I’m closing out my month of travelling with a stop in the city formerly know as Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City.
Having been to crowded, chaotic Hanoi, it was quite a surprise to arrive in a sprawling city that has a modern look to it. HCMC, with 12 million residents, shades more toward Hong Kong than Hanoi, with a number of upscale shops and fancy hotels mixed in with mom and pop establishments and the central markets common in Asia.
I am here as the city prepares for Tet, the lunar New Year, and everywhere I turn, there are workmen and landscapers preparing the public spaces for the major holiday of the year. Neon and more neon, as well as flowers galore seem to be the order of the day, and it’s so colourful.
This is the city that was the stronghold of the republic during the Vietnam War – or American War, as it is called here. In fact, a coordinated attack throughout the country during Tet in 1975 led Saigon to fall to the communists and to the U.S. withdrawal.
The war and the government’s attitude towards it are very much in evidence here at the War Remnants Museum, where displays talk about the American Imperialists, show the genetic damage done by Agent Orange – something that continues to be ignored by the U.S. government and the chemical manufacturers – and present the tiger cages where U.S. prisoners were often held. No real attempt at balance here!
Nor does one get and understanding of both points of view during a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels outside the city. These amazing underground structures were the hideouts for the North Vietnamese as they wrecked havoc on Saigon and U.S. military bases in the south. Dug deep in the ground and not large enough for us super-sized Westerners to inhabit, they were places where the guerillas ate, slept and manufactured weapons. They are dark and stuffy and a tribute to the determination of the North Vietnamese, who lived and worked here for a decade, booby-trapping the ground above the tunnels so that U.S. forces couldn’t get to them easily.
Our visit to the tunnels started with a 1967 North Vietnamese propaganda film – very interesting from a historical perspective – talking about the peaceful village of Cu Chi and how its residents were fighting back against the evil Americans and were rewarded for their kills. Egad. There was a retired U.S. Navy man in our group and he was having a difficult time not choking as the film played on.
The war is also a presence at the city’s Fine Arts Museum, an amazing colonial structure that is as beautiful as the art it contains. Many of the paintings and sculptures from the past 50 years have a war theme, whether depicting brave fighters or villagers uprooted and brokenhearted by the conflict.
Although Communism may have won the day, capitalism is very much in evidence, as a visit to the Ben Thanh Market quickly proves. The hundreds of stalls under the roof of this centrepiece sell fruits and vegetables, meat and seafood, as well as everything a tourist might desire: leather goods, shoes, T-shirts, lacquer ware, silk – you name the articles made in Vietnam and they’re certain to be on display. The hawkers aren’t shy, either. Thousand of cries of “Madam, madam, what are you looking for?” reverberate as I walk the aisles. There’s no such thing as discreet browsing!
It’s a lively place, and I’m glad the war is over so I am able to see that first-hand.