By complete coincidence, today was Reunification Day in Vietnam. This marked the 42nd anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the remerging of North and South Vietnam into one country. Despite it being a public holiday, the vast majority of places seemed to be open.
Most people from the tour were leaving today but there was still time to visit the Cu Chi tunnels. Located in the jungle not far outside Saigon, this network of covert tunnels famously served the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War (or American War as it is known here). On TripAdvisor they are the top individual thing to do in Saigon area and this certainly seemed to be true, judging by the throngs of Sunday morning visitors.
Our tour guide was an 85-year-old gentleman (who could probably pass for about 65). He’d lived through the days of South Vietnam and I bet he could tell more than a few interesting stories.
In a historical context, the American involvement in Indochina has famously been criticised, to say the least. Most of this condemnation is largely justifiable. However it’s hard to comprehend what it must have been like for US soldiers back in the day, many of whom would have been teenagers or drafted. The thought of jungle snipers or stepping on a booby trap must have been terrifying.
Today the tunnels have been improved to become a sanitised tourist attraction. I still couldn’t bring myself to go very far inside. Despite not being especially claustrophobic, I just didn’t fancy it. The tunnels have supposedly been enlarged to accommodate western tourists, although I’m not convinced they’re suitable for someone of my physical stature. Putting out your back in the middle of a dark and narrow tunnel would be the stuff of nightmares!
Around the Cu Chi complex are a fair few other touristy things. There are lots of souvenir stalls, a hotel, lake, and the like. Going back to my GCSE Geography days, I think this would be regarded as successful diversification! Around the tunnels is a gun rage, where those wishing to, can fire a whole range of hardcore weaponry. An AK-47 is ridiculously loud! I’ve got zero interest in guns and even if I did, I still wouldn’t fancy having a go here. For similar reasons as with the tourist gun range near the Killing Fields, it just seems poor taste to have such an activity taking place within a former war zone.
Another almost essential thing to see in Saigon is the War Remnants Museum. This is home to three floors of exhibits, in addition to some various seized American hardware (tanks, planes, helicopters, etc) outside. I’ve read a few articles criticising the one-sidedness of this museum. However Vietnam still regards the conflict as an invasion of their country. I’m sure that most Washington DC museums don’t always provide an impartial recollection of historical events, albeit perhaps in a slightly more subtle way than some of the captions here. As a slight aside I’ve noticed a lot of American tourists in Saigon, perhaps more than anywhere in Asia I’ve been. From what I’ve heard they appear to have been made welcome. Vietnamese people seem to prefer to look towards the future and as long as visitors act respectfully they will be well treated.
As with the Killing Fields and the former S-21 Prison in Cambodia, the War Remnants Museum pulls no punches in its exhibits. Inside are some particularly harrowing photographs displaying the effects of napalm and Agent Orange.
By teatime there were only two other people from the tour still around. Steve, my roommate, was flying back to London later tonight. Australian Naomi would also soon be heading off, up north in Vietnam. This was a great tour group and I’m not just saying that in case they read this blog! There’s was no attitude nor bickering, just nice people keen to see Cambodia. They also managed to tread the fine line of being sociable but not completely out of control party animals!
So it was back to being on my own again. I managed to find an excellent hostel for the next few days in Saigon, Long Hostel. Here you’re treated to the relative luxury of all-day air conditioning, nice showers, a clean daily towel, a free breakfast omelette, free printing and even two free bottles of beer each day. The rooms weren’t overcrowded either, with only four beds in a space where many other places would expect to house double that. All this for change from a fiver too!