Day 15-16: Saigon, Vietnam

by - May 13, 2011

Day One: Cao Dai Great Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnel Network

Saigon, for all of its fame, is not actually a place with loads to see.  I had two days in the city and having spoken to people, I had come to the conclusion that it could be explored in a day.  We will see how true this is tomorrow, as today I went out on a day trip to some sites around the city.  It was a full day tour and only cost $8 and was based around two major sites - Cao Di Great Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnel Network.  The two of them are around 2 hours north west of Saigon so having been picked up at my hotel we arrived there at Cao Di at about 11.30.

Cao Di Great Temple
Caodiism, which I had never heard of before, is a religion that is practiced by around 3 million Vietnamese people, mainly in the south of the country.  It is a religion that has been developed in Vietnam by merging several outside influences.  The country was occupied by the Chinese for nearly a millennium and brought Buddhism, Taoism and a lot of the social, political and ethical structures with them.  The French were the other major influence, though they were not there for quite so long.  They brought Christianity with them.  This means that Caodiism is a faith than venerates Buddhism (and the Hinduism that is entwined with it), Taoism and Christianity.  They acknowledge the influence of both the Buddha and Jesus Christ and it is incredible that they have found a way for everything to exist side by side.  There are lots of Cao Di churches around the south of the country which we passed and all of them share a brightly coloured facade and array of banners.  The buildings are the shape of churches, but the outside walls are covered with symbols and colours in much the same way as Buddhist and Hindu temples.

The temple during the service
We had an hour at the Great Temple, which was half spent looking around taking photos and half spent watching the midday service.  I have to say that the service looked a lot like what I expected it to be like in cults - there was a lot of chanting, people in robes that corresponded to a rank and an odd array of musical instruments. It was pretty mesmerizing, though I felt quite bad that their church is full of foreigners every time they want to come and pray - I got the feeling a bit that they didn’t want us there.  Still, it was a really unique experience and I would recommend it to anybody who is in the area again.

Our next stop was the Cu Chi Tunnels.  On our way to the tunnels our guide, who had acted as a translator for the 1st Airborne Division during the Vietnam War, explained to us that these tunnels were used by the Vietcong.  They were located as near as 5 miles away from a major American outpost and could provide shelter for months on end.  It was at this point that one of a group of rude Turkish people asked our guide some personal questions about his part in the war, even going so far as to question if he had killed anybody.  Our guide replied by saying that he had killed enemy soldiers, but that it was particularly terrible for him to have done so as a South Vietnamese soldier, because his family had come from the North.  He told us that as far as he knew he could have killed his own cousins, which is pretty harrowing.  It started pouring with rain when we arrived at the tunnels, so we all bought cheap ponchos.  While it was pretty unpleasant to be out in the mud and the rain, it definitely gave a sense of the real ‘Vietnam Experience’ - the idea of living in the rainforest is just to horrible to think about, let alone to be there fighting a war. 

Bamboo Trap
Our tour started by showing us a video that had been made very obviously by the government.  Is was very keen to state how the Americans were the bad guys and how the Vietcong were all just simple farmers who had no choice but to fight.  It was standard propaganda, and had to be taken with a pinch of salt, but was interesting to see nonetheless - we sat and watched the TV with a large picture of Ho Chi Minh overlooking us.  After the video we were taken into the jungle on well marked paths that snaked around B-52 bomb craters.  I don’t know if it was the rain, but all of the insects were out - especially the big cigar shaped centipedes.  They were as common as earthworms would be in England.  The guide showed us a lot of Vietcong traps - real vicious things ranging from the bamboo pit to the 'souvenir trap’ - essentially a bear trap that soldiers 'got to take home with them’.  There was a firing range there, but in the same way as at the Killing Fields, to use it seemed a bit insensitive. 

An indication of how tight the tunnels were
Our last part of the tour was the tunnels themselves.  A section had been widened for the use of tourists - they were as small as 40x30cm in some parts and the section that had been prepared for us was double that.  It was still amazingly cramped and had emergency exits all of the way along its length.  I felt quite a sense of achievement in going along the full length of it - a 5 minute crawl and I am in awe of the men and women who actually spent months on end down there.  You get the feeling that the Americans had no chance.  We saw some of the entrances into the tunnel system that were above ground and it seemed that they were little larger than letter boxes.  The Vietcong had thought of everything - they made their shoes (Ho Chi Minh Sandals) from old tyres.  Their traps were made from shrapnel and they even went as far as to build a network of tunnels which went from the kitchens to small holes above ground, so that they could cook hot food without notifying circling planes.  As were were leaving we saw a massive scorpion - further proof of just what a horrendous place it would have been to spend a long period of time.  If there had been a scorpion in the narrow tunnel as we were crawling through it, all hell would have broken loose.

As the rain really started to set in we headed back to Saigon.  It had been a worthwhile day out, but added fuel to my debate about if anybody was in the right in the war.  The methods that the Vietcong used to maim and kill American soldiers were awful, but at the same time if the Americans hadn’t been there in the first place they wouldn’t have been injured.  I had certainly gained the feeling that the war was un-winnable for the Americans and was pretty glad that the British government hadn’t joined in.  Once back at the hostel I made the most of my free Madame Cuc dinner and then found a group of Brits my age and stayed up with them and a few drinks - probably my most social night of the trip!  They are visiting the tunnels tomorrow while I explore Saigon, but we arranged to meet up for dinner when they got back.

Day Two: Central Saigon - Reunification Palace, The War Remnants Museum and Pho 2000

Having stayed up until 2am drinking my decision to get up at 8 meant that I started the day pretty exhausted. I justify this with a logic that it is better to be overworked than bored.  I had breakfast with the others and then headed out into Saigon by myself.  I was going to get a motorbike, but as I left a hostel I was waved down by a cyclo.  These are essentially a bicycle with a seat on the front and, as ridiculously touristy as I looked, they are being phased out and are a pleasant, eco-friendly tradition. 

Reunification Palace, Saigon
I arrived at the Reunification Palace at about half 10.  This was more interesting in its historical context rather than as a functioning building now, though it has won awards for architecture and I can understand why.  It was originally a French palace, called Norodom Palace, from which much of French Indochina was ruled.  When the country split in half it was the centre of the Southern Government, but was destroyed when two South Vietnamese pilots defected after take off and bombed it - causing so much damage that it was knocked down and rebuilt as 'Independence Palace’, which is what stands today.  It contains a lot of grand state rooms where the President of the South would have run not just the country, but also the war.  In the basement the radio station has been preserved to show just how crucial the building would have been.  In November 1975 the North Vietnamese ended the war as tanks broke through the gates of the palace and forced the surrender of the Southern government.  The two tanks that 'ended the war’ are still located in the grounds - the first which was the one that broke through the gates and the second which was the one containing the commander who pulled down the Southern flag.  After this it was renamed Reunification Palace, with the nation’s capital at Hanoi.  As I say, it was interesting historically, but only took me about 20 minutes to walk around.

Having got into the city centre I decided to hire a motorbike for the rest of the day.  I started by visiting the relatively near by Notre Dame church, though this was closed for a wedding. It was strange to see such a large and imposing church in the centre of Saigon, but Christianity is actually fairly big here.  The Central Post Office was contained in the same square and I popped in there to admire the French architecture and the large painting of Ho Chi Minh that looks down onto the central hall.  My next stop was the 'War Remnants Museum’ - the Vietnamese centre for the history of the Vietnam War.  I expected it to be largely full of propaganda and was prepared to take all of the exhibits with a pinch of salt, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The museum is an international effort, with exhibits about American soldiers and others that were created and are maintained by American photographers.  The images inside were horrible and while I believe pretty mcuh every word I read, you couldn’t have made the Americans seem any worse if you HAD been making it up.

The most gruesome of all of the exhibits was the 'Agent Orange’ room.  Having seen the cunning of the Vietcong at the Cu Chi Tunnels yesterday, this was a taste of what the Americans had to counter their cunning enemies.  And it was sheer brute force.  Agent Orange is a defoliant that was dropped in vast quantities on the rainforest, to strip the trees bare of leaves and make it easier for napalm bombs to burn the forest to the ground.  The chemical (not to mention napalm) is extremely hazardous and causes mutation of DNA.  As a result there are still babies being born today with MAJOR defects - where a missing limb is common place and some babies being born with no limbs, or huge tumours, or mishapen heads.  It was shocking - really shocking, and it was made all the more shocking by the fact that I have been brought up to believe that the Americans were the good guys.  I think that the owners of the musuem have cottoned onto this by writing the Declaration of Independence on the wall in the first exhibit, with the line stating the 'unalieable rights’ of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ - a line which should be an inspiration the world over, seeming totally impotent.  The Vietnamese government didn’t need to use proganda to convince me that the Americans were totally in the wrong being in their country - whilst American children were happily pursuing life and liberty during the Vietnam War, Vietnamese children were being bombed and burned and continue to live with the scars to this day.  The final piece in the Agent Orange exhibition was a letter to President Obama, from a student with only one arm and no legs.  It was a polite letter, explaining how the student had been inspired by Obama’s speeches and his tenderness towards his daughters.  He had always wanted to be a doctor, but had been turned away because of his defects. He had also been advised against having children of his own, because his DNA would probably cause his children to be born with similar conditions to him.  The letter asked why Obama’s pledge to his daughters to support their 'happiness and fulfillment’ shouldn’t apply to children in Vietnam.  I don’t think he could have any answer to that.  I think that if I had been American I would have left the museum pretty disgusted, with my opinion of my country permanently warped.  I left with no idea who the good guys are.  I didn’t take many photos because they seemed too gruesome and it seemed too insensitive, so if you are interested you will have to look it up.

Downtown Saigon
After that most sombre of museums, I headed for a few last places that were worth seeing before I left.  The first of these was the Jade Buddha Pagoda, which was billed as a superb piece of Chinese architecture, but wasn’t actually that amazing.  Another was the downtown district of Saigon, which was VERY impressive.  Of all of the cities I have been to in Asia it was this that reminded me most of the class of Singapore.  It is very much up and coming too, with new hotels and offices springing up all over the place - all with a discreet amount of Communist propaganda around.  The combination of the Hammer and Sickle next to the Marriott Hotel pretty much sums up Saigon.  The country has a free market economy, but is a one party state and frankly seems to be working pretty well.  I wonder if the Americans had seen what would have become of Saigon under the communists, they would have invaded in the first place.  My last stop was the market, but this wasn’t as good as the one in Phnom Penh so I headed back to the hostel to meet the others.

Dinner at Pho 2000
The five of us decided to do the very touristy 'Pho 2000’ for dinner.  The restaurant has become a real tourist attraction since President Clinton had his 'Pho’ (noodle soup) there on his visit to Saigon.  The food was alright, though I get the feeling it was relying a bit upon its reputation.  After a brisk walk back to the hostel to pick up my bag, I got a taxi to the station where I think the meter had been fixed as I ended up paying way over the odds - but what can you do?  I was going to spend the next 14 hours on a northbound train to the city of Hoi An.  It was my first proper sleeper train by myself - well, sharing with 3 other locals, and it was far more comfortable than I thought it would be.  I would even go so far as saying that it was enjoyable!

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