May 19-May 23, 2023
Day 23: Nha Trang to Saigon, Vietnam
May 19, 2023
Our short layover in Nha Trang, Vietnam ended with an early-morning bus ride. Today we were to reach our final Vietnam destination of Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
Let’s talk Saigon/Ho Chi Minh. Why the two names? Officially the city is now called Ho Chi Minh, after beloved Vietnamese leader of the same name. Ho Chi Minh lead and became victorious in the Vietnam Civil War throughout the 70’s. Though America had a strong presence, the Vietnam War was technically North Vietnam vs. South Vietnam with America aiding the South.
North Vietnam holds Nationalist beliefs and strives for a Communistic economy. They would go on to win the war and overcome the South, who desired to split from Vietnam and hold on to their more religious beliefs. America greatly disliked the idea of Communism and feared the Domino Theory. This theory, in summary, predicted the wide spread of communism from Southeast Asia to the entire world. Since communism contrasts greatly with American values they were quick to jump to the “aid” of the South Vietnamese.
With the defeat of south Vietnam and the Americans, the north Vietnamese claimed the would-be-capital Saigon and re-named it after their leader as a symbolic unifying of the country. The winners write history, so this victory is framed as a good thing amongst the public. In the northern part of Vietnam the city was referred to exclusively as “Ho Chi Minh,” and we had initially made the conclusion that it must not be referred to as Saigon any longer. However, the farther we travelled south the more frequently we heard it called “Saigon.” Once we were in the city, you’d be a fool to make the mistake of calling Saigon “Ho Chi Minh.”
Lawrence came up with a good analogy. Say the east and the west United States got into a civil war and the west won. In victory they claimed New York City and re-named it George Washington City. For the most part we all like George Washington in the U.S. He’s iconic, unproblematic, and known for being a great leader in history. But it’s still New York City. Perhaps those in California who’ve rarely-to-never been may call it by its “proper” name, but those who live there wouldn’t take too kindly to it being re-named. It will forever be known as New York, just as Saigon will always be Saigon.
The name Saigon fits the city far better than Ho Chi Minh. It’s cooler, cleaner, and more impactful. I had only known the city as Ho Chi Minh having never travelled before. In fact, I didn’t even realize Saigon and Ho Chi Minh were the same place until working our way north to south through Vietnam. It’s a sentiment that can only be explained by the feeling of physically being there. It is Saigon.
I take the time now to ramble about Saigon’s name because we honestly did nothing on the first night there. The bus trip was over 14 hours long and occupied most of our day. It was dark when we left early in the morning, and dark when we arrived.
Besides checking into our hostel and getting some food nearby the only remarkable thing we did was walk down the incredible Bui Vien Walking Street. This strip feels like Times Square and Las Vegas took acid and then had a baby. It’s the number one spot for partying if that’s your scene while traveling.
Day 24: Saigon, Vietnam
May 20, 2023
We put our first day in the great city of Saigon to good use. Starting nice and early we made our first journey to get breakfast and coffee. We finally tried the popular chain coffee shop Highlands Coffee. These things are as common in Vietnam as Starbuck’s are in the U.S.
They exclusively serve iced coffees and teas in a variety of flavors. I must say I did enjoy the flavors! However, they are more like Starbuck’s than just being a chain with numerous locations. They are also just as expensive, and overuse just as much ice. If you stop by this shop, ask for “no ice” or else enjoy your 3-5 sips of very cold coffee. I think I must’ve finished my drink in under 4 minutes, leaving me desiring more. Lesson learned! Hey at least we finally tried it out.
Next, we spent the majority of the day visiting the War Remnants Museum. We had been warned the subject matter could be a bit heavy, but honestly, I didn’t find it that hard to look at. The War Museum covers the events and effects of the Vietnam War and the American’s involvement throughout the 70’s. As you travel the 3 floors and outside exhibits, you’ll be taken on a journey through the atrocities of war told from the perspective of the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.
Exhibits include weaponry, bombing strategies, war crimes, areas of the country and villages turned into battle grounds, American and Vietnamese soldier profiles, and what I found most interesting the effects of Agent Orange.
Agent Orange is the harsh chemical bioweapon released by America to clear thick tree and plant life from the battlefield, making it easier to locate their targets through the thick brush.
Unfortunately, unknown to both American and Vietnamese soldiers alike, the chemicals used had terrible effects on those that encountered it. Not just for those who psychically came into contact with it, but for generations after as it caused their offspring to develop terrible birth defects.
Because the museum features mostly pictures of the terrible war crimes and birth defects it does make it a bit easier to dissociate from the more upsetting features of the historical center. The stories are in no way pleasant, but far less upsetting than our eventual journeys to some of the historical memorials just next door in Cambodia. (Stay tuned).
Being American also gave us a slightly more biased view. Historically speaking we were told a different story about the American-Vietnam war in grade school. That’s not to discredit the war crimes or make them okay, but it does kind of help to see the thought-process of the other side.
The War Remnants Museum was better in terms of information-giving and telling their story from the point of view of the Vietnamese people, rather than the Maison Centrale back in Hanoi. But it still had a few moments where it claimed the Americans were simply evil, blood-thirsty, killers, rather than give any reasoning for their actions or offer an objective fact-based overview.
The next day we’d see how this information contradicts itself and proves that there are 10-sides to every story with our visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Nothing is ever absolute, especially when it comes to war.
For the second half of the day, we walked through the Ben Than Market and eventually to the more French part of the city.
The Ben Than Market is a huge structure filled with vendors selling everything you could dream of. Like the markets in Hanoi, it’s as if you stuffed every corner of available space full of merchandise in a shopping mall. We had set out to walk through each aisle and explore every inch of the market, but quickly lost steam.
We left for the French part of town. Vietnam was under French occupation for much of its recent history. Up until 1954 Saigon was originally the French capital of Indochina, and its European architecture agrees. To this day the French part of the city could easily be confused with a modern European metropolis. It’s very jarring from the rest of the Asian and Indonesian influenced design that resides throughout not only Saigon city, but all of Vietnam.
Day 25: Cu Chi/Ben Duoc Region, Vietnam
May 21, 2023
We received a fantastic guided tour from Saigon to the neighboring regions of the country where the famous Cu Chi Tunnels lay. During the two-hour journey to the Cu Chi/Ben Duoc area we received some background on the history of the tunnels.
Before we arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnels, we took a pit stop in a local village known for housing the handicapped citizens affected generationally by Agent Orange. The civilians create beautiful hand painted artwork using eggshells and natural dyes. They make a living by selling these exquisite works to tourists despite their handicaps. It’s a bit of a tug-at-the-heartstrings, but I appreciate the resilience.
The Cu Chi Tunnels were used throughout the war beneath the battle grounds. They were created by connecting old bomb shelters, made for the French invasion back in 1854, together through narrow, short, passages. Over 250 kilometers (over 155 miles) of the zig-zagging tunnels have been uncovered. They have played a crucial part in the Vietnamese’s victory.
The Vietnamese used several clever and inventive ways to outsmart the Americans who treaded above the tunnels. They would make the tunnels short to better fit their physique rather than the large, stocky, bodies of the American soldiers. Booby traps, false entry ways, and knowledge about the surrounding land all helped to not only beat the Americans, but to also make them psychologically fear every step they took.
Our guide shared some incredible stories directly from his uncle, who fought in the war, about the steadfastness of the Vietnamese soldiers. It’s no secret they were brilliant on the battlefield, but this is where the Vietnamese accounts contradict themselves. According to the War Remnants Museum we had visited yesterday Americans killed everyone: women, children, and innocent farmers. If they were of Vietnamese nationality, they did not hold back. This paints the Americans in a grim light, no?
Here’s where the story changes. The quick-witted Vietnamese guerillas would wear the same uniform as the farmers. In fact, they would disguise as innocent farmers by day then climb through the tunnels and mercilessly kill by night. Do I blame these Vietnamese soldiers? Absolutely not. They were doing what they had to do to defend their country. But it’s hard to claim that “innocent farmers” would be mowed down in villages when all a guerilla would need to do is chuck their weapon to the side and claim they are just a farmer.
Okay, okay, so what about the women and children? How can you justify murdering a village full of people? War is unpleasant, there’s no getting around it. Some violence is hard to swallow. But the most horrific story that our guide shared via his uncle was that of the female Vietnamese soldiers. Women fought fiercely alongside the men on the frontlines.
The story we were told was that of a pregnant female soldier who gave birth in the tunnels and smothered her own son to death to keep him quiet, or risk giving away their location. A few days later she committed suicide out of grief. My argument for the heroic tale is that surely, she was not the first women to become pregnant during the events of the war.
I’m sure reproductive education was not incredibly detailed during that time, but by the eighth or ninth month of being pregnant you’d think she’d opt to sit out a few battles until the baby was born. Regardless, now the argument that women and farmers are innocent and being killed are sort-of thwarted. Everyone was a soldier.
And their children? They were literally being raised on the battlefield and trained from birth to fight. Children were required to learn how to shoot and service an AK-47 at a very young age. Again, it’s not wrong—they were defending their homes. But now what are U.S. soldiers to do? How are they to correctly judge who the enemy is. It’s not a morally correct decision, but it is a strategic one.
Hearing the effects of the war from the Vietnamese point of view is fascinating because there is no abjectly correct answer. There is no right or wrong; good or evil. Instead, it’s like receiving 1,000 fragments of a mirror and putting them together to create an image that looks different depending on who stands in front of it.
Day 26: Saigon, Vietnam
May 22, 2023
The first stop of the day was to the Bodhisattva Thich Quan Duc Memorial, a tribute to the Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in the middle of the street. He sat calmly ablaze, in protest of Buddhist persecution by the south Vietnamese in 1963.
Afterwards we got some lunch and waited out the rain and heat until a bit later in the day. It was a bittersweet day since it our last day not only in Saigon, but in Vietnam as a whole. The past three weeks had been the most culturally enriching and event-packed part of our travels thus far.
Having opted for non-Vietnamese cuisine the past three days we had our last meal in the form of some fabulous pho. After dinner we took one last crowded stroll down the Bui Vien Walking Street, then headed back to the French part of town where we climbed 18 stories up to a rooftop bar and got a view of the city’s skyline.
A toast to you Saigon! You were history-filled, and a worthy finale of our Vietnam adventure.