A Travellerspoint blog

November 2010

"A Brief Exploration of the Soul Of Ho Chi Minh City Part 2"


overcast 34 °C

Using the map of HCM given to us by the hotel front desk staff, I realized that located near the Independence Palace is the War Remnants Museum. We simply walked again to this museum. Upon entering the gates of the museum, we saw displays of different US military equipments left behind by the withdrawing US military forces months before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Helicopters, tanks, airplanes etc... are arranged neatly on the front and left side of the grounds of the the museum. A display on the right side of the caught our attention: series of prototypes of solitary confinement cells used by the american forces (one made of barbed wires where a prisoner of war could not make any movement; another made of concrete and steel doors with a small opening that would only allow the guards to peep if the prisoner is still alive) for the vietcong prisoners of war. There was also a real guillotine which was used by the french military forces during the french
colonization period.

There was a display of large unexploded bombs like B-52 bombs which were as big as a human being. But, what really hit me hard was what we saw when we entered the ground floor of the museum. Immediately after the museum main entrance are a group of victims of the orange bombs used with american forces during the war. About 10 people with physical deformities (small legs, distorted faces and short arms) were making handicraft souvenir items made of beads and other local materials. A bulletin board with a write up on the inhuman effects of the orange bombs says that those people were either second and third generation children of the survivors or the survivors themselves from orange bomb attacks. Immediately after the war, the americans denied that they used orange bomb nor napalm bomb or any chemical warfare but overwhelming evidences proved the indeed orange bombs and napalm bombs were used during the war.

From the ground floor up to the third floor, there were displays of real US military armaments (armalite was said to be the most popular automatic weapon during the war, different kinds of land mines, hand grenades and orange bombs). There were plenty of photographs depicting how cruel and destructive the war was. Most notable was the photos of a US Senator who admitted that when he was a soldier sent to Vietnam, he killed a family of vietnamese civilians.

Upon sifting all the displayed materials it left two important things in my memory: first, the might of the US forces was so invincible and second, the destructive effects the war brought to HCM including not only deformities among the victims of the orange bombs and other chemical warfare but also the poisoning of the environment was so enormous.

Having seen the seemingly invincible forces of the mighty defenders of democracy, I told my wife, we should appreciate how the supposedly the “communist vietcong forces” was able to convince President Van Thieu and his american allies to move out of Saigon. The following day, we went to Cu Chi Tunnels by bus. We were able to arrange for this local tour with a local travel agent located on Pham Ngu Lao Street near the Hostel where we booked for our early morning airport arrival It was a 5 US$ per person trip on board an air-conditioned bus ride from HCM to Cu Chi tunnels (70 kms.) and back with an english-speaking tourist guide. There was an additional entrance fee of 80,000 dong per person for the entrance of the Cu Chi tunnels system.

The tourist guide succeeded in imparting to us Vietcong's secret weapon against the mighty american military hardware. This secret weapon is far more significant than the then already mounting worldwide criticism which pressured the americans to pull out from Vietnam. This secret weapon proved the resilience and determination of a people to win back their independence. Vietnsm was occupied the longest by the chinese, then for hundred years by the french colonizers, followed by the mighty americans. Through out this long era of struggle to finally have a country of their own, the vietcongs have this secret weapon: the Cu Chi Tunnels!

Now known as the Cu Chi Tunnel Historic Vestige Site, the tunnel system was the proof of how the vietcong with small body physique was able to outsmart the bigger americans! During the war, the americans referred to it as their inability to familiarize with the local terrain. The common scenario was that as they engage a battle with a ragtag vietcong patrol, as soon as they start to pursue the vietcongs, the latter would suddenly dissapear in the jungle wilderness. Then as the americans continue to roam around the jungle, they found themselves stepping into the waiting poisonous traps and getting killed in the process.

The americans did not have the slightest idea that under the ground of Cu Chi that they heavily bombarded with B-52 bombs was (to use the words from the tourist leaflets given to us at the entrance of the Cu Chi tunnel) a unique project of architecture, as an underground system of tunnel deeply located in the ground bed with numerous floors and alleys like a cobweb of over 200 km long with its places of accommodation, meetings and fighting. The tunnel system shows the resilient will of determination, wisdom and pride of Cu Chi people as the symbol of Vietnamese people's revolutionary heroism.

Using manual crude digging tools with a bamboo basket the vietnamese dug the tunnels disposing the soil diggings into the nearby Saigon river seldom get noticed by the americans.

We saw for ourselves the Ben Duoc Tunnel portion situated within the Cu Chi tunnel system which was the base of the Zone Party committee and the High Command of Sai Gon – Gia Dinh Military Zone and was classified as national level vestige.

Since the tunnels (which I had gone inside myself) are small enough to accommodate only the small body size of the vietnamese in a kneeling position, there was no way that the americans can pursue the “now you see, now you don't” vietcongs!

I imagine that the vietcongs had all the advantage during that protracted guerilla warfare as they engaged the americans using the tunnels as the battlefield with their improvised weapons mostly poison traps crafted out from the recovered unexploded bombs of the enemies.

For 15 years, from 1960 till the liberation of Saigon in 1975, some 14,000 vietcongs stayed in the Cu Chi tunnel systems during the day time eating only cassava (locally called tapioca) and getting out into the Saigon River to dispose of body waste at night time that is if there was no americans to lead into the deadly poisonous traps!

After 35 years, the fear of getting infected with Vietnam Rose in HCM is no longer felt despite the presence of massage attendants openly displayed in front of the massage parlors. My personal feeling is that the vietcongs are after all as gentle and meek as a lamb and not vindictive. In fact, majority of the boat people who fled Vietnam after the liberation had already returned home. The economy of the country is steadily getting stronger showing proof that communism should have not motivated the americans to do a Rambo everytime they lost sight of vietcongs taking shelter in the underground tunnels!

Back into our hotel room, we read a tourism leaflet for a sidetrip to Cambodia for only 10 US$! Next trip, perhaps, next year, a Vietnam flight and into Cambodia!

Posted by E. Sandalo 18:56 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people Comments (0)

"A Brief Exploration into the Soul of Ho Chi Minh City"

Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)



Vietnam Rose. Cruelty of the vietcongs. Rage of Rambo. These are hazy notions that pervaded in my consciousness as a consequence of the bombardments of propaganda materials by the foreign news and the movies during the 1970's. The logic that the american-controlled media ( e.g. Newsweek, Time and Readers' Digest) fed into our brains was simple: the americans had to send troops to Vietnam to protect the democratic government of then President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam from the clutches of the cruelty of communist vietcongs of North Vietnam. Further, the americans argued that they have to provide a balance of power in the strategic south east asia region since the russians and chinese were openly supporting the North Vietnam government during the Vietnam War. If it were that simple, I thought then that cruel vietnam war was justifiable.

I was still in my second year college in the University of the Philippines at Los Banos when the North Vietnamese forces liberated Saigon in April 30, 1975. The fall of Saigon left a big black eye for what seemed to be an invincible american military force, it shocked the entire humanity how such a dominant world power lost a major war. The fear of the vietcongs from among those loyal to the americans and the government of Nguyen Van Thieu sent thousands to become refugees popularly known as the vietnamese boat people. They fled Vietnam on board small boats, oftentimes attacked by pirates in the high seas, robbed and their women raped, got hit by tropical storms until they were able to reach friendly shores particularly in the Philippines. Refugee camps funded with international humanitarian agencies monies were established in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan and in Bataan province.

On the lighter side, Filipino soldiers who volunteered in Vietnam during the war were heard of being infected with vietnam rose – a slang term for a venereal disease from vietnamese whores in Saigon. A few years later, hollywood movies dealing on the cruel vietnam war were aplenty- the most notable was the Sylvester Stallone Rambo series.

This is were I am coming from. Since 1975, I read and heard for myself and had made my own mind set of what is Vietnam. When I went to Hanoi (actually the present capital of Vietnam) in 1998 as the Philippine Department of Agriculture representative to a food security conference, very briefly I had a glimpse of what is Vietnam. Way back then, it left me an impression of a developing city where everything is very orderly even as the number of motorbikes and scooters were already noticeable in the streets. Hanoi was a small city such that within few minutes drive we were already in a vast ricefield. But, I told myself, Hanoi is North Vietnam. Saigon would be a different world!

Having visited the more developed neighboring Asean cities (Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok and Hongkong) I told myself, this year's vacation with my wife would be a different one: an exploration into the soul of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Thanks to Cebu Pacific and my Credit Card, I was able to book on-line through the internet for a promo fare six months earlier. In the same manner, I was able to book on-line two weeks before our scheduled flight a hotel room for us. Since the arrival time of the Cebu Pacific plane in Ho Chi Minh (HCM) City is at 30 minutes past midnight, I decided to book for a hostel for our stay after our arrival at the airport until the check in time at the regular hotel at 1:00 pm. The idea being was that if I booked for the regular hotel and we arrived at 12:30 in the morning, it would already be counted one day stay. So I booked for a less expensive hostel in order not to pay for a one day room in the more expensive regular hotel for only about 9 hours stay after our airport arrival. I also made arrangement with the hostel for a taxi to pick us up at the airport upon our arrival asit was already very late in the evening. The fee for the taxi that fetched us was US $ 15 and I paid the hostel US$ 17 per day although we stayed only for 9 hours. On the other hand, the rate of the Ha Hien Hotel where we stayed for the rest of our stay in Vietnam which is located in District 1 was P 1,400.00 per day.

As a developing urban city, HCM does not have malls but have wet markets, does not have an Metro Rail Transport (MRT) and LRT systems but have plenty of motorcycles, does not have many expensive and fancy restaurants but have clean food stores serving Phoa (vietnamese noodles), does not have much high rise buildings but have a concrete american-designed buildings.

My wife who is a heavy coffee drinker learned the hard way that in HCM, (except perhaps in the Gloria Jean where I saw a branch in District 1), coffee is often served with ice in glass and not in coffee mug or cup. We were inside the Ben Thanh market when she had the urged to drink coffee. When we ordered for it, we have to act it out that we want to have a hot coffee and not ice coffee!

Moving to more substantive issues, after we finally settled in our hotel room at 1:00 pm, my wife wanted to take an afternoon nap, but I insisted that we have to take advantage of the cool cloudy afternoon and we walked from our hotel on Ly Tu Trong Street to the Independence Palace which is just about a kilometer away. Walking leisurely on Huyen Tran Cong Chua Street towards the Independence Palace, we passed by small shops selling flowers and massage parlors with massage attendants wearing white short dresses openly sitted nay displayed in front of the massage parlor.

After a while, we met a vendor selling coconut (buko) juice. I was taken by a surprise when he suddenly talked to me in broken english advising me not to openly display my cell phone as there are lots of cell phone snatchers riding in tandem on motorbikes. But, I told myself, how can I keep my cell phone inside my pocket when I am using it as my camera! Quickly, the vendor was already rubbing my elbow with a nicely peeled cold coconut which he opened, placed a straw and offered it to us. I thought it was for free, but he told the two coconuts was 40,000 dong! I suddenly remembered the Zest-O racket of our vendors in our Manila buses! (Note: In Manila, one time, inside a bus, my daughter experienced being given a tetra pack of Zest O orange drink from a vendor without ordering and being asked to pay for it much higher than its normal cost!)

Independence Palace was the Presidential Palace during the time of South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu. We had a lady tourist guide who was speak english well. We moved around the Independence Palace with a group of tourists composed of europeans, americans, and indians with our english-speaking tour guide who explained to us that the palace was the official residence of then President Van Thieu and his family, Presidential Office where he held office, met foreign dignitaries, held social functions. The palace has several elegant conference rooms, a moviehouse, spacious function rooms, living rooms and a roof deck with a helipad. It has several basements war rooms, Presidential bedroom and radio rooms which provided President Thieu direct access to the American President during the Vietnam war. At present, it is now a tourist destination which gives the tourists the impression of how strong and mighty the Presidency of then President Thieu, which to everyone's surprise bowed to the north vietnamese forces withdrawing without being bombarded.

Posted by E. Sandalo 01:33 Archived in Vietnam Tagged lodging Comments (0)

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