Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam
10° 45' N 106° 39' E
May 13, 2008 09:30
Distance 170km

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Text written in: English

Memories of the Vietnam War

Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon). Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, May 13th - 15th.

Love the travelling here - one day it is a water taxi, the next a bus and river ferry; you really get to see the countryside and local life this way.

The first thing you note is that there are motorcycles everywhere and anywhere. I am not talking a few motorcycles here, but hundreds and hundreds. There are few private passenger cars; only trucks, buses, a few taxis and thousands of 70 to 120 CC motorcycles and scooters. In HCMC alone there are over 3 million motorcycles for a population of 6 plus million. Learned that about 1,000 people are killed each month from road accidents in Vietnam, which has a population of 84 million. As of early January 2008, helments became compulsory, so not sure how that has affected the stats. The bikes change the flow of traffic and how you approach crossing the street, as they all leave before the light changes, and each is competing with the next to get a head start. Add to that the fact that many are carrying goods, children, entire families or anything else you can imagine! It is quite a sight to be confronted with when you cross the street. Interestingly, there are no grid locks or traffic jams, so the transportation system works. The way you cross the traffic is to look forward and towards whatever direction most of the traffic is coming from, then you keep walking at a slow but constant pace. Early on, I got frightened and retreated and almost got run over. After a while, you get better at crossing and start to enjoy it. Were there high volumes of cars, this would be a different story. If I come back in five years, I am sure it will be a mess.

The second thing that is neat is that the southern part of Vietnam is one large Mekong River delta. River deltas are essentially composed of mud and silt and have many tributaries that drain into the ocean. Consequently, there are several canals, arms of riversand swamps that you cross over. It is hard and expensive to build bridges, so only once you get close to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) are there big bridges. The narrow streams or river arms have bridges, but the larger ones you cross with a ferry. Twice we had to get out of our private mini-bus, walk on to the ferry and hope our bus got on the same ferry. When the ferry unloads, you just stand back because the motorcycles, trucks and locals are everywhere and crawling over each other. Love it, it is so real and NOW travelling here.

Thirdly, the buildings are tall and narrow. In the countryside, you see three story buildings that have a high ground level floor and two or three floors above. In HCMC they are also narrow, deep and usually five or six ( but up to ten) stories high. I paced out the width of these buildings and they are between 3 and 5 metres wide. If there is a row of them, there are only windows in the front and back and no interior windows. (Like the room I have, it has a window that opens to a brick wall: strictly decoration).

HCMC has a population of over 6 million, so it is big no matter how you measure it, but it works. Traffic moves easily, streets are busy, commerce is everywhere, the people look happy, there is limited begging, the temperature is warm as opposed to hot, humidity is OK and there is no real poverty. Overall, it is one of the first cities in a long time that is fun to walk around in. This is a pleasant reprieve from other large cities I have been to in South East Asia. HCMC is only 300 years old and was largely planned and built by the French from the mid 19th century until 1950. The street are wide, and there are parks and boulevards.

Went to the War Remnants Museum. It was special to me, as I remember the war in Vietnam when I was young. The US got involved in 1963 and the war really heated up from 1967 to 1972. If you watched Walter Cronkite and CBS News there would be footage of the war on each new cast. Life magazine did several photo journalism pieces on the war, and the war was a key ingredient to the youth, hippie, counter-culture movement of the late 60’s. My father subscribed to US News and World Report, and while I was only 12 or 13, he and I read them. In the late 60’s, I read books by Abbie Hofman (book was called Steal This Book) and Jerry Rubens (Do IT) and other anti-war protestors. Restated, from the outside, I watched this war and grew up with it. To be here was a “dream” come true. I imagined the city would look bombed out or destroyed, but it is not; most of the buildings are old and standing tall. However, most of the fighting was not here but in the countryside, near Dan Nang and in the northern part of the country.

Seeing the photos of captured American weapons and exhibits rang a bell. I remember the pictures and the names: Robert McNamarra, LBJ, Ho Chi Minh, General Westmorland, the battle names and sites. Seeing this war on TV and as a youngster, following the newspapers, discussing it with some friends (most Canadians were not too interested in the war, unfortunately), reading the anti-war literature, having a war that clearly was wrong, strongly influenced me. I learned that the system and leaders could be absolutely wrong, war is evil and that our parents and their generation have an agenda which can be counter to the human condition and mankind. I remember being in grade 11 and giving a speech in front of all the students in my school as part of the public speaking final contest. The topic I chose was anti-ballistic missiles, everyone else spoke about sports and simple topics (and I lost). I went to the museum a second time with the group the next day. A moving experience for me; for others it might have been a photo opportunity.

On Thursday, I went to the War Remnants Museum again on cyclo to see more of the exhibits. The younger members of the group did not get it and were bored, and sat on a bench outside. After the museum, we took our minibus to Cu Chi. This town is 50 K outside of HCMC. Here is where the Vietcong launched their attacks on the city and area surrounding it. It is a series of tunnels and underground passages with hospitals, living quarters and whatever was required to house the literally underground army. In total there were 350 K of tunnels which connected this site with Cambodia and elsewhere. I went part way into the tunnel, but thought the better of it and turned back. The US bombed and sprayed the area with Agent Orange (defoliant). It was interesting to see the site and how determined the Vietcong guerilla soldiers were. I even got to fire a rifle with a very serious bullet in it. It was so loud it was deafening.

Had the balance of the afternoon free, and went to the 9th floor of the Sheraton Hotel for a beer (75,000 dong or $5). While I was there, a torrential rain storm hit. Life at street level did not seem to miss a beat; it was almost as though it was not raining. It rained very hard for 20 minutes and then became a drizzle; thereafter it remained damp for the balance of the afternoon.

Photos / videos of "Memories of the Vietnam War ":

Getting on to the ferry. Small town along the way. Village life.
Everyday traffic jam along the way.
All aboard and away we go. This is nothing, but it does take some time to get used to it. You see anything and everything.
US army equipment captured by the Vietcong.  Part of the display at the War Remnants Museum.
Narrow buildings.  They are between 4 and 5 metres wide and very deep. Recycling.  The building is being removed, so the locals are going through the rubble.  Here they are breaking the toilets to get the fixtures. 2,000,000 dong (or about $120).
Motorcycles everywhere. Vietnamese cyclo, a little simpler than the Cambodian version. Notre Dam church.  About 15% of the Vietnamese are Roman Catholic, because of the French control from 1850 to 1954. Motorcycle dealership area.  Everyday in Vietnam, 3,000 bikes are sold.  They cost from $1,000 to $7,000 each.
US Embassy.  This is the same site as the original one.  One of the photos that I most remember is seeing the last American fleeing by helicopter from this area on April 30th, 1975. Booby trap set by Vietcong to injure American and South Vietnamese troops. Going into one of the narrow entrances to the tunnels at Cu Chi.  I did not go any further. Another entrance to the tunnels. Captured US Army tank.
Firing a serious rifle with bullets that were at least 6 CM long.  Did not hit any target, not that I could even see it. Another entrance to a tunnel. Above ground eating area. Serious rain storm as seen from the 9th floor lounge of the Sheraton.