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Revisiting the Vietnam War

My first day in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon

rain 84 °F

Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I actually slept in, today. I am not sure if that means my body is adjusting to it getting light so early, or if staying up kind of late last night after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City did it. Either way, I got a leisurely start to my sightseeing, today. That is so unlike me. Normally, I'm a crack-of-dawn, "time's a wasting" type of traveler.

One of the meeting rooms in the luxurious palace

I started off with a walk to the nearby Reunification Palace. This former presidential mansion is a museum to the corruption and opulence of the South Vietnamese government. It has been left intact for the most part, but is clean and sparkling -- well maintained by their victorious Communist opponents. If you look at old photos or movie footage of the fall of Saigon, you ll doubtless see scenes of helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop. It certainly looked familiar on the outside. I enjoyed wandering the inside, too. The 70s details are there, from the style of furniture to the rotary phone sitting on a desktop. My favorite room was the Chamber of the Ambassadors, where newly-arriving diplomats would present their credentials to the President. The Japanese wood lacquer wall scene behind the desk was amazing. The propaganda here was more subtle than I expected, letting the lavish decorations and photographs of the rich and powerful hobnobbing with the government officials tell the tale.

Helicopter displayed on the roof helipad where the U.S. evacuated many as Saigon fell

I returned to my hotel to arrange an afternoon tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. I hadn't been 100% sure that was what I wanted to do, but the palace had whetted my appetite for Vietnam War sights. While I was at it, I booked the Mekong Delta day trip I'd been considering for tomorrow. I had time on my hands at that point, since the tour left shortly after noon. So, I decided to wander down towards the outdoor market, which is not too far from my hotel. I also had a full-blown, Vietnamese-style lunch with a God-awful number of dishes brought to my table. The pork was good, the rice and onion-tasting veggie were okay, the chicken was way too gristly, and the green, spinach-looking vegetables were not too appetizing. The soup was the worst dish -- such a change from yesterday's tasty, rice noodle soup in Da Nang. Overall, I would rate it a "bleh" on my scale. If I've said it once, I've said it many times: Anthony Bourdain I am not!

B-52 bomb crater at the Cu Chi tunnels

It probably takes a military history buff to truly enjoy exploring the Cu Chi tunnel complex, about 70 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. This was a hotbed of the Viet Cong (communist insurgents, fight the U.S. allied South Vietnamese). Try as they might, the Americans had a tough time suppressing these guerrillas. One of the reasons for this is the elaborate tunnel complex they built to conceal and protect themselves from American attack. Our guide summed it up when he said the South Vietnamese ruled the area by day, when the fighters remained hidden underground, but the VC controlled it at night when they emerged to launch attacks against U.S. allied troops. The drive up there was long and bouncy, albeit in an air-conditioned minivan. It rained off and on most of the way up. My long spell of good weather on this trip seemed to be over. The downpour had stopped by the time we arrived, but the soaking gave the forest an authentic drippy feel, and the paths were muddy and full of puddles. It felt like a Vietnam War film as we walked into the tunnel complex.

One of the onsite guides in period uniforms demonstrates a tunnel where soldiers may pop up, fire, then disappear back into

The Cu Chi complex tries to do a faithful mix of preserving what is still there and recreating or rebuilding accurate, tourist-friendly fighting holes, tunnels, booby traps, bunker complexes, weapons and equipment production facilities, and so on. The highlight is -- without a doubt -- an up to 100 meter long scramble through dirt and cement lined rebuilt tunnels. You are a good 20 meters or so underground. There are electric lights every 10 meters or so, but it is dark, cramped, hot, and claustrophobic. Every 20 meters, there is a ladder for you to opt out of going further. I soldiered on until the site guide (dressed in an NVA uniform) advised me that it got really narrow after that point. Had I worn jeans instead of shorts, I probably would have gotten down on my hands and knees and finished it. Instead, bent over double wasn't going to work beyond that point for this well-fed American invader. So, I "tapped out" after 60 meters. Still, I was proud I got further than anyone else on my tour! The reconstructions of various VC booby traps was probably the next most interesting part after that. I never realized there were so many varieties, all intended to wound rather than kill, because that took additional soldiers out of the fight to treat or move the wounded.

One of the reproductions of booby traps employed by the Viet Cong guerrillas

Many of the bunker complexes had uniformed mannequins, dressed as guerrilla fighters. There were also a number of onsite guides dressed in either the trademark "black pajamas" of the rural VC insurgents, or the green uniforms of the North Vietnamese army. They were friendly and helpful to us visitors (unlike the real thing 40 or so years ago!), and willing to pose for photographs. There is even a firing range set up for those who want to pop off some rounds from the various weapons of the war, including machine guns. I deferred, as I'd fired all the American ones they had during my six year stint in the Army Reserve. I know, shocker. But I'm sure it wouldn't be as good as what I got to do while I was in the army, as any shots I'd heard while exploring the tunnel complex were single ones -- no full-auto blasts. An American tank that was taken out by a mine is also onsite, rusting away forlornly. You come upon quite a few bomb craters from B-52s -- photogenically filled with muddy water. There was even an outdoor theater viewing area for watching a 70s-era propaganda film produced by the Vietnamese government. It extolled the heroic qualities of the rural guerrillas of the Cu Chi area. When visiting places like this, I'm able to separate my political views and instead enjoy the raw details and experience of exploring a battlefield.

For being one of my only two days of sightseeing in the Ho Chi Minh area, it was relatively light on sights. I'd seen a lot in my more than two weeks in Asia, so far. Maybe I was slowing down, or maybe I wanted to focus on a few places rather than cramming in as many as possible. Tomorrow's day trip to the Mekong Delta will squeeze in quite a bit. So, I guess if I started the day sleeping in, there is nothing wrong with taking it easy for one day in old Saigon.

Posted by world_wide_mike 22:24 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tunnels palace city vietnam saigon cu chi ho minh reunification Comments (0)

A Day in Hue

Vietnam's answer to the Forbidden City impresses, while its trains don't...

semi-overcast 89 °F

A stone dragon decorates the entrance to a palace in Hue

By and large, I enjoy trains. They are almost the perfect conveyance. They tend to get you to your destination faster than a car could. They are slower than airplanes, of course. Their advantage over airplanes, though, lies in the fact you can get up and move about easier on a train. You also can enjoy the scenery sliding easily by your window -- something you usually can't do in a plane on account of cloud cover. There are exceptions, of course. I took a train in Egypt once which was like riding inside a paint agitator. On another one in Georgia, the air conditioning kicked on only well after it was underway. It cut off at every station...pity that I was on a route with frequent stops!

The Imperial Citadel's long brick walls enclosing Hue's answer to Beijing' Forbidden City

To those less than comfortable trains, I have to add Vietnam's. I was hopping on the "Reunification Express" for a day trip north to the old capital of Hue. Pretty much all of Vietnam's trains run between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Some make more, some fewer stops. So, as the train pulled into Da Nang, I assumed it'd be a quick stop -- just long enough to offload passengers and take on new ones. All of their trains claim to be air conditioned. However, the conductors decided to save a few Vietnamese Dong and shut it off as it pulled into Da Nang. Thirty sweltering minutes later we finally were underway, more than a half hour late, at this point. This was crucial to me as the train was due in at Hue at 2:43 pm. Since most attractions close at 5 pm, I had a small sightseeing window.

It was getting on towards evening when I began my sightseeing in the imperial city

Part of the sightseeing, though, would be the train ride itself. One impartial website claims the section I'd be riding was the most scenic in the world. After about a half hour, we pulled alongside the coast. It was indeed beautiful. Blue bays sparkled by our windows, attractively sprinkled with tiny boats bobbing on the ocean swell. We caught glimpses of gorgeous stretches of deserted and pristine beach. Green hillsides closed in and would snatch away our view for a few moments, then part their curtain and open the panorama, again. Much as I wanted to, though, taking pictures wasn't an option. The windows were heavily polarized, and quite dirty. Which leads me to the other reason Vietnam's trains fall short of the perfect mark. My return train was positively filthy. Every seat I saw was stained and looked like it'd been through one too many college frat party.

Ear buds and music are mandatory, too, as a Vietnamese train is every bit as loud as my fight from Hanoi to Da Nang had been. Kids are allowed to scream at the top of their lungs with no parental correction, or bounce in their seats, hammering on the seat back in front of them. I am beginning to think the description my guidebook had of Taiwanese parenting ("indulge children to the point it is developmentally harmful") might apply wider in Asia. I cranked the Genesis and Thomas Dolby and tuned them out, though. When the scenery switched from hillside and seascapes to rural Vietnamese villages, I soaked that up eagerly, too. I saw water buffalo wading neck deep in canals, neon green rice paddies, banana palms, and ramshackle villages. On my way back, I had the day's photos of Hue to pore over, select, and edit. So, I kept myself occupied for the three hours or so of each leg of the journey.

Rooftop decorations in Hue

When we pulled in to Hue, I exited the station and made a beeline for one of the metered taxis. In less than 10 minutes, I was standing in front of the imperial Citadel. This massive, walled complex is Hue's answer to Beijing's Forbidden City. It is huge and sprawling. You can duck away from the plentiful tour groups fairly easily and find a quite patch to wander away from the crowds. Some parts of the Citadel have been fully restored and sparkle with red and gold paint. Others are in a semi-ruined state, and have a romantic, crumbling feel to them. This was enhanced by the late afternoon sun's rosy tint. The tour groups stuck pretty much to the main pagodas and temples -- the highlights -- leaving large portions for the independent traveler to explore. I particularly liked the Royal Library where the Emperor would retreat from the bustle of his court to read or study. There were gardens, ponds, and winding pathways where you could lose everyone else and imagine the peaceful quiet of a royal reading session. Many of the pond surfaces were covered with water lilies. Fish surfaced and frogs splashed into the water, spooked by up your tread. A brief rain shower passed through the Citadel's grounds. As if in apology, a rainbow glittered as it receded into the distance. I wasn't the only one who overstayed the 5 pm closing time. It was nearly 6 pm before I finally made my way to the exit.

The Royal Library, where the ruler would retreat to for peace and quiet

I took a few more pictures of the walls, gates, and defensive tower. Families used the wide open spaces to fly kites, and a group of teenagers had set up a baseball game. Hue's citizens and guests used the gardens that encircle the walls for a sunset stroll. I evaded the frequent offers of a pedicab, motorbike rides, and taxis. I still had an hour and a half before my return train. So, I hunted through the shops clustering near the Citadel for a restaurant that looked acceptable. Nothing really stood out, so I took a chance on one that I hope my stomach won't have cause to regret tomorrow.

Rainbow over the imperial city

My train ended up being an hour late, so I had even more time on my hands. There really wasn't much to do but sit in a cafe and swelter in the heat. Eventually, the train showed up, and I picked my way through the fleabag of a conveyance to find my seat. Vietnamese trains use a relatively random numbering system, so it is not as easy as it sounds. True to my usual luck, my seat was next to a bizarre elderly passenger. It had been a semi-crazed woman on the flight from Hanoi to Da Nang, who muttered to herself the whole time. This seat mate pressed his bare feet into my seat area, and took up the random muttering where the airline woman had let off. He also decided that pounding his calves, thighs, and anywhere else on his legs that wanted a good beating was a good idea. I just hope he doesn't decide to extend his Thugee-style massage services to me! But hey! I said I enjoy riding trains, didn't I?

Archways in the walled city line up in the late afternoon sun

Posted by world_wide_mike 01:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged train city vietnam hue imperial citadel Comments (1)

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