My first day in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon
07/23/2014 - 07/24/2014 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 VC 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.