History unfolds in Ho Chi Minh city and Cu Chi tunnel

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Asia » Vietnam » Southeast » Ho Chi Minh City » Cu Chi
January 30th 2016
Published: January 30th 2016
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Hue to Ho Chi Minh city

I was busy taking some photos from my window seat when the aircraft was approaching the Ho Chi Minh city (HCMC) airport. To my delight, it was a sunny afternoon once again and I had a good opportunity to do some aerial photography before landing. I looked around and I saw buildings all over the places once I crossed the Mekong delta. HCMC is a populated city alright! Once the flight landed, I collected my luggage and came out of the terminal. I was going to stay at Silverland hotel for three nights, and the deal was that the hotel would arrange my transportation from the airport. I looked around and it was not difficult for me to identify the gentleman holding the signboard bearing my name. After the initial ‘Hi, Hello’, I was transferred to a SUV and the driver slowly pulled the car out from the arrival terminal. It was 32 degrees Celsius outside, few degrees hotter than Hanoi and perhaps couple of degrees hotter than Da Nang. However, I expected this anyway as I am traveling further south. The SUV took the ramp to the highway. The highway was busy with traffic, and more and more we were getting closer to the city center, the volume of motor cycles and scooters were increasing. At the first glance I found HCMC is busier than Hanoi. One striking difference that I found between the two cities that HCMC skyline is busier than Hanoi with cranes on the horizon telling me that more constructions are on the way and HCMC is a business center. It is true that Hanoi is a capital city and traditionally, most capitals cities in the world are locations for government offices and they are not the business centers.

The SUV left the highway and we were travelling through the city streets. It was just past the lunch time, so there was heavy traffic on the road. May be HCMC traffic is always like this! We passed the Reunification palace. I will visit there tomorrow. Silverland hotel is in District IV; I guess most of the hotels are, that is the tourist hub. The hotel is located across a park, nestled within a cluster of shops. The front desk lady finished her paperwork and took me to my room to explain the deals and promotions of the hotel, its layouts, roof top restaurant etc. Once she was done, I settled my luggage, washed my face and walked out of the hotel. Today is my free day to explore nearby attractions. Tomorrow morning Han will be here at 8:00 am and we will head out to the Cu Chi tunnel. I was hungry. I found out a Vietnamese eatery on the 3rd floor of a building. Nothing fancy but busy. While on road, I usually don’t experiment much with foods, rather, I eat the safest ones. I ordered some fried rice and curry and settled down. I was thinking about the itinerary for tomorrow. Plan is to travel to Cu Chi tunnel in the morning and cover the landmarks of the HCMC in the afternoon. Tomorrow is Sunday and hopefully, the traffic will be less.

After the lunch, I came down to the street and walked around to check the neighbourhood. There is a huge indoor market next to the city. I suppose one could buy there anything from food to ornament. I was walking aimlessly inside the market, only to be pestered by the sellers to buy their products. After a while I felt tired moving around inside the market. Shopping has never been much of interest to me. I got out to the main road. On the other side of the market, there are a number of road side eateries. I was curious because I have to know where my next meal is coming from. I walked around the eateries, took a turn on the side road and I came to the second entrance to the hotel. I continued to walk, took a left turn to the main road and came in front of the hotel, thus making a full circle. There is an endless stream of motor cycles and scooters. Across the road, there is a nice park, quite a big size actually. Many people, young couples are hanging around. I didn’t dare crossing the road to go the park. I had no intention to practice the training from May Linh in Hanoi. Rather, I preferred to stand there and watched the pulse of the city for a while.

Later in the evening, I went to the rooftop pub, selected a corner and settled down. I could see the night of Saigon below me, neon lights are shining on the buildings; I did some photography of Saigon at night. As the evening was progressing, streams of youngsters were pouring down the pub; the DJ was playing the music in one corner and people were enjoying the evening. I felt the culture in Hanoi is a bit different than in Saigon. Hanoi is more traditional.

I was hungry. I came out of the hotel and went to the road side eatery that I discovered in the afternoon. They are all bare-skin ‘dhabas’, agents were trying to attract their patrons from the street by waving their respective menu cards. I am no expert in Vietnamese food, but with the pictures printed against each item, it was not difficult for me to order the meal. As usual, fried rice and curry for me. And it was not bad at all.

I was up early next morning. I was relaxed because I don’t have to pack my suitcase, I don’t have to change the hotel and I don’t have to run to the airport. I am going to stay here for three days! Hooray! So, I was relaxed. Han came on time to pick me up. After the ritual ‘hi, hello’, we hit the road to Cu Chi. The traffic was not too bad. In roughly 40 minutes, we were outside the city limit. We picked up the highway after paying the tolls and were steady at 80 km per hour. Han and I were discussing topics like history of Vietnam - past and present, societal values, infrastructures, west versus east…everything. While talking, I was absorbing the sights of green rice fields outside the car. It took us close to 2 hours including a pit-stop when we reached to the rubber plantation close to Cu Chi. It was a lovely plantation and we decided to stop there on our way back.

Cu Chi Tunnel

When we reached Cu Chi, Han went to the counter to buy the entrance tickets which was part of the tour package. There was a small auditorium where one of the tour guides was describing the tunnels in a slide show. I joined the group. It’s amazing when you the see the vastness of the tunnels. It’s a 200 km long spider web which spans all the way to the Cambodia border. It took the guerrillas 20 years to build the tunnels and they used only hands and spades to dig these tunnels in the dark. Tunnels are often 3 levels. There are kitchen and hospital inside the tunnels. In most tunnels, one has to literally crawl inside. The air vents are disguised in the ant hills. The kitchen exhaust was passed through water traps before being released through multiple nozzle type holes in the ground covered with leaves. Simply amazing engineering! The Viet Cong guerillas used to wear sandals where strap for one pair is designed in opposite direction than the other pair so as to fool the American soldiers.

In front of one tunnel entrance, Han told me,

“Tab, get in the tunnel, I’ll wait at the other end. Go on”,

“Why? Aren’t you coming too”, I asked

Han laughed,” No, you go with the other guide, I don’t go in. Tourists only”.

“Well, then…” I paused.

“Don’t worry, if you can’t make it all the way, there are other exit points.”

“I’ll be fine”, I assured her. Han is a very easy going girl. I liked her company. I entered the tunnel…sheer vertical drop of ten feet. But there are stairs at the entrance. Once I entered the tunnel, as I expected, there was a sharp turn to the left. That is the way the tunnels were designed. If Americans used to get down there, they have no idea if anyone is around the corner waiting for them. Get down with the feet first, a sharp poisonous arrow hit their groin…a painful death. Getting down with head first, a swift stroke with a knife would slit the throat perfectly. Death would be quick. I had to literally crawl on the floor to reach the turn. Then I decided to squat and hop. My thighs were aching after few steps. I have no idea how the VCs could hide in tunnel day and night. Americans used to call them tunnel rats. I could not make it all the way to the last exit. My thighs were not aching. Some feel claustrophobic. I was fine that way. But my thigh muscles were giving way.

Han was waiting at the other end. I walked where she waiting.

“Are you fine”? Han asked with a smile.

“Ah, yes, I guess”, I said. Now Han was laughing. “Then why did you get out so early if you are fine”? I gave up; just returned her a smile. We finished the trip with some target practice. We stopped in the rubber plantation for a photo-op then headed down to the city.

HCMC landmarks

Han arranged our lunch in a nice place close to the war museum. The war museum is just a walking distance from the restaurant. We had a relaxing late lunch and then we headed to the museum. When I was a little boy, the Vietnam war was in its peak and we used to get the horrific news of tortures. I still remember those pictures in the newspaper. I wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon in the museum. We started from the war exhibits – fighter jets, tanks, bombers, empty bomb shells, armoured cars, gun boats, Chinook helicopters, - you name it. Han is used to handle the tourists. She took my camera and was taking my pictures with the war machines. We finished our round with the exhibits. I wanted to visit the prison. Han left me there and waited for me in the main hall. The staff that got into my nerves when I entered the prison was the photos those were framed on the walls, just inside the prison gate. Photos of tortures, executions, bombing by B-52s, dismemberments were all over the place. Some photos are from the time of the French occupation. Someone later told me in Saigon that most of them are propaganda. “How they could be propaganda when the actual pictures are there”, I snapped back. “Well, it’s one side of the story, you know”, I was told. I know that atrocities do happen on both sides in a war. That’s not the point. The fact that it happens makes my blood boil, no matter who does it. I was depressed when I came out of the prison. I met Han in the lobby of the main museum building. More photos on the 2nd and 3rd floor. I went up and started visiting the photos, My Lai massacre, spraying of Orange Agent, disfigured children, the famous Pulitzer Prize winner picture by Nick Ut of a Vietnamese girl running naked to flee the napalm bombing in Trang Bang …they all make you dizzy, head spinning. But there are other pictures too, the picture of a good American soldier carrying an old Vietnamese woman to safety during bombing campaign. I was engrossed but a lump was slowly creeping up my throat,- I wanted to throw up. Suddenly I felt tears in my eyes, the photos were foggy, I could take it no more. I had enough. I couldn’t make it to the 3rd floor exhibits. I came down to the main floor. I found Han was waiting in the lobby.

“Let’s get out of here”, I told her.

“Are you done”?

“Yup, I had enough, let’s go to the Presidential palace”, I told her.

Presidential palace is now a showcase. It is not the same Presidential palace when South Vietnam army surrendered in 1975. In the bunker one could see the communication equipment left from the hurried exit of the US backed troops. Now it’s for the visitors, rooms after room with full décor, library, a chopper waiting on the roof, old communication equipment in the bunker.

It was getting cloudy outside. It will rain. We hurried up to see couple of icons – the Notre Dame Cathedral and General Post Office. By the time we reached the Notre Dame, it started drizzle. Mass service was going on. Han told me to take my baseball cap before I get in. A show of respect. I went inside. It’s magnificent and hundreds of people. I listened to the sermon for a while. I was hoping the rain would stop. I came out of the cathedral. The rain hasn’t totally stopped, just a fine drizzle. The General Post Office is just the next door. It’s also a great architecture. I loved it. It reminded me of the Union station in Toronto. I came out, because I had another agenda in mind. The fall of Saigon in 1975! The picture of the evacuation of US servicemen from the CIA building rooftop on the last day of Vietnam war is still vivid in my mind. The chopper landed on the rooftop top of the CIA building and photographer took the shot when servicemen were climbing up the ladder to reach the helicopter. It’s a well circulated picture…I forgot whether it was published in the Time or the Life magazine. I wanted to see the building in my own eyes. Thanks to Han, she measured my mental pulse. She took me as close as I could get.

The building is now a government office and there is no access to the public. It is now surrounded by other buildings and I could see the rooftop where the chopper landed. The history unfolded in front of my eyes, I took some shots. It’s true, I witnessed more history in HCMC than in Hanoi.

Han dropped me in the hotel. I went in my room, threw my back pack and changed. After my dinner at the usual ‘dhaba’, I went to the rooftop pub. I managed to get a corner table. I took a drink and settled down. The place was full of young men and woman. Pop music going on with full blast and the waiters and waitresses are busy like hell as if there is no tomorrow. I turned on my email and wrote a mail to Suman in Canada, - is it the same Vietnam where million people died to liberate the country from the American Occupation? The answer came back pretty swift – “stop thinking, the world moves on…finish your drink and go to bed”.

She was right. The world moves on, things change, people change, no one wants to cling to the past. Everyone looks forward for tomorrow. Except me. I am sad, because tomorrow is my last day in Vietnam. But tomorrow is another day!

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