The largest city in Vietnam has had several names during the course of history, but after the communist takeover in South Vietnam in 1975, the temporary government renamed the city after Hồ Chí Minh, the late North Vietnamese leader. Today this thriving metropolis is officially called Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC, but in practice many still call it Saigon both locally and internationally. During our brief visit to HCMC we had another history lesson, as well as a lesson in blatant bias and propaganda.
From the moment we arrived in Vietnam, it was difficult to distinguish this Communist country from its non-Communist neighbours. Evidence of a thriving capitalist society was everywhere, especially in the larger urban centres like HCMC. Even Western chains have penetrated this market – Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut – all evidence of the free market reforms introduced during the 1980′s when the government encouraged private ownership of farms and factories, economic deregulation and foreign investment. Walking the streets of HCMC, it’s easy to forget you’re in a Communist country….until you visit the War Remnants Museum which presents a rather twisted view of Vietnamese history. More on that later.
We arrived in HCMC at noon after a comfortable, uneventful two hour bus ride from Ben Tre and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the neighbourhood around our hotel (An An 2 in District 1). It was immediately obvious that we were in a popular tourist district, from the Pizza Hut across the street to the restaurants teeming with foreigners. Beer was less than a dollar a bottle, and that was the tourist price. Every restaurant had English menus, a refreshing change from Ben Tre where finding something to eat had been an ordeal. They even had lots of recognizable Western food options. After travelling for five months in South East Asia, we welcome the chance to eat comfort food whenever we can and we’re not ashamed to admit it.
The energy of the city is palpable and infectious. Traffic is insane, and walking the streets becomes a veritable obstacle course requiring nerves of steel and the eyes of an eagle, especially when crossing a street, to stay out of harm’s way. During the first evening, there was a power outage (what is with us and power outages!) but only within a few blocks radius of our hotel. Out came the candles and flashlights and it was business as usual. Power was back on within a couple of hours, much to our relief as we didn’t really like wandering through unfamiliar, pitch black streets.
Our history lesson began in earnest the next day during a tour to Cu Chi Tunnels, an immense network of tunnels in the Cu Chi region about 20 km from Saigon. During the Vietnam War, the tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerillas as hiding places during combat. They also served as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for many guerilla fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces. During the tour, we had the opportunity to crawl through a small section of one of the original tunnels, a claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing experience as a bat flew through my hair, and who knows what I was crawling through as I inched my way along the tunnel on my hands and knees, enveloped in complete blackness.
We saw examples of the rather ingenious, albeit barbaric booby traps rigged up by the Viet Cong. Our guide, a 62-year old ex-soldier shared his own personal war stories with us throughout the day. He was determined to tell us the “truth” and kept repeating that over and over again. ”You need to know the truth about what happened here.” Turns out his version of truth matched the history books much more closely than the government’s version which would have you believe that the war was between Vietnam and the US, when in reality the war was between North Vietnam (the Communists) and South Vietnam, who were heavily supported by the Western world, including the US. Our guide was from Saigon and remembers vividly how the Americans were there fighting with the South Vietnamese against the Viet Cong from the North.
The Cu Chi Tunnels felt more like a Disney attraction than a war memorial site like the ones we visited in Cambodia. It was a rather strange experience. I personally found the shooting range to be in poor taste and rather disturbing. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to shoot guns with real bullets – the same guns that killed and maimed so many people. But tourists (mainly men I observed) flocked to this attraction, and the sound of gun shots from AK47′s, echoing through the forest made me feel sick to my stomach as it reminded me that this is what it would have sounded like during the real war only bodies were the target rather than a bull’s eye in a shooting range. What is with our fascination with guns and weapons?
Our final history lesson took place at the War Remnants Museum, operated by the Vietnamese government since September 4, 1975. As friendship with western nations blossomed over the ensuing decades, the name of the museum itself as well as the wording on exhibits dramatically changed from a focus on so-called war crimes and acts of aggression to a less controversial description of the war. Even so, this museum was blatantly one-side, and extremely anti-American. Nowhere is there mention of the war between the North and the South. It is always the war between Vietnam and the US. Such flagrant propaganda made me wonder how Americans would feel seeing themselves so misrepresented. It certainly diminished my experience.
Beyond the propaganda, the museum did offer a wealth of information. One room was dedicated to the devastating, multi-generational affects of chemicals such as Agent Orange and other exfoliating chemical agents which the US used to kill all the vegetation in order to more clearly see the Viet Cong. Sadly, these powerful chemicals killed more than just vegetation and the effects are still being felt on the local population today. Birth defects, premature death, miscarriages, and cancer are just a few of the consequences. American soldiers were also victims of the aftermath from these chemicals.
Another display focused on the work of photo-journalists of all nationalities, many of whom died during the conflict. Men and women risked their lives to record what was happening in this part of the world. Some images, like the naked girl running down the street after a Napon bomb was dropped, remain etched in my mind from when I was a young girl.
As part of our tour, we made a stop at “Handicapped Handicrafts” which is where disabled artists specialize in egg shell and acrylic art. I normally hate these types of stops on a tour, the ones where you are put into a position where you feel you should buy something to support the locals. But this stop was different. I happen to love this medium of art and even own an original piece at home. All the men and women at this studio had birth defects, some more severe than others, harsh reminders of the ongoing debilitating affects of the chemical agents used over 30 years ago during the Vietnam War. Yet all of them were incredibly talented and produced beautiful pieces.
Within walking distance of our hotel, several parks with beautiful gardens, walking paths, and outdoor theatres offered a pleasant respite from the constant traffic and intoxicating pollution. These picturesque green spaces attracted many locals who did outdoor Tai Chi, Yoga, and aerobics in small groups. It was a great place for running as well.
Two days were hardly enough time to do this city justice but we left feeling like we had a good sense of it. With the clock now ticking down quickly, and a lot more to see in this long country, we decided to fly directly to the central part of Vietnam where we continued our adventure in the historic cities of Hoi An and Hue.