01.07.2009 - 04.07.2009
The hive of activity that is Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is a long way from the peace of the river & the backpacker area hums with activity at all times of the day and night. While the sun is up it is the roar of hundreds of moped that echoes around the tall thin buildings, by night it is the thump thump of the bars on the street below. Much the same as backpacker areas everywhere.
The tourist attractions of Saigon are dominated by war memorials of one kind or another and on my first day there I visited the Cu Chi tunnels, a visitors centre 2 hours outside of Saigon telling the story behind the 250km of tunnels the Viet Cong dug to maintain their guerrilla war. It was raining quite heavily when our tour group arrived and the mud tracks through the forest were both slippery and sticky in turns. Despite the tunnels being "widened to twice as big" for the tourists they're still tiny and claustrophobic, but far more terrifying are the ingenious and horrific traps they would lay for ground troups tramping through the forest. Think tiger pits crossed with the Saw films... After our tour we were taken to a shooting range where we could fire weapons of the kind that were were used in the conflict. I choose an M16 and as my shoulder kicks back from the recoil my ears ring and silence everything else around me. Coupled with the still driving rain it is as atmospheric an experience as gun range shooting could be.
Back in Saigon the war tributes continue. The War Remnants Museum was once called "Museum of American War Crimes" and from the exhibits you can see why. An entire section of the museum is dedicated to explaining why the war was illegal, and two more sections to the appalling after-effects of the chemicals chemicals dumped over large portions of Vietnam. Everywhere there are horrific photos; a soldier holding a severed head, the entrails still hanging from the neck, mutations caused by Agent Orange, a well filled with the bullet ridden bodies of children. It is very difficult viewing.
Even "Reunification Palace", used for conferences by statesmen even now, is filled with relics from the South Vietnamese government, along with reminders that they were crushed by the north. In fact, the only tourist sight I visit that is unrelated to war is the Cao Dai temple, called "Tay Ninh Holy See". A fabulously gaudy interior inhabited by monks and nuns, we arrive in time to listen to the chanting of the morning service. It reminds me of assembly in Infant School.