×In hindsight we can now see what a disaster the Vietnam conflict was. On the History Channel you can watch hours and hours of video on the feckless way our military and government botched this conflict. So if you travel to Saigon, which it is still called by many, you get a pretty clear picture of how the Vietnam government views this conflict. They call it the “American war of aggression”. In my opinion there are two things to do in Saigon. First, go to the War Remnants Museum. And secondly, go to the Cu Chi tunnels. The War Remnants Museum is called so because it is filled with and surrounded by weaponry used by the US and the Vietcong during the conflict. For Americans it can be disturbing. As the guidebook says, “Military atrocities are analysed in graphic and disturbing detail…it illustrates the inhumanity of mankind.” Meaning the United States perpetuated atrocities. There is a plaque on the wall from the Bertrand Russell Tribunal held in Stockholm in 1967 that reads that they found the US government guilty of genocide against the Vietnamese people. I don’t recall hearing that when I was growing up. So, I guess that sets the stage for your visit. We didn’t stay long. Why? Because there were endless pictures of napalmed kids, and destroyed villages and plaques depicting US atrocities. For those citizens of countries not involved in the conflict or for those who know very little about the motives behind why the US did what it did, I’m sure they look upon the museum as just another justification to call the US imperialistic. We knew soldiers who died here or fought here so seeing and reading this stuff was not easy.
We have a friend who was a tunnel “rat”. The Vietcong were notorious for digging warrens of tunnels throughout southern Vietnam. These tunnels had hospitals, schools, day care and dining rooms. Our friend’s job was to go down into these tunnels and try to kill the enemy. After going to the Cu Chi tunnels, you’ll realize what a dangerous job that was. The tunnels are located about an hour outside Saigon. Cu Chi is a maze of 154 miles of tunnels. Instead of using the cruise line for the excursion, we hired our own driver and guide. I’m happy we did because we left before the cruise tour and got there earlier therefore, we had more of the place to ourselves. It starts out sort of like a wax museum. There’s a brief video explaining the complex and then there are various wax figures depicting the way the Vietcong lived at the complex. As we’re wandering through, we begin to hear gunfire. Now that was eerie. Our guide explained that there was a shooting range. You pay for the opportunity to shoot either an M16 or a machine gun or an AK47. My husband was in the National Guard during the ’60’s and had shot M16’s. So, he paid a dollar a bullet to shoot the gun. It was a very active shooting range. From there we went to the tunnels. I’m claustrophobic. I was not enthusiastic about going down into these tunnels. But I try to overcome this phobia. I squared my shoulders, bent down and entered the darkness…and promptly said “let me out of here!” But our guide kept prompting me to go forward. You can’t stand up. You have to either hunker down or crawl. Sometimes crawling deeper into the tunnels. Lord help me. But I made it. And it was one of the shortest tunnels. My husband and I opted to not go into another, longer one. They also have what I would call “hidey” holes. Meaning they simply dug a hole deep enough and wide enough for a person to crawl in and stand up in and then, like a lid, cover the hole. They’d then pop up and shoot and then pop back down. My husband went into one of these. It’s too much like a coffin to me. I guess it could very well have been one.
Saigon is a beautiful city. Some call it the “Paris” of SE Asia. Much of its architecture has a definite French influence. The central post office, which is really a form of a shopping mall, is a perfect example. It was built by Gustave Eiffel. They have a nice central market but nothing to really be enthused about. The Notre Dame Cathedral, built between 1877 and 1880, is worth a look. The city has wide, tree lined boulevards. And you’d better be careful crossing the street because you can get your butt run over by a scooter. There are 1000’s and 1000’s of these scooters. It’s a safe city. I walked by myself for quite awhile and never ever felt scared or intimidated. Let’s address the elephant in the room, communism. In almost all of the private homes and museums we visited, there was a picture of Ho Chi Minh. In Saigon, if you look at the people, they are smiling, drinking coffee, hanging out on street corners. But after talking to guides, it is, to a large extend, a facade. Even though the Vietnamese do have greater freedoms than they’ve had before, they are still censored in speech and writing. Their internet is also censored. There are still political prisoners. President Obama says than when he visits Vietnam in the next few months, he will discuss these issues with their President. Vietnam and Cambodia are a favorite destination for the backpacking set. There were young westerners everywhere. The reason…it is cheap.