Tunnels, Tourism and the Vietnam War

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May 3rd 2009
Published: May 5th 2009
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Worshippers in the templeWorshippers in the templeWorshippers in the temple

We were in the balcony for the service.

War and Peace

On the 30th of April 1975 the Vietnam War ended and the two halves of the country - north and south - became one. As such, the 30th is now a national holiday know as Reunification Day. As this fell on a Thursday the holiday was extended from Thursday to Sunday. As Tuesday and Wednesday are our normal days off we got a 6 day holiday. We booked a flight to Ho Chi Minh City and became tourists again!

More on the war later...

Looking for a girl with long dark hair in old Saigon...

We booked a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (from here on I'll use it's old name cos it's shorter) in advance and also arranged an airport pick-up to avoid the hassle of trying to get a proper taxi at night when we arrived. We got a confirmation e-mail back from the hotel manager telling us everything was sorted. All we had to do at the airport was look out for "a girl with long dark hair". A Vietnamese girl with long dark hair??? Well that's a distinguishing feature. Couldn't she wear a red carnation? Luckily when we arrived we found she was clutching a sign reading "MISS KATE". So we jumped in our awaiting chariot and headed off to the Kim Hotel .

First impressions

We've heard a lot about Saigon from a load of people who've been there. Some love it and some hate it. Some prefer Hanoi. Some prefer Saigon. Some say the traffic is worse in Saigon, others swear it's more deadly in Hanoi. But generally, everyone agrees that the 2 cities are chalk and cheese. And they're right. I was impressed by the wide streets and number of cars! It reminded more of Bangkok than Hanoi with neon signs and English writing everywhere. This is probably what puts some people off it. When they wanna escape to Asia and escape any western influence they don't find it in Saigon. But when you live in Haiphong, a holiday with a little westernisation is a welcome relief! Somewhere you can eat the occasional burger or get a decent pizza and some awesome Mexican food, while still appreciating the crazy traffic, the moist heat and the over friendly bar staff (Hello!!!! Welcome!!! Come in please!!!).

So we checked into the Kim Hotel on Tuesday
The old presidential palaceThe old presidential palaceThe old presidential palace

From the view point of a tank in 1975
night and were immediately put to bed as it was clear the staff were bedding down for the night (11pm!). So not so different from Hanoi...

Museums and culture and tanks and guns

Over the next few days we were very active. We ate, drank and were merry whilst walking miles around this sweltering city and learning a lot on the way. We relaxed on our 6th floor balcony overlooking the city and listening to the honking horns and we really liked it. We could definitely live in Saigon.



Anyway, on with the story...

Saigon has a load of museums to visit that are cheap to get into and interesting too. So on the 30th of April we went to the Reunification Palace. A pretty poignant date to visit as exactly 34 years earlier north Vietnamese tanks had smashed down the gates of this building - then the presidential palace - and raised the flag of north Vietnam, signalling the end of the Vietnam War - or the American War as they call it here (for obvious reasons - they've had a lot of wars, they're all Vietnamese wars).


They're great
was pretty weird seeing the pictures of the events of that day and standing on the balcony at the front of the building imagining the scene with tanks ploughing through the gate and over the manicured lawn through a war torn city...now bustling with tourists.

In the grounds, just by the gate are two tanks with the north Vietnamese insignia, allegedly the exact same models of the tanks that made a visit that day - although not the exact same tanks!

One day of our trip we booked a full day tour on a minibus, taking us out of the city and on to visit 1st a temple and 2nd the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Cao Dai

The temple was the Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai the religion apparently was founded in Vietnam in 1926 and there's a belief in 1 god symbolised by the Divine Eye. Anyway, see... here
The temple was beautiful and we were there in time to see the 12 o' clock "mass" when seemingly a thousand white clothed worshippers filed into the temple to do what worshippers do. It was pretty amazing.

As a bonus, I met a Vietnamese school
The Cao Dai temple The Cao Dai temple The Cao Dai temple

It's the biggest in Vietnam
teacher and his class outside who wanted to practise his English. Interestingly, he hailed from the Mekong Delta and had learnt English from the American Army as his dad was fighting for the south during the war.

Going underground

The Cu Chi Tunnels are north of Saigon and were used by the Viet Cong guerrillas as a base of operations during the war, hidden underground away from American bombs and marine patrols. Now they're a tourist attraction. I remember I first learnt about them when I was a kid. Marshal-Cavendish or someone like that brought out a weekly magazine called "Nam" chronicling the Vietnam War in full-colour. I bought the 1st issue (cos they're always the cheapest) and it was full of accounts of the Viet Cong tunnels with impressive diagrams of their size and how complicated they were, with barracks and kitchens and armouries. So obviously I was excited to see the real thing.

The visit to the tunnels opens with a old black and white documentary about their construction and purpose. Telling of Viet Cong soldiers winning medals of honour for killing Americans. Kinda disturbing, but it sets the scene. After that you march through the jungle with your guide and visit the 1st entrance to the tunnels. You're invited to find it...but inevitably it's practically invisible. Then, the guide kicks aside some leaves and reveals a tiny flat hatch in the soil. When I say tiny, I mean tiny. It looks as though a man wouldn't fit into it. But then a guide, authentically dressed in his military outfit hops down and instantly disappears from sight. It's impressive. Through this system the Viet Cong used to disappear and pop up in a completely different place. Pretty scary.

Booby traps

Next there are the man-traps. A door sized panel camouflaged in the ground is hit with a stick only to spin around and reveal a 5 feet deep trough carpeted out with sharpened bamboo stakes. In another display there are spiked bamboo poles used to roll and catch enemy legs and hooked metal stakes designed to skewer flesh and not let it back out. Not to mention the homemade landmines triggered by a twig breaking. All in all it puts in context how terrifying it must have been being an American GI making your way through the jungle around here. The
A tiger trapA tiger trapA tiger trap

The grass covered wooden board swings around when you stand on it and you fall into a pit of sharp bamboo spears
"door-trap" was also nasty. A row of hooked spikes on a swing, it was designed to be triggered as a door was forced in a village. The spikes were at a level to hit the victim right in the crotch. Argh.

Then there was the opportunity to go down the tunnels - used as a home for 20 years by some of the Viet Cong. So you climb down this hole and there is a long tunnel extending off into the dark in front of you. Not for the claustrophobic. I was practically bent double for the whole time. Admittedly I'm a bit taller than your average Vietnamese bloke in the 60s and 70s, but still, allegedly the tunnels had been widened for tourists. Mental. The thought of making your way through there in darkness, not knowing where the next booby trap was is pretty scary. By the time I came out at the other end my legs were killing - walking in a crouch isn't easy. My dad would have probably mocked my softness. While the war was going on and people were crawling through tunnels in Cu Chi, my dad was crawling through underground tunnels on the
New entrance into the tunnelsNew entrance into the tunnelsNew entrance into the tunnels

made wider for tourists, but still narrow, dark and hot. Hey, there is an orb on this photo. Get 'Most Haunted' in.
other side of the world for a totally different reason - digging coal.

Choose your weapon

At the end of your trip to Cu Chi there's a weird opportunity - to fire weapons on the firing range. You can choose from big assault rifles or massive machine guns and you fire at a target in a small quarry. You just buy the bullets. Now, I heard about this before we went and I was pretty enthusiastic about firing a machine gun. But after the tour of the site it somehow felt a bit odd to play soldier and get a kick out of shooting guns. That, plus the fact that it was monsooning with rain at the time and that no one else in our group was interested, meant I didn't shoot a gun after all. I'd never be a marine ("Do we have to go on patrol, Sarge? It's bloody raining!").

The War Remnants Museum

I'm pretty sure this museum was called The Museum of American War Crimes up until America and Vietnam came on speaking terms. Anyway, it's clearly pretty biased but it does show some atrocities of war and if nothing
Government buildingsGovernment buildingsGovernment buildings

We're not allowed in.
else it shows why war is always bad. Cue a load of hideous stomach turning pictures and tales of massacres and napalm and Agent Orange. Gruesomely fascinating but very disturbing. You do come out wondering about how people will look back on Afghanistan and Iraq in 30 years. Plus wondering if in 30 years will the battlegrounds of Helmand (sp?), Baghdad and Basra be teeming with tourists snapping pictures and posing in front of decommissioned tanks...

Tall tourists

I don't consider myself particularly short. I mean, I'm 5 foot 11 and a bit in my barefeet (this is Kris talking, obviously). That's above average in England, right? By no means am I exceptionally tall, but I'm not short. Well, in Vietnam I am actually quite tall. Average height is lower and I'm often head and shoulders above people. So our trip to Saigon was amusing in the number of giant tourists who seemed to be visiting. Was there a convention or something? Standing at a bar one night I turned round to find my eyes were level to the shoulder of a huge bloke standing next to me. Another night I went to the toilet in a pub and I was waiting outside when a giant Scottish bloke turned up. I was probably the height of his nipples. Fair enough. But then another bloke (maybe Dutch) turned up a few seconds later and he was the same height. They stood either side of me chatting and I felt like a small boy. The Scot asked the Dutchman if he got a lot of attention because of his height in Vietnam. He said yes. I called up from below them that, in Vietnam, I was actually considered very tall. They roared with laughter and I made my escape as the toilet became free...

Anyway, the cherry on the cake was in yet another bar where one table was occupied by a whole group of young women who were clearly all over 6 feet tall. Where did they come from?? Did they only speak to people of a certain size?? Did they have no small friends?? We watched them march out to get a taxi and the poor 5 foot tall waiter lamented his lack of height as he peered up at them and wondered if the air was thinner up there. He explained to us that they
Museum of Ho Chi Minh cityMuseum of Ho Chi Minh cityMuseum of Ho Chi Minh city

Previously a posh colonial palace.
probably played a lot of sport. Apparently that makes you tall.

You heard it here 1st.

Will you "Miss Saigon"...? (see what I did there?)

We really liked Saigon. It was a fascinating exciting city a little like our old haunts in Bangkok. But after an all-too-short visit it was time to fly north and home to Haiphong, my legs still aching from the adventure underground.

I'm sure we'll be back....

Additional photos below
Photos: 40, Displayed: 30


Welcome to SaigonWelcome to Saigon
Welcome to Saigon

Demonic beer bottles
The old presidents quartersThe old presidents quarters
The old presidents quarters

With stuffed animal
What news from the front?What news from the front?
What news from the front?

The President's desk
The balcony of the palaceThe balcony of the palace
The balcony of the palace

"Don't cry for me Argentina" Oh, sorry, wrong revolution.
The president's own cinemaThe president's own cinema
The president's own cinema

Showing mucky movies no doubt
The pres's entertaining areaThe pres's entertaining area
The pres's entertaining area

Very 70s. Let's eat fondue and have a Snowball and forget about the gunfire...
Finders keepersFinders keepers
Finders keepers

Just nick a South Vietnamese/American jet...cross out the insignia and hey presto..it legally belongs to you.

17th September 2010
A tiger trap


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