I chose option #1 so my introduction to Vietnam came via that place that no one really calls Ho Chi Minh City. It has had that name since 1976 and every now and then, you see the abbreviation HCMC used in newspaper and such, but almost everyone I came across still refers to it by its earlier name, Saigon. I guess this is akin to how I still refer to the place where the Dolphins regularly lose as Joe Robbie Stadium even though that name has not existed since the mid-90's. Also Miss Ho Chi Minh City would make a crap name for a musical.
After over 24 hours of flying and a late night arrival, I knew better than to try to single-handedly take on Saigon's madness on day 1. No way was I up for fighting (and most likely losing) with a map or haggling with the cab/ cyclo/ motorbike bandits. Instead, I signed up for a city tour hitting up all the highlights.
The first stop was the highly recommended War Remnants Museum covering both the Vietnamese's fight for independence against the French and what they refer to as the American War. There were exhibits on the countless atrocities committed during both wars and in a preview of what I would find in museums throughout the country, there was an very obvious slant in the telling of the stories. That, however, did nothing to blunt the heart-breaking impact of a room featuring photographs of children suffering from abnormalities caused by Agent Orange. More hopeful, was an exhibit on the impassioned global protests spurred by the war and the art that resulted from it.
We continued on to the Cholon district, described in guidebooks as being the Chinatown of Saigon. The guide deftly managed our expectations by informing us that it looked "same, same but different" as the rest of the city with the exception of a few specialty stores and temples. I did not know it at the time, but the "same, same.." phrase is so ubiquitous that every other tourist bar has adopted it as its name or at the very least printed it on a t-shirt. The temple they took us had more tourists than worshippers but was pretty representative of those in the area. You know, same same...
Our next stop before lunch (oh yes, this was all before lunch) was the dreaded shopping stop. No tour anywhere in the world is complete without a shopping stop. This one had three. The most noteworthy was the Binh Tay Market, a massive wholesale market with more crap than you shake a dong at. Note: before anyone accuses me of unnecessary perversion, I want to point out that the dong is the unit of currency in Vietnam. I swear!! I don't think a product has been invented that is not available in those aisles. Our stop was mercifully short (45 minutes) but I found myself back at this market (or one similar, it's hard to say) on Christmas day in a last-ditch attempt at gift buying.
Post-lunch, I was ready for a nap but the highlights tour continued. We went to the idyllic sounding Reunification Palace. This was once the home of the South Vietnamese president, that is until the North Vietnamese Army drove a tank through the main gate (which needless to say, was not exactly open at the time) and effectively ended the war thus "re-unifying" the country. The tank is still on display on the grounds.
The interior of the Palace, with the exception of a Ho Chi Minh shrine, looks as if it has not been touched since that fateful day. There are the offices, living quarters, a movie theater, even a casino but the dated furniture and lack of ornamentation makes it all look quite austere, as if a group of monks had decorated the place... really tacky 70's era monks.
The best part, by far, is the basement bomb shelter/ emergency Presidential office. There are maps on the walls and loads of communication equipment straight out of a time capsule. It's like walking through the set of a 60's era spy film.
We ended on the roof of the Palace, looking over the grounds. I was trying to absorb all that had taken place here, but all I could think was how the bedroom was not all that bad and perhaps if I snuck down for a few winks no one would notice. Alas, it was not to be. We still had to visit Notre Dame, a Basilica built by the French using materials imported from where else but France. It was quick, as was a visit across the street to the last stop, a colonial-era post office that appears to have been modelled after a train station.
After an urgently needed nap, the rest of the evening was spent having drinks with new friends from the tour and playing a spirited game of "spot the perv". The game is quite simple, particularly in this part of the world. You find a middle-aged, preferably overweight, white guy. If he so happens to be paired up with a young, scantily-clad Asian girl, odds are good you've spotted yourself a perv. It is disturbing how common this is.
Day #2 brought on yet another tour, this one to places farther afield. More specifically, we drove 90 kilometers to the town of Tay Ninh to visit the principle temple of a religion I'll confess I had never heard of. That religion, Cao Dai, is a blend of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism and Taoism...a"kitchen sink" religion, if you will, that originated in Vietnam and claims somewhere between two to three million adherents. The temple is simply amazing. It is a candy-colored spectacle that looks more like a set for Katy Perry's next video than a place of worship. The congregants add to the surreal scene in matching gowns: white for regular practitioners, red for Confucian priests, blue for Taoist priests and yellow for Buddhist ones. Visitors are permitted to watch the service from second floor balconies but due to the unique nature of the temple, there is much jostling for space among the tourist throngs. Still totally worth it, though...
The second (and only other) stop were the Cu Chi tunnels. These are part of a 250 km network build by guerilla fighters during the war. The tunnels traversed the Cu Chi district and sometimes went directly under US military bases. They were used primarily for fighting. In retaliation, the US bombed the area into oblivion. What remains now has been turned into a tourist attraction that when all the extras are stripped away is hauntingly effective. Tour groups are led through displays showing various booby traps devised by the guerillas; methods for disguising the entrances (tiny openings that no one with anything resembling hips could ever hope to get through); how weapons were improvised (explained via strange animatronic mannequins) and even a gun range where visitors can buy bullets and shoot US, Russian and Chinese weapons for the chance to win souvenirs. The brutality of the conditions is not really hammered home until you get a chance to crawl through approximately 150 meters worth of the tunnels. They are dark and immensely narrow, this despite being widened twice to accomodate fat-ass tourists, yet there was one part where the sides were so close that they pressed up against me. The height can not be more than 3 feet, so to get through, you must squat-walk or bend fully at the waist. Every so often, you have to either scramble up or jump down to a different level, all the while sweating like a sow in stifling heat, It was aggressively uncomfortable but I think that was the point. We knew we were only going to be there for a limited amount of time and chances were slim that anyone was going to try to kill us, but still it sucked. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like for people living under those conditions. As we were pondering this, we were led to a small viewing area showing a grainy 1967 propaganda film. In it, they showed the peaceful life of the people in the district until the Americans came in "like a batch of crazed devils". It goes on to name some "hero killers" and give their tally of American kills. Again, a bit of bias on display.
Following the tunnels, we returned to Saigon and the next day, I deviated slightly from my north-bound trajectory with a visit to the Mekong Delta. But that was not the end of Saigon for me, I returned Christmas Day to find a city bedecked in lights for the holiday.
With no tour to speak of, this gave me the chance to hang out in the park, eat street food and wander in and out of temples at leisure....
But most importantly, it gave me a chance to rest up from my time on the Ho Chi Minh trail.