Ah, Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City officially. But does anybody really call it that? The local businesses don’t, that’s for sure. Plus Ho Chi Minh City is a bit of a mouthful isn’t it? Whereas mention Saigon and it evokes images of the far orient. Or memories of the Vietnam War and the cultural grip it had in the 50s, through the 60s and into the 70s. Yes, Saigon. Even on our first night wandering through district one only to end up in the skybar of the Bitexco Financial Tower, sipping a drink and watching the lights and mayhem of the labyrinthine city below, I knew Emily and I would fall in love with this city.
Nightscape and city views from the Bitexco Tower
This is not a pedestrian friendly city however! You will need to pluck up your courage and walk into traffic at crossings in the knowledge that, if you stick to your guns, the hundreds of mopeds will mill around you. We put this fully to the test on our first full day out in the city and survived! We ventured out for Bahn Mi and egg coffee for breakfast on the way to visit the Independence Palace. A very Vietnamese cultural morning, where we were able to get fully immersed in the changing faces of Vietnamese politics and regimes in the 20th century. Today the Independence Palace is of course not the seat of government, with the capital moving to Hanoi, but a memorial to the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the reunification of a nation embroiled in a 20 year conflict of self determination. More on that later…
East meets West architectural modernism at the Independence Palace
Leaving the the palace in all it’s East meets West modernity, we decided to check out the Saigon Central Post Office. Probably the most famous remaining example of French Colonial Architecture in Vietnam it is definitely worth checking out. Since it is within a 5 minute walk you really do see the changing faces of the city. We took the opportunity to send some postcards home and people watch right in the middle of District 1 of the city.
Pictures and camera perspective unfortunately do this place no justice
As often happens to us when travelling (my height seems to make me a beacon) we bumped into a group of first year university students who were working on a project for their business school about tourism in Vietnam. We helped them out despite having only been in the country for 1 day and gained some insider tips for food in the area. A mutually beneficial arrangement! We both love interactions like these, they always stick out as being super memorable and we now have friends all across the globe because of them. Isn’t that what travel is all about?
Vietnam crew checking in
No trip to Saigon is complete without a visit to the War Remnants Museum. You learn about the military, social and cultural repercussions of the Vietnam War. It’s hard not to get swept up in the cool militaria at the start. Tanks, planes, trucks, helicopters, explosives. For me it was like playing toy soldiers up close and personal. But after scratching below the surface, this feeling of boyish love for explosions soon disappears.
Agent Orange. Murder of women and children. Genocide. Chemical warfare. Aggressive imperialist policy. Defeat by a developing nation. Whatever way you want to look at it, America doesn’t do very well in a retrospective of the conflict. Emily obviously took this harder than me. The museum is undeniably biased, telling just one side of the story. But the US narrative of the conflict can be just blind to the Vietnamese perspective. The fact remains, seeing the second, third and even fourth generation impact of a policy of chemical warfare is heartbreaking.
Chinooks are cool though, right?
The end of the tour rounds out the cultural impact of the war. The music. The protests. Widespread condemnation of American foreign policy from all four corners of the globe, and most significantly from within the USA. Perhaps the most moving of the exhibits, and the only positive aspect of the whole war. Would America have fought the war in the same way against a European power? No. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you are on the wrong side of history, it won’t be forgotten.
It turns out I’m a complete sucker for a tank photo
Another day and a trip out of the city to the Cu Chi tunnels very quickly made it clear how the military might of the USA lost to the Viet Cong. The will of the Vietnamese people to hand dig 200km of tunnels, live underground and eat nothing but cassava root for 10 years is forcefully self evident. After years of foreign oppression, under french and then the US, the people wanted independence. Crawling through the tunnels and living for only 10 minutes in the same conditions people lived in for years was enough for me. I can’t imagine having something I believed in enough to put up with it for years. It sounds awful, but it’s true. What I do know though is that picking a fight with someone with that sense of will and determination is pointless. Let alone a whole nation. A lesson America learned the hard way. Tours can be booked throughout the city and should cost no more than $10 for a half day. Totally worth the hands on look into guerrilla life.
Warning: tunnels may only be one hand x one shoe wide
The rest of our time in Ho Chi Minh City was honestly spent wandering the streets and eating. Crawling through tunnels and taking selfies with locals sure does work up an appetite! Bahn Mi, Pho, Vietnamese stew, Pork and Rice. The choices seem endless and in all honesty probably are. Sightseeing, history and amazing food. Chaos, mayhem and the stresses that come from being a little overwhelmed in a massive city. I don’t think we will be forgetting Ho Chi Minh City any time soon. See ya Saigon, next stop: Mui Ne.
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Such delicious food!