Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, as it is known to all but city officials is a city that is on the move. And am not just talking about the motorbikes that rule the streets; this is a metropolis, a city of commerce and culture, a city of energy, it is in effect a living organism. I loved this place, it has a vibe like no other and the people are not as hard as their northern city neighbor: Hanoi. We spent our last week here wandering through the timeless streets, visiting bustling markets, exploring amazing museums and historical sites, firing M-16 assault rifles, indulging in authentic food and drink and meeting genuine people who always have a story to tell. The ghosts of the past live on in the churches, temples, former GI hotels and government building's that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil, and they sit stoically next to new sky scrapers and fancy restaurants that have sprang up in futuristic defiance. However this is the beauty of Saigon; how both worlds of the past and the future blend seamlessly into one creating a unique awe inspiring atmosphere. 

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on the 22nd October at 6:30am after a long bumpy sleeper bus ride. Here the world has been up and ready since before sun rise and we a bombarded by tuck tuck drivers (taxi rivers) as soon as we get off the bus. I looked around, the sun already shinning bright and hot making me squint my eyes and I remember just looking up and seeing so much life on the move. There was so much hustle and bustle, so many people and motorbikes, so many street stalls and hawkers, all going about there daily business as they have done for years. There was a vibe here and I don't know why but I liked it. We put our backpacks on, took a deep breath and we went off in search of accommodation (which we have now become experts at) and then settled down for more sleep, which you need if you want to survive in a city like this. 
Life in the fast lane
I have never visited so many museums in my life, I was in my element. The city is full of history, you can see how it has shaped the city today. The south during the the Vietnam war was the epicenter of operations for the US forces and during the 1960s and 1970s was both volatile and absorbing. We visited the Ho Chi Minh City museum first which is housed in an impressive French 1886 neoclassical structure and is very beautiful. Like all museums here they are very one sided (towards the Vietnamese of course) but nonetheless very interesting. The exhibitions  here cover various periods in the city's 300 year history, most notably the Vietnamese struggles for independence against the French, Japanese and the USA. They also document the Revolutionary struggle and its final victory after the collapse of Saigon in early 1975. The Communists renamed the city; Ho Chi Minh in honor of their famous leader. A highlight here is the dramatic photograph of Thich Quang Duc, the Monk who made international headlines in 1963 when he burned himself to death in protest against policies of south Vietnamese President Ngp Dinh. Its a very powerful picture.

The Reunification Palace once known as the Independence Palace is one of the most fascinating places in Vietnam and somewhere I wanted to go as soon as knew I was headed there. It's significance in Vietnam and world history cannot be underestimated. The building was the symbol of the south Vietnamese Government in which hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese and 58,183 Americans died trying to save. It was here back on the 30th April 1975 that the North Vietnamese tanks rolled in crashing down the wrought iron gates-(in a dramatic scene captured by journalists and shown around the world) and effectively ending the Vietnam war. The communist forces of the North had finally won the war after over fifteen years of bloodshed. The building's 1960's architecture gives it an eerie feeling of a time stood still, as though it happened only yesterday. The rooms decor, the basement with its untouched telecommunications center, fortified bunkers, strategic maps and the US helicopter that sits  stranded on the helipad only adds to this feeling. 

The scene of one of the most significant events in history

Me outside the Reunification Palace

The lone US helicopter on top of the Palace
 We visited the Cu Chi Tunnels near the end of our stay in Saigon and spent one day exploring the famous site that has been preserved in two areas of Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. If one place symbolizes the Vietnamese's courage, tenacity and sheer determined spirit during the war, then this is it. The Cu Chi district  lies about 30km away from Saigon and was an elaborate underground tunnel system that spanned 250km. The tunnels became legendary during the 1960s when the American 25th Infantry built a base literally on top of the tunnel system. The VC lived in the tunnels and at night they could come out and pick Americans off, then dive back into the tunnels through trap doors hidden by leaves. I had an experience of going down one of these original trap doors, it was small and well hidden. It would be almost impossible to detect. The VC also built a large number of trap doors and booby traps to kill or maim American troops. I seen a number of these up close and they sent a chill up my spine. One that stays in my mind was the door trap that was a 10 foot drop on to razor sharp bamboo sticks, the damage would have been horrendous. The tunnels were deep and narrow, built ingeniously into the red clay. If the Americans found a tunnel entrance they would have to crawl into these dark narrow passages armed with either a knife or a pistol trying to breath without making a sound. 'Tunnel Rats' as they were known found this experience terrifying. When they were in the tunnels they knew that VC waited for them and at each step or turn a booby trap lay there waiting to kill or seriously hurt them. If they saw or heard what they believed was enemy they had only one chance to fire. In the compressed, narrow tunnels, the sound of the gunshot would send the man firing temporary deaf and stunned. It was a test of nerves. Fear and anxiety was constantly in a GI's mind. I went down an original 150m tunnel passage; The feeling of claustrophobia in the hot dark tunnels never left me. It was hard work and after 10 minutes underground and crawling the majority of the way I was covered in sweat. Its hard to imagine that people lived underground for years in these conditions, under constant bombardment from US planes and artillery. Our Vietnamese guide was about twenty at the time and lived and fought in the tunnels. He was living history and he told me stories of this terrible time. He said you could not move in the day for risk of being shot by US gunships that patrolled the area. He then pulled his shirt up and showed me his arm that was disfigured by a bullet whole at the elbow and then he showed me his right leg that had two bullet wounds that had ripped his calf muscle off. He was also shot in the side of the head. He explained that it happened when he was spotted by a gun ship in day light. The other men he was with were shot dead as they ran for cover, but he manged to make it back underground; he was lucky to be alive. His whole family except his dad died in the tunnels during the war. In the late 1960s the Americans used B52s to carpet bomb Cu Chi; Only 6000 out of the 16,000 people who lived in the tunnels survived the war.

At Cu Chi there is a firing range were you can fire almost any weapon used during the Vietnam war. It costs about 1 pound a bullet. I got 15 bullets and opted for the famous American M-16 assault rifle. As I approached the range someone was firing an M-60 machine gun, the noise of the weapon was so intense that my ear drums felt like they were going to burst. I put on my ear protectors and watched Laura fire a few rounds off at a target. She enjoyed every second of it and had one of the biggest smiles I have seen. I was next, I fixed the rifle onto the target put the butt firmly into my shoulder and gently squeezed the trigger. The power is awesome, the noise overpowering; It was a great experience but it left me thinking how frightening it must be to be in a fire fight with someone firing a weapon like this at you.

One of the many hidden tunnel entrances used by the VC
Inside the cramped tunnels
You better run baby, faster than my bullet
Follow the link below to watch a clip from you tube of:
Me firing an M-16 assault rifle

The War Remnants Museum was my favorite museum and we visited this near the end of our trip in Vietnam. It has a large collection of US armored vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons that are on show both inside and outside the site. It is a very impressive collection. There is also a vivid model of the prison camps and tiger cages that were used by the South Vietnamese to torturer and punish VC prisoners.  However what is different about this museum is that it tells the story about the victims of US military action and the atrocities such as My Lai that were committed by US troops. This is documented through photographs, letters, diaries and personal stories that are supported by shocking pictures of the victims of napalm and agent orange attacks. Its a very moving experience that really drives home the brutality and sufferings of war. The first floor gallery shows a collection of photographs and posters showing support for the anti-war movement. The highlight for me was the Requiem Exhibition by legendary war photographer Tim Page that documents the work of  photographers from both side. He is famous for is larger than life personality and for risking it all on the front line, almost dieing in 1969 after taking shrapnel in the head. He  is regarded as one of the all time greats for war photography and his exhibition is simply breath taking.
In front of the might of the US Air Force
An 0-1 Bird Dog -the planes used by the Ravens in Laos
In front of a Chinook Helicopter
A Tim Page Classic
'The first casualty of war is innocence'

Nikon Reflection old and New:
A Camera used by a Japanese photographer in Vietnam 1968

Next chapter: Cambodia

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