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  • Day57

    Exploring Saigon

    April 13, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 33 °C

    We left the boat at 8 am, and headed for our hotel. After checking in and dropping off our bags, we met our guide for a one day tour in Saigon/HCMC. (We’ve noticed that young people refer to the city by its official name — HCMC. But, people over 40 seem to use the older name, Saigon.)

    Our guide for the day was Jenny (or at least that is the name she gave us, although her name badge said Thranh). She grew up in the Mekong Delta, where she was raised by her grandparents, as her parents live on a boat that is used for transporting products. (She made it quite clear that she is much closer to her grandparents, than her parents, and that it is quite common for grandparents to raise children whose parents work/live on the water.) She moved to HCMC to attend university. She rents a room, which she now shares with her brother (who also came to the city to attend university). The room has a bathroom, and a hot plate, and is approximately 150 square feet. Her monthly rent is $200. Jenny works full-time as a guide, and tries to work as many days as possible during the high season as it is hard to get work during the low season (which is from May through November). During the low season, she studies so that she can improve her tours. This year she may learn a new language — either Korean or Spanish — as you can make more money leading tours in one of these languages, and there is a shortage of guides conversant in both languages.

    We started our day at the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are located just outside of HCMC. The tunnels were created during the French occupation, but were expanded during the American war. During the war, the tunnels were used by Vietnamese who supported the Vietcong and now have been turned into a museum and war memorial. The tunnels had two separate, but related purposes. First, the tunnels were used by the local community as a place to live while fighting was going on above ground. Second, the tunnels were used to allow the Vietcong to fight against the Americans, primarily by allowing soldiers to move around without detection. There are three levels to the tunnels — one is 6 feet under ground, the next is 12 feet under ground, and the deepest tunnel is 18 feet under ground. The tunnels are connected by a series of holes and diagonal tunnels. The tunnels run for a total of 65 kilometers, and within the system of tunnels are underground kitchens, sleeping quarters, and rooms used for medical procedures. In sum, an entire city. Despite the complexity of the system, the tunnels are extremely small. We had a chance to walk through a small portion of the tunnels. We had to duck down to get through, and were told that the tunnels were made substantially larger to allow westerners to go through them. The heat in the tunnels was simply overwhelming. I can’t imagine how people stayed in these tunnels for days on end.

    The tunnels are located in a jungle forest. As we strolled through the forest, our guide told us that every plant had been destroyed by Agent Orange during the war. Looking at the dense forest that we were walking through, it was shocking to think that it had all been laid waste. As we walked along, we also saw a maze of trenches that were used by the Vietcong for warfare. Many of the tunnels connected these trenches. And, amidst the trenches were huge variety of traps that were built and used by the Vietcong during the war. It was all frightening, and made more so by the sound of gunfire that we could hear from the nearby shooting range. I can’t imagine how horrible it was for both sides.

    After finishing up in the tunnels, we returned to the city. We started at the War Remnents Museum, which was built by the government of Vietnam in 1975, immediately after the end of the war. The museum was created as a propaganda tool, and portrays the US in the very, very worst light possible. There were galleries with photos taken by the journalists who were killed in the fighting, galleries of pictures of children born with deformities due to Agent Orange, and galleries about other atrocities committed during the war. Obviously, the museum does not present any information about the atrocities committed by the Vietnamese, and it was a war, but as an American, I felt like a monster by the time we were done. Of course, the cherry on top was the very last gallery that we walked through on the bottom floor, that had a detailed history of American opposition to the war. Beginning in the early 1960s, Americans were already vocal in their opposition. By the late 1960s, men who had fought in Vietnam had returned to the US and were actively opposing further involvement in the war. Despite the opposition, our government continued this pointless war. Such a tragedy.

    Our last major stop of the day was the Reunification Palace, which was both living quarters and governmental offices from the end of the French occupation, through the end of the Vietnam war. The current building was constructed after an earlier palace was destroyed during a bombing at the end of the French occupation. The Vietnamese government created this fantastic modern structure which is composed of huge, impressive rooms, that are both decorated in a contemporary style, with nods to Asian traditions in the art on the walls and the color schemes (red and yellow are very prominent). The building is quite beautiful.

    We finally made it back to the hotel, tired and hot, but excited to spend a few more days exploring the City.

    After cooling off a bit, we decided to take a walk to get a banh mi sandwich for dinner. As we strolled, we were struck by the ways in which Saigon and Hanoi differed. Saigon is so much more modern and clean that Hanoi, as well as considerably more western — both in dress, in the style of clothing that people are wearing, and in the way that life is conducted (life seems to be conducted on the sidewalk in Hanoi, with people, food and scooters forcing you to walk in the gutter). Of course, my perception is undoubtedly affected by the fact that Hanoi was our very first stop in Southeast Asia, and I was totally unaccustomed to the pace of life, as well as the sights and sounds of Vietnam. It would be interesting to go back to Hanoi now, and see whether it feels as frenetic as it felt a mere five weeks ago, when we began this part our adventure.
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    Hope Ratner



    amazing story. What a comparison. What a difference one generation can make. Dorit