Saigon. To me a name so exotic-sounding that as a child I thought it must have been a place in a book, somewhere the BFG might have collected dreams or where Paddington bear went to visit friends. I think I was about 10 when Dad tacked a world map to the bathroom wall, and, much to my surprise, I realised Saigon was a real place (I remember being equally surprised to find Timbuktu, the Christmas Islands and the Congo- I thought the latter in particular was made up by the manufacturers of Um Bongo). When planning this trip I was terribly disappointed to find Saigon had changed its name to Ho Chi Minh City, after the much adored Uncle Ho. I understand that the Vietnamese were (and still are) terribly proud of their leader, but Ho Chi Minh City just doesn't sound as romantic as Saigon, and so, on arrival into the city, I was extremely pleased to find out that the locals still go by the old name.
Saigon was a flying visit, sandwiched between leaving Cambodia and getting to Hoi An in time for Christmas and to watch, via FaceTime, my older brother Drew marry Jo. Stepping off the bus into the city was an adventure in itself. The city has 7.4 million residents, who between them own just over 3.5 million mopeds, all of which seemed to come down the road at once, intent on knocking me over.
Laura had arrived the day before me, and with Naomi and Al from Ireland, and Ella from Australia, had explored the Cathedral and Reunification palace.
I arrived at the hostel and received a message instructing me to join this new group of friends on the top floor of the Sheraton hotel, where I would find happy hour cocktails and a wonderful view of the city lit up at night.
With just one full day to explore further, we decided to visit the Củ Chi tunnels and the war remnants museum.
Củ Chi is a district of Saigon that has a vast network of connecting underground tunnels, built during the Vietnam war. The Củ Chi tunnels are part of a larger network of tunnels running under much of the country. The tunnels were the location of numerous military campaigns and were used by the communist Viet Cong to plan the Tet offensive, a series of coordinated surprise attacks by the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong against the South Vietnamese and their American allies.
Life in the tunnels was not pleasant; malaria was rife, rats and poisonous scorpions were rampant, and food was scarce. The tunnels were a huge source of frustration for the Americans; the Viet Cong could move supplies and personnel quickly without the Americans knowing where or when they would appear. Whenever American troops did manage to enter the tunnels, they would find them rigged with booby traps and stake pits. The tunnels survived the incessant carpet bombing by the Americans long enough to do their intended job: they helped North Vietnamese fighters in the area to survive, which prolonged the war, increasing American costs and casualties up until America's eventual withdrawal in 1972.
The war remnants museum is in central Saigon and is definitely worth a visit, whatever your opinion of the US involvement in Vietnam. The museum highlights the horrors of the Vietnam war, from the intense aerial bombardment to the devastating effects of the herbicide Agent Orange. (Agent Orange contained a type of dioxin described as “perhaps the most toxic molecule ever synthesised by man” which the Red Cross of Vietnam estimates has left up to 1 million people disabled or with health problems, a figure the United States government has challenged as being unreliable and unrealistically high)
Since arriving in Vietnam, and previously in Laos and Cambodia, I have been trying to make sense of the Vietnam war, and its place in twentieth century history. I've asked hundreds of questions and yet still have hundreds more, of which I will continue to ask here in Asia and when I get to America in the summer. Because of these unanswered questions I am not prepared to give my full opinion of the conflict here. However I will say this: the Americans picked on the wrong people. They underestimated the power of Vietnamese nationalism that had built up over the years of oppression by the Chinese and French. The Vietnamese had nothing to lose against the Americans and never surrendered. This was the United States' first clear loss in a war, resulting in 58,000 American dead, costing 111 billion dollars and leaving people around the world scratching their heads, asking the question “Why?”
The time came to leave, and I was sad to say goodbye to this vibrant, bustling city that captured my imagination as a child. It had lived up to my expectations!
So long, Saigon,