Bustling Saigon

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Asia » Vietnam » Southeast » Ho Chi Minh City
March 5th 2010
Published: March 7th 2010
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Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon as it was once known before the north swept in, took over and renamed it, and as it is still insistently called by the locals here, a bustling metropolis of nine million people and the commercial capital of Vietnam, and indeed one of the most important cities in the region. The city is a mass of human life, motorbikes rule the streets and crossing an intersection can be an adrenaline rush just in itself. Buildings are large and any and all sorts of shops and comforts are here.

Vietnam has a population of 85 million people, quite a lot considering its thin and long size. It's definitely becoming a powerhouse of the region, especially after the 1995 embargo was lifted. The Chinese had ruled this country for about a thousand years, then the French colonized it for almost a hundred years. Both have influenced Vietnamese culture immeasurably. Of course the country received international fame due to the Vietnam war or American war as it's known here. The war began based on politics and the "need" to stop the domino effect of communism, that the Americans were certain would harm them back home. About three million Vietnamese were killed and around sixty thousand American GI's as well. Ho Chi Minh championed the North to resist occupation, embrace communism and fight off any invader. Many love him, affectionately called Uncle Ho, although some in the south might have something to say about that. Uncle Ho's face can be found on all Vietnam Dong notes. After the American's lost the war and pulled out, Vietnam's woes continued with yet another war with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, ending up with Vietnamese troops invading and ousting the regime. Since then, apart from the Asian economic crisis in 1997, Vietnam has seen tremendous growth and could potentially be a fully industrialized country by 2020. Of course at the present time there is still much farming and fishing in the country but more and more people seem to be moving into industrialized areas.

I had left Cambodia with Isa, and before hitting the border with Vietnam, the bus stopped at a small roadside eatery. We noticed prices for food were inflated, of course they had a contract with the bus company to stop here, we decided we'd walk a little further down the road and eat elsewhere. All was well until we were heading back and noticed our bus drive on by without us. We ran towards two motorbikers and asked them to chase down that bus! Luckily the border crossing was close by and we caught up, but upon exclaiming our discontent with the driver, he simply stated that they hadn't forgot us at all. I didn't even bother arguing with him.

We reached Saigon a few hours later after nightfall and were dropped off in District 1, in the backpacker/tourist road were many an accommodation could be found, albeit pricier than in many places I'd been so far. We met up with Maitreya there and some other people he had met and then he showed us around our immediate area and we got some street side food. We then headed up to a rooftop bar for a while before I retired.

The next day we checked out the town a little more, seeing the market, some landmarks, and the war remnant museum. Sadly the museum was way too one sided, only displaying the American atrocities committed and explaining nothing of any wrong doing of the north Vietnamese or Vietcong. Still it gave an insight on the futility and uselessness of the Vietnam war, as well as the chemical warfare the Americans used, attempting to completely annihilate the ecosystem here. Many of the population still suffer certain effects of the Dioxin the Americans sprayed, causing widespread deformities in later generations.

My camera at this point ceased functioning properly, and I lost an entire day of its use while getting it repaired, apparently I had brought a some sand along in it from Cambodia and it needed a cleaning. That evening I walked our section of the town with some of the others, and eventually we stumbled around a group of Vietnamese men who were sitting around near a street corner, playing acoustic guitar and singing voicestrously. They had a large pile of empty beer cans to the side. We joined them and got a more local experience of the people. They kept feeding us whiskey and insisting we drink beer with them. Before I knew it I was drumming with a pair of chopsticks to the rhythm of the music and we hung out with them late into the night.

Following day I walked with Isa and used her camera as we went around and explored more of the town. Crossing the street is an experience in the major cities of this country. Motorbikes seem infinite here, many intersections lack traffic lights and one must beginning crossing, maintaining a steady pace, not making any sudden movements, and allowing the bikes to go around. While heart wrenching at first, it became quite fun doing this by the end.

My travel companions moved on elsewhere that evening and I was just chilling out in front of my guesthouse and met three other guys, who were sitting around and drinking there. A few hours later we were all playing mouth harps and trying to get a band going, funny how these things happen.

Finally I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, which was a massive tunnel network used by Vietcong guerrillas during the Vietnam war. The whole area had been bombed to oblivion, but the tunnels were strong and the people even more resilient. For twenty years they survived in terrible and cramped conditions, with hardly enough food and malaria running rampant. We saw the foxholes, and booby traps they had designed, and of course went through one of the last remaining pieces of tunnel. Luckily I'm not a big guy and fit rather easily on my hands and knees but some bigger tourists there that day didn't have it so easy, they couldn't even get in. We also saw loads of artillery, craters made by B52 bombings, and I fired an AK47 at the firing range. Overall good experience but I wish the actual tunnels were a bit longer.

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