Back to the Grind - Sightseeing In Saigon

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February 25th 2012
Published: March 15th 2012
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Reunification PalaceReunification PalaceReunification Palace

The 'white house' for the President of South Vietnam until 1975.
Standing on the sidewalk in the massive maze of downtown Saigon, we strapped our packs on and started walking. We had only the faintest idea of where we were, but seeing as how a minivan had shuttled us from where the intercity bus had left us to somewhere closer to downtown, we made the assumption that we must be near our desired destination. If that doesn't make a lot of sense to you on reading it, rest assured that it doesn't make a lot of sense to us on writing it, yet apparently it made perfect sense at the time. We found a street that matched a name on our map and turned down it. A block later we were awakened to the fact that we had turned the wrong way. We doubled back and after five minutes we found a crossroad that allowed us to pinpoint our location. To our surprise, we were still more than one kilometer from the backpacker district. One of the characteristics making Liza and Matt so compatible is that they are equally cheap. Always wanting avoid a cab fare if possible (that $2 saved is worth 4 beers or 1/2 a back massage!), they decided

Looking out the Reunification Palace, the President would have had quite a nice view of Saigon.
to tough it up and walk. The nice thing about walking is that it allows you to feel the atmosphere of the city a little better than from the inside of a car. Our first impression of Saigon was that it felt very alive. It had an energy that suggested everyone who lived there was always up for doing something. We reached the road that we were searching for and began looking for the alleyways that were supposed to contain the guesthouses we were after. Only we couldn't find them. Then we were pointed to one by a couple of friendly tourists. The alleyway was right beside us. At about seven feet in width, these alleyways were much narrower than the ones we had grown accustomed to in cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai. It wouldn't have shocked us if we had been required to say a password or pull on a candelabra to reveal the opening to us. Once down the alleyway we quickly found an adequate guesthouse owned by a very friendly lady and her husband. We dropped our bags in our room and started to settle in.

The goal of our first full day in Saigon
A President's GardenA President's GardenA President's Garden

The courtyard located in the centre of the living quarters for the President and his family.
was to take in a couple of must-see tourist attractions in the city. First on the list was the Reunification Palace. Situated on an expansive park ground, the palace was home to the first family when Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam. The symbolic conclusion to the Vietnam war occured when tank 843 crashed through the gates of the palace in 1975. We joined an interesting tour that led us through the four floors and two basements in the building and pointed out the function and importance of many rooms. As Saigon ceased to be a capital city when North and South Vietnam were reunited, the building no longer has a function, which gives it an eerie feel. The decoration of the reception, banquet, dining, and games rooms was frozen in time from the 70s, and the maps in the president's office and in the war room still depict known enemy positions along the Ho Chi Minh trail. We saw the secret passageway that connected the president's office on the 4th floor to the heavily fortified bunker in the second basement, and also the much more hospitable living area used by the first family. We wandered the beautifully manicured
Notre Dame CathedralNotre Dame CathedralNotre Dame Cathedral

Catholicism was a strange sight to see in what we had assumed was a largely Buddhist country.
lawns of the palace for a little while before setting off to our next destination.

Because many places in southeast Asia shut down over the lunch hour, we had a bit of time to kill. Never in a hurry, we sauntered over to the Notre Dame Cathedral. We were surprised to see Christianity so prevalent in Vietnam, when Buddhism prevailed in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Introduced by the French, who ruled the country until 1954, it took even greater importance in 1956 when South Vietnam was formed and the heavily Christian president Diem forced the religion on the populace. Once the lunch hour had passed, we made our way to the War Remnants Museum. Expecting a very propagandist depiction of the Vietnam war, we were pleasantly surprised. The material was quite biased, but the one side of the story that was recounted was told using what seemed to be factual information and the displays and exhibits were of a very high quality. Displayed in the courtyard outside the museum were many pieces of heavy artillery used by the Americans and recovered by the North Vietnamese, including a variety of tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Inside the museum, we wandered
Military MightMilitary MightMilitary Might

Some of the machinery recovered following the Vietnam war now on display outside the War Remnants Museum.
through exhibits that talked of the global anti-war/anti-US sentiment that existed in the 60s and 70s, and an exhibit presenting evidence of the atroceties committed by the Americans. The exhibits that resonated with us the most were two photographic displays. The first was put together by an American museum in Kentucky and is currently on tour. It consists of pictoral accounts constructed by war photographers from all sides of the conflict, and from some whose countries were not even involved in the war. It was very interesting to learn the stories of these men and women who put their lives at risk because they wanted the world to know the truth about the conflict. It was also stunning to see some of the pictures that those photographers felt captured the emotion and the reality of the Vietnam war. The second photographic display told the story of the American's use of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. We saw photographs of the destruction to the environment as the Americans attempted to flush out the Viet Cong, and more curent photos showing the after effects of dumping massive amounts of Agent Orange on soldiers, villagers, and the countryside. Many US and Vietnamese soldiers

A victim of Agent Orange working at the factory we stopped at on the way to Cu Chi.
and villagers that came in direct contact with the chemical have since developped skin disorders which include discolorations, sensitivities, irritations, and abnormal growths. Those that avoided direct contact have still suffered, as Agent Orange polluted rivers and groundwater, and consequently contaminated fish and well water. These effects still linger in some places today. The most devastating effects of Agent Orange were realized when those affected by the toxin began having children. It was at this point that it was learned that Agent Orange has severe teratogenic effects. The first generation progeny of Americans, Koreans, and Vietnamese affected by Agent Orange have displayed many different forms of growth defects, mental retardation, developmental dysfunction, mutations, they have been born without eyes, arms, legs, or all of the above. Even more devastating, it has since been realized that these teratogenic effects can be passed along to subsequent generations. If pictures tell a thousand words, the Agent Orange exhibit could have filled a library and the emotional drainage we felt walking out the doors left us feeling like we had read a library's worth of books. After spending close to two weeks laying idly on the beach, it felt very good to be on
A Tight SqueezeA Tight SqueezeA Tight Squeeze

Matt manages to fit in the entrance through the ground into the tunnels.
the move again, learning about culture and history in southeast Asia. We returned to our guesthouse exhausted but content and started saving our energy for another busy day.

An early morning, a run-around to get on our mini-bus, and a slow crawl through rush-hour traffic in Saigon had us on our way west towards Cu Chi. The town of Cu Chi wa a major battle site during the Vietnam war, being the primary front for the Viet Cong in their attempts to reach Saigon. The most notable aspect of the battleground is the network of tunnels the North Vietnamese constructed to elude the Americans. Before we arrived in Cu Chi, however, we made a special stop. Part tourist trap, part touching emotional moment, we wandered through a factory built by the government to provide employment opportunities for victims of Agent Orange that would otherwise have none. We watched them practice their artistic crafts, making ceramic dishware, vases, sculptures, and egg-shell china pieces. Priced quite high compared to what we normally expect to pay for goods in this part of the world, the incredible artistry coupled with the good-cause being supported left us extremely tempted to open our wallets. We

Liza looking back out from under the ground.
managed to resist, however we took down a website on the way out in the hopes that we may one day be able to decorate the walls of our house with some of those beautiful pieces, once we get a house, or perhaps the jobs required to pay for it all.

A half-hour further down the highway and we arrived at Cu Chi. It turns out that everything seems to find a balance in the end, as the propaganda that was absent in the museum the day before was more than made up for in our tour of the battlefield. We were first given a very interesting and informative presentation from a war veteran that talked of the positions of American divisions in the region, the network of Viet Cong tunnels stretching all around, and of the manner in which the North Vietnamese transported arms down the Ho Chi Minh trail, through Laos and Cambodia and back into Vietnam to troops in the tunnels. He then talked about the strategies used in building the tunnels that made them so effective. After the presentation we watched a video that told us of 'American killer heroes', and the clever Vietnamese triumphing
Trying to FitTrying to FitTrying to Fit

Not a lot of room behind Matt at the entrance to some of the tunnels.
over the dumer and less courageous US soldiers. We were then walked around the grounds where our guide made a little too much light of some of the horrible things that happened so recently on the soil we were standing on. He also created some incredibly awkward moments describing with hatred in his voice of the traitors who supported the South. When presenting a story to people who can think for themselves, using subjective and emotional rhetoric over factual evidence does little to garner support. On this day, ourselves and many others in our tour group who may previously have harboured little support fo the US presence in Vietnam put aside our feelings on the agenda of the US government in the 60s and instead began feeling very sympathetic for the American boys who found themselves out of place and out-maneuvered in these jungles and subsequently fell in combat. Despite our frustrations with the messages delivered to us on this day, we thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We were taken to a tree, beside which a pile of leaves was brushed aside to reveal a porthole into the ground. Already widened to allow tourists better access, it still only spanned approximately
Trap DoorTrap DoorTrap Door

One of the many booby traps used by the North Vietnamese to maim and/or kill US soldiers in the jungle. These spikes were laden with poison taken from cobras the US released into the tunnels trying to kill the Viet Cong soldiers within.
one foot by two feet. We took our turns trying to squeeze through it and entere a world under the ground. We saw enormous craters created by bombs dropped from American B-52 bombers. We learned of the ways in which the 16,000 Vietnamese soldiers lived in the more than 250 km of tunnels, built 1 metre wide by 2 metres high, for 4 years. In the final portion of the tour, we made our way down into the tunnels to see for ourselves what the experience was like. We descended to a depth of more than 3 metres, far from the deepest the tunnels went, and scuttled hunched over in the cramped quarters, also widened for tourist purposes, for approximately 100 m. We poppoed out at some other location in the jungle, just as a Vietnamese soldier would have in 1968. Luckily for us we weren't subjected to the kill-or-be-killed mentality that those soldiers had to bear.

Back in the city, we regrouped in our room for a couple of hours and slowly regained the energy needed to take on Saigon one more time. We decided to try our own walking tour of the city, letting our feet be our guides. We followed the tall buildings, which took us through the financial district and to the riverside. The riverfront, although not incorporated into the cityscape as much as in Phnom Penh or Vientiane, was still quite pleasant. Along the banks stood a large number of ferries, and off in the distance a cargo yard was present on the horizon. We turned back into downtown and found ourselves in the ritzy area of town. Large hotels and brand-name boutiques lined the streets. Beautiful colonial style buildings were everywhere, yet the city seemed to maintain the same electricity in the air that we felt walking past all the cool kids and the neon lights on our first night in town. We circled back towards the backpacker district and collected our things as we prepared for our bus ride to Dalat the following morning. Our plans had been finalized and as the day had been approaching we found ourselves getting more and more excited about our motorcycle trip through the central highlands. Only two sleeps left.


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