Ho Chi Minh City, Old Saigon of South Vietnam

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October 15th 2016
Published: October 15th 2016
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Ho Chi Minh Cityand Cu Chi Tunnels

Flight from Vientiane was with Vietnam Airlines. From what I have seen it is an excellent airline. Unlike the budget airlines here there is a bit more legroom, very comfortable seats and you even get something to eat and drink without paying for it as an add on. There was a stop over in Phnom Penh with peculiar procedures. Even though the stopover was only for 30 minutes we were not allowed to stay on the aircraft, were asked to go to the terminal with all our belongings. The problem with that was we had to go through another security screen, take out all computers, wallets, belts etc..There is no reason they could not allow us to stay in the aircraft or at least leave our belongings on the aircraft if refueling is the reason

At the HCMC end everything was much easier. If you had a Visa you don’t have to fill up a “disembarkation form”. You just go through the immigration. Even after computerising everything we love to have filled forms. A lot of people spoke English, Got 109 bus to Ban Tanh (for one Euro) and walked 700m to the hotel. When I turned into the small alley where Myhotel was I was a bit apprehensive. It turned out that the hotel itself was clean and nice and the 5th floor back room meant there was little disturbance from the street. The reception was very helpful. When going out they directed me to the right places eat and change money and asked me to keep a hold on to my valet and phone and to be aware of the pretty ladies in the street.

I wanted to eat a steak after being a vegetarian and mostly on oriental dishes for nearly a month, found an Irish restaurant (there was hardly anything Irish about it) and had Steak and chips with side salad for dinner. On returning to the hotel the receptionist had booked me in for a day tour covering the City Tour the next day.

In the city tour a bus took us first to the Reunification Palace. This was Nguyen van Thieu’s residence before the Unification. In their wisdom, the Vietnamese government had decided to keep the palace as it was, and even restore it. The impressive and opulent quarters was a four story elaborate building made in French and Indochina architecture. It was in sharp contrast to Ho Chi Minh’s humble official quarters inHanoi.

The first floor had very lavish presidential stately rooms. The second floor was more private with rooms the president and the first lady and other family rooms. The third floor had other utility rooms as a games room etc.. There was a bomb proof bunker which could be reached from the president’s room. The bunker was quite elaborate with all telecommunication equipment from the 70’s still in place and was designed to make sure that the president could direct a war from the safety of the bunker. On the roof terrace there was a helicopter on the helicopter pad.

The next stop was the War Remnants Museum, which as the name suggest, had photographs and relics of the Vietnam War. Of course they were telling their side of the story. It depicted the horrors of war (unfortunately as humans we still learn nothing and continue this elsewhere) including the after effects of Agent Orange in Napalm bombs. One of the most haunting pictures I had seen, “The Napalm girl” in my young years had almost turned me anti American, I could not shake off that image for a long, long time. It is a credit to the Vietnamese that after years of fighting the French and a bitter bloody conflict with the Americans they are now in good terms with both. May be the big neighbour’s (China) overbearing presence should have something to do with that.

Next we walked up to the “Notre Dame Cathedral”. An impressive Catholic church, though not like the one inParis. Built around 1865 by the French the outside bricks were imported from France and still retains its bright red colour. It had very high arches and three aisles leading to the altar. There is a large statue of “Our Lady of Peace” in the garden outside. After visiting the post office, which again was in French colonial style and still functioning, we went to get some lunch and relax for a few minutes.

Next was a walk around the Ben Tanh Market a bustling market in the middle of the city. As it had become a tourist area we were asked again to keep our valuables carefully. Only problem with the place was, bargaining, which I did not like and some fellow tourists were offering 1/6 of the asking price.

The next day we did not start the tour until 10:00 hrs that is after collecting all tourists. The 2½ hour drive (70km) to the Cu Chi tunnels to the North West of HCMC was through scenery similar to driving in backwaters area of Kerala with similar plants, trees and topography. Even the roads were of similar condition the main difference being the low density of population. It was as flat asHolland. May be because it is coming to the end of the rainy season, there was lush greenery everywhere.

Nearing Cu Chi we stopped at a small restaurant where we had a simple Vietnamese bowl of lunch with Chicken. Later we also stopped over at a factory where mostly handicapped people made beautiful articles on wood slabs (from small squares up to or 1m x 1m sheets) with eggshell and mother of pearl pieces. The product was fantastic but were quite expensive. I can see why, considering the man hours required.

The tunnels themselves were ingenious and played a major role in demoralizing the American Army. There were tunnels in other villages too. The whole tunnel system was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail most of which was through Cambodia from North Vietnam to the South of Saigon. Using the tunnels the local guerrillas (not the North Vietnamese Army) could emerge from and disappear into “thin air”. We had a chance to use a concealed entrance and “disappear (see video). It was surprisingly effective.

The tunnels were at three levels. The “near surface” ones were the only ones we could look at, a small part of which was open to tourists. The deeper ones were even smaller and with very little ventilation. There were no lights anywhere, the only ventilation to the deeper tunnels were through concealed air vents often disguised as termite mounts (through bamboo poles). Even the surface ones were less than 1m in height and less than 400mm in width. We were allowed to crawl nearly a 100m through one of the tunnels which had exits at 20, 40, 60 and 80m. Many did not venture in. Even among those who ventured in, most got out at 20m after getting a feel of the environment. Only a couple made it to the full 100m. Only the small and nimble Vietnamese can really pass through them. At intervals there were small bunkers where they cooked (they had to find ways of getting rid of the smoke without being detected), stored ammunition and made landmines and other ammunition.

Luckily even though it was raining in HCMC there was little rain up north where the Cu Chi tunnels were. Else the whole place would have got so muddy. It was nearly 18:00hrs before we returned back to the HCMC.

The third day was spent roaming the streets in HCMC. It seems that nobody walks in this bustling city except the backpackers. Everybody else was on motorbikes or scooters. There city transport (bus) was efficient and cheap, if one knew the routes. At the Zebra-crossings, just walk through and motorbikes are careful enough to avoid you. Otherwise you will be standing at the curb for a long time. Till the afternoon it did not rain and I could walk to the Market, the main bus station, and a cooperative store for some shopping. The dinner was Vietnamese food with chicken and Saigon Special beer.

My flight toIrelandwas at 2030 hrs. At checking out at 10:00 hrs the hotel was kind enough to let me know that I can leave my luggage with them and when I get back to collect them I can have a shower and may be take a nap before I leave.

Again walking around dodging the motorbikes, I ventured to buy a couple of things from the Benh Thanh Market.

By now I only had just enough cash to get to the airport. I could not walk to the bus station as it was raining heavily and had to hire a taxi. I was warned that after 16:00hrs the traffic could be at a standstill and was advised leave before this peak time. The bus got me to the Airport before 18:00hrs.

I must say my stay in HCMC was quite enjoyable. Apart from the Cu Chi Tunnels there are no major attractions here. Of course were trips to the Mekong Delta, and trips to other places and the nightlife. In addition to hotel being cheap and comfortable the food also was reasonably cheap with wine or beer. The people were friendly and most could manage something in English. I would certainly recommend a holiday here.

After 7 weeks away I was looking forward to home comforts and resume my relaxed normal existence inIreland. The heat though kind to the joints, the humidity was oppressive. In HCMC the days were cloudy and being the end of rainy season we had downpours in the evenings and mostly cloudy skies.

I do not know if I would continue with my trips, may be the next ones if that happens will be more sedate ones.

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