17.08.2013 35 °C
Saigon is such an evocative name that can conjures up a thousand images in one’s mind. As I approach on the bus from Chau Doc, weaving my way through the Mekong Delta, I can’t help but imagine that great film Apocalypse Now. The early scenes in Saigon with Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) half drunk in his GI hotel room, single roof fan beating the humid air and waiting for his orders to eliminate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) up the Nung River in Cambodia.
My imagination can run wild but from what I’ve read of Saigon is that it’s now one of the fastest growing economies in the world, this city alone is driving most of Vietnam's growth at a phenomenal rate. A power house of commerce and culture which is the envy of the region and even China to the north.
The official name of this city is now Ho Chi Minh City, renamed in victory after the communist North won the war (the last one that is). Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the NVA in the North and a revered figure in Vietnam. You see statues of him everywhere with his little goatee beard. He was educated in Paris but returned to Vietnam to set up the communist resistance party in the north, at the time against the French and then South Vietnam and the US. Although this is the official name just about everyone in the city calls it Saigon and to make things more confusing officially the city centre is still called Saigon?? It’s best to just call the city Saigon, especially to locals.
As we approach it takes hours to make our way through the busy traffic and sprawling suburbs. Saigon has a population of over 10 million now and growing – it also has an extraordinary 6 million scooters!
When the bus dropped me in District 1, the most central and touristy area, I set off on foot to seek out my hotel which was apparently not far away. Evening was dropping and the lights of the city coming alive around me, with its spectacle of street stalls and flashing neon signs everywhere. I had been dropped near the centre of the city and instantly I could feel the energy and the frantic pace, crazier even than Bangkok. The scooters rushing clogging the vast roundabouts all weaving in and out, combining and recombining like a vast synchronised swimming performance, continuous movement all around giving a slight feeling of vertigo as I walked through the hot evening.
I’d settled into my hotel fine and the next evening did some sightseeing at night with my camera. I went to AB Tower to visit the famous rooftop Chill Skybar as it boasted fabulous views over downtown Saigon. They wouldn’t let me take my tripod onto the roof so I had to settle for taking some hand-held shots on a high ISO setting. They came out well enough for an impression of this city’s skyline. I image Saigon is like a young Chinese Shanghai, maybe 30 years in the past - the tall buildings covered in colour and neon, slightly gaudy like only the Chinese can do. Of course Vietnam was part of China for 1,000 years and before the Chinese were expelled a lot of their culture was adopted and flourished here.
Of course the French have left a big mark on this city too and the magnificent Opera House in the centre with the surrounding buildings are good examples. Along with that particular French habit of naming their boulevards after their generals they also attempted to recreate an Asian Paris here, there is even a cathedral modelled on Notre Dame. Some of the old American GI Hotels still stand, nestled amongst the new gleaming skyscrapers and shopping malls.
War Remnants Museum
I spent a couple hours at the War Remnants Museum which is housed in the old US Information Agency Building. In the entrance courtyard there are several old tired looking US aircraft – A huey helicopter, an old bomber and a tank all crammed into the small courtyard.
One building reproduces the "tiger cages" in which the South Vietnamese government allegedly kept political prisoners. Other exhibits include graphic photography, accompanied by a short text in English, Vietnamese and Japanese, covering the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliant sprays, the use of napalm and phosphorus bombs, and atrocities such as the My Lai massacre.
The photographs displayed on the top floor are all from war photographers who died in the field and I must say the imagery left me with a disturbed feeling for several hours after I left. Some very graphic images of results from bombing and atrocities committed by US Soldiers.
However, this place is heavy on propaganda and even the causal historian will question some of the displays. The entire place is committed to giving the impression that every US Solider (and the puppet South Vietnamese army) committed atrocities, when in fact it was a very small amount of Soldiers who went mad. If you can get past this and take it with a grain of salt then it’s definitely worth a trip as it does graphically portray the horrors of the Vietnam War.
The Vietnamese men are massive beer drinkers. In fact Vietnam is one of the world’s largest consumers of beer, the all year round hot and humid climate making a cold beer very favourable. They jokingly say here that the next top visited place of a man, besides his mother’s or wife’s kitchen, is a
Bia Hoi restaurant.
All along every sidewalk and street corner in Vietnam you will find the Bia Hoi’s, men sitting all day and night drinking in these dens often with just a white neon strip lighting the interior and large roof fans beating the air, small plastic chairs and tables sprawling out onto the street with men playing draughts or “Quatre Cent Vingt-et-un” the game famously highlighted in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American which literally means four hundred and twenty one. 421 is a dice game that is won whenever a player throws three dice that show a 4, a 2 and a 1.
I joined some men one night drinking in the Bia Hoi next to my hotel. They beckoned me over to sit with them, one of them pushing a chair out with his foot for me to sit on. They ordered me a draught Bia Hoi, one of the Hanoi Beer products that has been brewed in this country for over 100 years. They where jolly enough and quite drunk already. I managed some limited conversation using my Tarzan English and a lot of hand gesturing, however as we grinned and drank it didn’t seem to matter much and somehow I even managed to get some of their jokes.
As I think I’ve mentioned already I simply love the food of this region. I’ve been a great fan of Thai food for years but never really been exposed to much Vietnamese food. Well I can tell you it’s something else, appearing at first similar to Thai but with more range, particularly with seafood. There is so much fresh seafood all along Vietnam’s long coastline this is no surprise and it incorporates itself into just about any dish.
There are a lot of fresh ingredients used with minimal use of oil, and reliance on herbs and vegetables making for a fantastically healthy cuisine. They look to achieve this balance between fresh herbs and meats and a selective use of spices to reach a fine taste.
One of my favorable everyday dishes is Beef Pho, a staple here similar to Noodle Soup in Thailand. It’s eaten anytime of the day and available just about everywhere. Nasi Goreng is famous here too and also one of my favorites.
Clay pot cooking is popular here, particularly with fish. One evening I had Catfish cooked in a steel pot over a burner on my table. They bring it already hot and light the burner on your table, you simply add in the fresh vegetable and herbs as you like and let it cook
These trolley vendors are everywhere in Vietnam with the ladies selling small fresh Baguettes that are filled with a selection hams, herbs, vegetables and then completed with a dash of soy and chilly sauce, absolutely lovely.
Other items that are popular but I’ve avoided are various forms of Snakes Head soup and Frogs. They also eat dog and think it quite a delicacy here. You need to watch out if you bring your pet here, in fact I would advise against it. I’ve heard stories of people who have lost their beloved pets right on the street. A moments lost concentration walking your dog and a vans pulls up, man jumps out and shoves a bag over your dog then chucks it into the back and off they go, all happening very fast.
There are cases of snatched bags and cameras from drive by motorbikes, so good to keep your bag and camera safely strapped around your body. But apart from the odd tourist theft Saigon is actually quite a safe place to walk around, even at night. There is low crime in the city and you can feel safe most places. Saigon does have an active Mafia and their is an element of organised crime in the city but if you asked me to compare how safe I would feel in Saigon as compared to say London, I would say Saigon for sure but then that would go for any city in Southeast Asia compared to London.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Whilst here I had to go and see some of the extraordinary tunnels built by the Vietcong during their wars against the French and then the US so I booked a half day group tour out with 15 other tourists in a small bus with an English speaking guide. We travelled about 50 miles out of Saigon to the Cu Chi District North-west towards Cambodia.
Cu Chi is one of the largest tunnel systems built by the Vietcong with over 200km of underground tunnels and bunkers linking local villages in a network. These tunnels had three different levels and played host to barracks, medical facilities, storage rooms, classrooms, even a small movie theatre!
The District was heavily fought over during the Vietnam War and the Americans never knew the extent of the tunnel system until well after the war. The Americans had several fortified villages and bases in the area and heavily bombed parts but never managed to eradicate the threat from the tunnels. The tunnels themselves were supplied with fighters, arms and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail from the North passing through
Cambodia only 50km away, the reason the US bombed the hell out of North East Cambodia.
Conditions in the tunnels were pretty bad with air, food and water being pretty scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. The VC would come out at night and tend to local crops and because the system was networked to the local villages fighters could emerge in civilian disguise to mingle amongst the locals, and of course the villages helped supply the network, all this caused much frustration with the Americans who unfortunately in some cases committing atrocities that wiped out whole villages, men, women and children.
We arrived after 2 hours travelling and disembarked from our bus into the tourist car park surrounded by humid green jungle. This small area of the tunnel system is a designated war memorial and tourist park. They have a well signposted route around the displays and almost everyone comes with local guides.
The place felt quite haunting to me, maybe because I’d read about the history beforehand and the jungle and heat are quite oppressive. We started off by watching a video and given a lecture on the history by a local, both impressive and informative. Then onto the tunnels; there is a 100m stretch of tunnels that they have widened to accommodate more robust western physiques that you can climb down.
First our guide takes us to a concealed tunnel entrance in the floor of the jungle that is the original size and was used by fighters to jump in and hide or come out and ambush. Staggering I never noticed it was there until our guide lifted the lid which was camouflaged with dead leaves. It was small and our guide fitted his way down to demonstrate, arms raised above his head to fit his shoulders in. Then, if you want, you can have a go. A few of the small members of our group tried quite successfully, but there was no way in hell I would get my shoulders through the hole and not wanting to get completely stuck I refrained
Along the way we were shown booby traps that the VC built to ensnare and kill, or at least badly injure US Soldiers. An injured Soldier is out of the game and needs expensive Evac. They built a dizzying array of traps including Panji, Spike Board, Arrow, Mace, Tiger, Whip, Grenade and Venus Fly Traps. Most of these utilising long nails or long sharpened bamboo stakes to do the nasty work.
We then came to a section of tunnel that had been widened for us to scrawl down. Our entire group but one decided to head down the tunnel so we started off in single file procession. Once you’re in there is no turning back literally, there is not enough room to turn your body so forward is the only way. Every 20m they built in escape hatches so if you freak out too much you only need to make to the next hatch. Plus the tunnel gets smaller as you progress along the 100m length.
I jumped down into the bunker keen to see what it was like crawling along this extraordinary underground network. The going started well, enough room to shuffle along on your feet, back hunched over and shoulders squeezed together. The bottom half of the tunnel has squared corners with top half arching to a point above your head, this was to give your head room to bob along but also to strengthen the roof from bombs and you see this approach in their underground bunkers too.
As I shuffled along the tunnel got smaller and after about 60m I was on my hands and knees scrawling. It would also drop down a level suddenly requiring me to dive down head first to continue. I also noticed how hot it was getting and before long I was a dusty sweating mess. Finally I made it out the 100m and popped out much relieved into the hot humid jungle, knees and hands covered in red dust and hair mopped with sweat.
We passed a B52 bomb crater, a massive depression giving you an appreciation for how much earth must have been instantly excavated when it hit. In fact I’d noticed quite a few craters as we walked, this area was carpet bombed on many occasions and was what the Americans would call a ‘bombs free’ area meaning no US bases or friendly villages within range so can be completely flattened… the tunnels still remained functional afterwards, with some speedy repair work on collapsed sections they were soon up and running again.
1 in 200 US bombs dropped did not explode. So the VC would collect them and re-purpose into land mines and grenades. Some of the unexploded bombs would weigh over 500kg.
To finish off we were given the opportunity to fire an AK-47 or M16 at a firing range. I had to have a go at firing a Kalashinkov, the most famous assault rifle in the world. A noisy brute famous for its inaccuracy but robust and dependable and even works underwater. I managed to hit the largish cardboard target once with my allotted ten bullets and then walked away blaming the AK-47 for its inaccuracy
Back in Saigon…
One day sitting down in one of the many fine cafés around the Opera House, like I had so many days here to sip the coffee and watch Saigon go past, maybe writing some of my blog. I noticed this procession of woman approach all looking resplendent in their long colourful silk trousers, long jackets slitted up the sides to above the waste. They are probably a group of PR girls working for some hotel or bar, you see so many of them here, beautiful and smiling as they hand out leaflets trying to entice you go somewhere. The woman’s clothes in the South are full of colour, long silks or dresses printed with flowers depicting the beautiful water lilies you see in the countryside.
The Saigonese will tell you what they think of people in the North and it’s often not good, there is still resentment about being invaded here and they will often say people in Hanoi have ‘hard faces’ and don’t know how to enjoy themselves. I’ve heard that in Hanoi they think the Saigonese are too liberal and business loving and they don’t use “vâng, dạ, ạ” (additional words to show politeness in Vietnamese language when you talk to older people) or when they sometimes leave food on their plates after eating. The North are far more conservative and traditional but they also control the country and that’s the seat of power. The cultural divide between North and South is still large here. Of course what can the North do, they can hardly deny the benefits that Saigon has brought to the country through the staggering economic growth of recent years, like a runaway spouse who is tolerated but frowned upon.
I ended up staying in Saigon a lot longer than planned, does this happen to everyone who travels here I wonder. I have met so many Americans and French who have come here and stayed years, admittedly often men who find work here and end up marring a Vietnamese woman. But I’ve met western woman too during my stay, that’ve lived here many years. I met a very interesting Canadian woman, an author writing novels out here. She had been here 4 years already, falling in love with the place.
The reason I extended was because I met some great local Saigonese friends whilst here, who I will miss and certainly be in contact with after I leave. They have lived and worked in this city most of their life’s, mainly in the fashion industry and doing very well for themselves.
Particularly I’d like to thank Imma Thu Phuong for the wonderful time spent together and for introducing to me to so many of her good friends. Also for giving me such a first-hand experience of this wonderful city and its culture, from the dazzling parties and nightlife to the evenings spent on a scooter in the hot Saigon air driving around the suburbs to pick up Beef Pho and fresh grab from the street vendors to take home and eat. An experience I will never forget and something that will forever pull at me to return to this intriguing city.