a fully functional military bunker and although the equipment was probably state-of-the-art at the time, it kinda aged quickly. The row of rainbow telephones are a nice touch … clearly there was someone with a sense of humour.
The old Saigon Post Office is another tourist spot, which seems to feature on everyone’s must-see list, visiting HCMC. I am not sure why. OK, the building is kinda cute, but to get a spot to pose in front of it, reminded me of our visit to the Taj Mahal – you have to wait your turn and eventually just photo bomb your way in.
(By now you probably wonder why all the photos with me and pension fund are in black-and-white? The photos on this blog is about the location, experience or uniqueness of a country or culture, not a celebration of what we look like.)
In essence it is a working post office, with Uncle Ho keeping a watchful eye. There are lots of souvenir buy opportunities here: naturally at ‘tourist pricing’. Fight your urge to buy a conical hat. In the heat of the moment (mind the pun), one can easily fall prey to the simplicity of the structure, but ultimately it becomes a travel item nightmare: you either are stuck with hand luggage, or a flattened tangled mess if you slipped it into your check-in luggage.
We do not travel with umbrellas, but when the weather demands, we support local shop owners. In a land of “compact people”, trying to find a proper one to do the job was fruitless.
As spotted from our hotel’s roof: this guy might have a hot water fetish.
Next stop: Mekong Delta