Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. We were excited to get back to a modern city with tons of great restaurants and bars after a few days in Dalat. We were pleasantly surprised with Saigon, it felt like a thriving metropolis, a massive city buzzing with energy. A lot of travelers we had met on the way weren’t too impressed with it, but I loved how it reminded me of New York. The traffic was crazy, but it felt good to be back in a big city again.
After days of so-so Vietnamese food, we were dying for a curry. We headed straight to Ganesh and, as always, it did not disappoint! It was so comforting to have a great meal there again; we were so happy we stumbled on this chain in Hoi An weeks ago. We passed a hilarious exercise park on the way there and after dinner we hit up beer street, where you sit in a tiny little plastic chair on the street and order 50 cent beers. The price was right and it was a good place to meet other travelers and share stories.
The main attractions for us in HCMC were the War Remnants Museum (fka The American War Crimes Museum) and Cu Chi Tunnels. I knew this destination may be a tricky one for me as an American as both attractions take a close look at the Vietnam War, from the perspective of the Vietnamese. My dad was also in the war so it took on an even more personal meaning to me.
First up was the museum (VND 15k pp). I was warned it would be hard to view and it was worse than I imagined. We started out on the second floor with pictures of the birth defects caused by Agent Orange, the pesticide that the US dropped on Vietnam’s countryside. I imagine the idea was to kill their crops but the poison got deep into the soil, affecting pregnant mothers and their babies for many years. The photos were so graphic, I took one look in there and had to leave. Mike stayed to view, but it was too much for me.
Also on the second floor are photos from the Vietnam War. Most of them were truly horrible, it was extremely disturbing to see the violence and brutality of the war. The third floor was more bearable with more newsworthy photos that appeared in Life and Time magazine, telling the stories of Vietnam from the perspective of a soldier. These were very interesting; I kept thinking of my dad and people like him that fought for the Americans and how it must have been for them.
The next day, we booked a tour to see the Cu Chi tunnels (VND 230k pp) with TNK. Around an hour outside HCMC, this is where the Viet Cong created a complex tunnel system over 250 kilometers long where they lived and fought through the war. It was originally built to fight off the French but was expanded to fight the Americans.
The tunnels were instrumental in Vietnam winning the war. They took advantage of their knowledge of their land and allowed them to surprise attack the Americans and slip back into a hole, unseen. They caused a lot of damage before the US figured out they were using tunnels around some of their key bases. You have to admire the ingenuity to create such a complex defense system from such little resources.
In addition to firing from the tunnels, the Vietnamese created multiple booby traps to injure or kill American soldiers, mostly trap doors in the forest with sharp bamboo spikes, and used unexploded bombs to build land mines.
Over 16,000 Vietnamese lived in the tunnels, completely underground. It was unthinkable to imagine living in these tiny, dark spaces for years. Their toughness to live in these conditions is really truly remarkable. I am almost positive I couldn’t have done it for an hour. Part of the tour included the opportunity to crawl through the tunnels yourself. They have been enlarged to fit westerners but you get the idea, crawling through an underground tunnel in the dark. I opted out as I’ve been known to get claustrophobic but Mike did it.
While both experiences are definitely worth doing, it was tough to hear about the war from the other side. The Cu Chi tunnels were especially hard. Stuffed with propaganda, beginning with a movie on how the Vietnamese were “American Killer Heroes” and told the story that we invaded Southern Vietnam, no mention of our original mission to aid the South Vietnamese to fight Communism. Our guide was very proud to share that the Vietnamese were stronger and smarter than the Americans and seemed a bit too happy to explain exactly how the booby traps killed American soldiers. Of course, there was no mention that 10,000 of the 16,000 Vietnamese that lived in the tunnels were killed by the US.
I couldn’t help thinking of my parents generation and the young Americans that died there so needlessly. The pride he was taking in speaking of killing American soldiers made me angry. The only thing I can think is that they were fighting for their land, their country. If the US was being invaded by a foreign country, I know we would be proud of killing off our enemy.
In the beginning of the tour he announced that people often ask him if Vietnamese still hate the Americans. He said that they used to hate us but not anymore, now they look to the future. I’m not so sure they’ve forgiven us. Next stop Cambodia. Until then…