On 18th January 2018, at 5:30pm, we arrived into Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). HCMC was renamed from being called Saigon in 1976 when the reunification between the north and the south took place after the Vietnam War. Vietnam was then named the Socialist-Republic of Vietnam and became a communist country.
Our friends Jamie, Ryan and Keven were already there so we met them for some food and drinks on the Bui Vien walking street which is the main backpacker hub in the city. This street is full of restaurants and bars and is likely to be the main place any backpacker would spend their evenings but while we were there it was also full of locals and so the whole street was rammed as we were in Ho Chi Minh over the weekend. Considering 14 million people live in HCMC, it’s not really surprising that it gets pretty crowded sometimes.
We had to sort out some washing for the next day as we were in desperate need to get the majority of our clothes washed now that we were officially back in shorts and t-shirts instead of jumpers and jeans. We timed it terribly and as soon as we walked out of our hostel, the heavens opened and we were soaked. Bui Vien was only around the corner from our hostel (we stayed at Stuck in Saigon) and so we didn’t have far to go but the rain was incredibly heavy and that was when we found out that Niall’s waterproof didn’t work and so he was completely soaked! My waterproof worked a lot better and so it was mainly my legs that were wet and my trainers which remained wet for the rest of the time we were in Vietnam. After we had dried and were sure the rain wasn’t going to start again we headed out to meet the Canadians for a McDonalds (it’s good in Vietnam and they sell curly fries a and have honey mustard dip) and to go see the Independence Palace (also known as the Reunification Palace). The palace has two names depending on whether you refer to the pre-Vietnam/America war or post-war. ‘Independence’ refers to the Vietnamese becoming independent from the French in the 1950’s whilst ‘Reunification’ refers to the north and south becoming united in 1975. The palace is designed in the 60s and 70s decor and attracts more than one million visitors both from Vietnam and internationally each year. The palace is not inhabited but is still used for political events.
The palace is most famous for the event that signified the end of the Vietnam/America war. In 1975, a covert Viet Cong pilot infiltrated the southern Vietnamese army and flew a plane over the palace, the headquarters of the South, and dropped bombs onto the roof. This was then followed by a tank crashing through the gates of the palace and led to the South Vietnam government signing a surrender to the ‘Revolutionary Forces’, the Viet Cong.
The palace is nice with large, grand rooms and you could imagine it being a great place to host distinguished political leaders over the years. I couldn’t imagine living their with a family which the President of the Southern Government would have done as it seems almost too nice for a child to be running around. The palace sits at the end of a long road similar to the style of Buckingham Palace but there are a lot more trees so it doesn’t give a straight view down the road like they have in London. There are also war bunkers and a helipad on the roof with a UH-1 (HUEY) parked up there that was used by the President.
The palace had been closed for lunch so we hadn’t gone until around 1pm and so looking around took up most of the day. That evening we all went back out for food and drinks on Bui Vien Walking Street. It was really nice to be able to spend the day with our friends and was good to keep bumping into them throughout our trip through Vietnam.
On Saturday 20th January 2018 we were picked up at 8:30am and taken by bus to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. We had decided to do a half day tour of the tunnels as we saw this to be long enough as we still wouldn’t be back until late afternoon. It was a lovely day and so we got quite hot as we were walking around as the full tunnel complex is outside. The Cu Chi Tunnels are in the area of Cu Chi and were built as a way to stay alive during the massive attacks of the US on the countryside north of HCMC. The guerrilla tactics used here are famous and those that lived and died in the tunnels are revered in the north for their efforts in protecting a Viet Cong area and killing US soldiers.
During the war, 10,000 US soldiers died in Cu Chi through traps involving metal and bamboo spears, shooting and explosives. We were shown the traps that the Viet Cong used to kill and impale the US soldiers which had originally been used to trap animals for food as these were country folk.
We were shown the tunnel entrances that were hidden from the soldiers view and sticks of bamboo that were stuck in the ground to create air vents, providing circulation for the tunnels below. Their saying was ‘a rifle in one hand and a plow in the other’ and they would recycle the bombs that the Americans dropped to make weapons to kill the Americans and blow up their tanks – it was very resourceful really.
We were able to go into a tunnel that was 100m long and was a tight squeeze. The tunnel had been made bigger for us westerners compared to what the Viet Cong would have used and it was hot and sweaty in there. For the most part you are bent over and some areas you had to crawl through all underground with passageways leading off in every direction. I couldn’t imagine having to spend hours down here during the fighting, especially as you’d also be holding a gun and fighting for your life.
The tour at the tunnels ended with a propaganda video. The video talked of the brave ‘American killer heroes’ who got given the ‘hero for killing Americans’ award and they would keep count of the number of Americans they would kill – the more you killed the more revered you were. The video called the US a ‘crazy bunch of devils’ and talked about the large US presence that took over the French leaving. They lost one ruler for another and the video speaks of an oppressive system with lots of sentencing to death of people deemed to be a threat to the peace. The video says ‘not contenting themselves with the repressive and murderous US’ the north fought back. The language used was so theatrical and steeped in propaganda that it was quite funny to watch whilst also remaining interesting – I would have felt very awkward had I been American watching it.
We had to get some dollars ready for travelling to Cambodia the next day as we would need them for the border crossing. We had read online that the jewellery stores in the city was one of the best ways to get some dollars. We went to a busy gold store opposite the Ben Thanh Market which ended up giving an exchange for dollars that was the same as what we had Googled so we couldn’t be happier. They even gave us a range of notes so we didn’t just get stuck with a bunch of $100 or $50 notes! The most entertaining part of our journey to get dollar had been the enormous iguana we had seen on a patch of grass on the edge of a park as we walked through the city. Even locals were stopping on their bikes to take a look which made me think it wasn’t a very regular occurrence to see one!
Afterwards, we walked through the market where you could have bought anything you could have possibly needed and then carried on to see the last few sights we wanted to see before we left the city. It wasn’t long until we came across a long promenade with very grand buildings including the Town Hall and a statue of the city’s namesake, Ho Chi Minh. This part of town was very nice and nothing like I had expected to find in Vietnam.
After getting some lunch we headed to the post office which was a grand building that still houses the cities mail and that’s next to the Cathedral which is made to look very similar to Notre Dame from Paris. It was very similar, although looked a lot newer, but was getting some building work done to it at the time we weren’t able to go in.
Our time in HCMC was seeing all the major attractions and was very war heavy. This was no exception for our last day here as we went to the War Remnants Museum. This is an exceptional museum documenting the Vietnam war in a lot of detail from start to finish as well as the after effects that it had to people in the country.
They refer to the South Vietnamese who fought with the American’s as a puppet army as they listened to and were controlled by the US. I imagine they did receive lots of punishment when the US lost the war but it’s not indicated in the museum that they were blamed in any way. Despite their involvement, the majority of Vietnam, even in the south, were in support of the removing the US’s influence and unifying the country.
More than 80% of south Vietnam’s population lives in countryside. The fights, destroying villages, were conducted repeatedly making the villagers hostile to US Troops and so it often wasn’t a hard decision for them to join in fighting against them – they were already losing everything and had everything to gain if they won! Even though the South were seen to be on the side of the American’s, I think this was more isolated to the cities and so there were a lot of splinter rebel groups like that in Cu Chi that sided with the North.
I particularly enjoyed an exhibition called Requiem which was made by Tim Page and Horst Faas to commemorate the wartime photographers, many of whom lost their lives on the battlefield. This was a collection of 275 pieces by 133 photographers of 11 different nationalities and I’ve included pictures I took of some of their work below. It was incredible the danger they put themselves in for the shot and the mission of informing the general public of what was going on out there – there work really made a difference to how the war was viewed back home as well.
Agent Orange was the name of a powerful herbicide that contained the chemical dioxin which is deadly to plant life as well as humans. The US Air Force sprayed 20 balloons of herbicides over the forests and crops in Vietnam and Agent Orange was the most popular herbicide used. Agent Orange was used to kill the jungle so that the Viet Cong would have nowhere to hide and no crops to eat and was sprayed indiscriminately onto Vietnamese and US soldiers in the battlefield. This caused long term health issues such as skin conditions and cancers including to future generations with still births, disabilities and missing limbs. Even those not involved in the war have felt the repercussions from eating fish from contaminated rivers over the years. There was an exhibition dedicated to Agent Orange and the effects that it had on all of those involved, not just the Vietnamese. It’s just horrible that such a chemical was used in warfare and some of the images the museum displays are quite harrowing to see.
The museum is very heavy and it drains you after a while because of all the brutality they show from the war. It’s particular hard to read information on agent orange and on the war crimes committed including the napalm bomb (and that famous photo of the girl running down the street – see below). There were even pictures of US solider’s executing and beheading their enemy and posing with their decapitated bodies. It’s horrible to know what happened but also important to remember that the museum only documents one side of the war and that the pain caused to the US was probably very bad as well – neither side was blameless or victimless. There is definitely an element of propaganda there that needs to be remembered when looking around.
We were at the museum for three hours as we properly took our time with the displays and exhibitions. Outside of the main building were giant planes, helicopters and tanks that were like those used during the war by both armies. There was one helicopter that took up lots of the yard and it was mad to think that it would have been filled with soldiers or people fleeing a war zone whilst bombs went off and bullets flew by.
As well as this, they also had ‘tiger cages’ which were replicas of the torture prisons the US had in place for Viet Cong prisoners. People would be kept in tiny prison cells with 30 other people or even, sometimes, in small barbed wire boxes where they could only lie or crouch on all fours. I didn’t read all of the information in here as it was all getting a bit much after spending so many hours in here but, again, I had to remember that it was very likely the Viet Cong had their own version for US soldiers and I left thinking that the whole war sounded particular abhorrent for both parties.
For our last evening in Vietnam we had ate pho and then drank some shakes from a little street stall. Ho Chi Minh City had kept us busy and very informed on the Vietnam/US war and how it has shaped their country into what it is today. At 8am the next morning we would be getting on a bus and crossing the border into Cambodia ready for the next leg of our journey.
Vietnam had been excellent. We hadn’t always had the best weather and not being able to do the Hai Van pass was particularly rubbish but we had found travelling around the country easy, had met some great new friends and eaten some really good food so in all we had very much enjoyed ourselves. Not to mention, we could live very cheap here! I think Vietnam would be an excellent country to travel to if you had never backpacked anywhere before as the country really had this tourism business down to a tee with their standard route for tourists, good hostels and regular backpacker buses to all the major stops the country has to offer.
I highly doubt it will be the last time we’ll be in Vietnam – even if just to come back for more pho – but for now it was time to leave.
Next stop: Phnom Penh
Sending love x