Although officially Ho Chi Minh City, there are still multiple references to Saigon around town and I find it easier to refer to it as such, so I will. I refer to Saigon as adolescent in that there was a tremendous amount of undirected energy. It struck me as wanting to grow up but was unsure about how to go forward. As with many things, time will tell.
Arriving late for a long, dark, wet rickshaw tour
One of the downsides of traveling on a group tour is the lack of control over when the bus/boat/flight actually occurs. A few of the legs on this tour had us flying midday, making it difficult to sightsee on “travel days”. In this case, our 2-hour flight from Hanoi was delayed 90 minutes, so we arrived at our hotel in Saigon when it was already dark. Regardless, we went forward with a rickshaw tour in the rain.
Diana was well covered, but, given my height, putting the cover-up to protect me from the rain basically meant I could only see straight out or down, in the dark. Putting the top down would get rain on my glasses. Accordingly, I feel I missed quite of bit of the experience. Putting it off to the next day, when we did have free time, would have been preferred for me. Moreover, the traffic is crazier on Saigon than Hanoi. Many more cars and motorbikes. The lanes are mere suggestions, with many bikes coming at us head-on in the wrong lane whenever its driver thought it expedient.
Show me the money
The streets of Saigon are a riot of color, money, and activity. The place is loud and brash. None of the civility seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia is present. There are expensive cars, hotels and shopping centers. Vietnamese communism seems to be more political than financial. By that I mean there is clearly a lot of money flowing around.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Where the country really shows its stripes are around the presentation of the Cu Chi Tunnels, the maze of tunnels built and used by the Viet Cong to wage war against the South Vietnamese Army and the Americans in and around Saigon.
There is a perverse pride taken in the discussion and demonstration of various mutilation traps constructed for the enemy (Americans). Throughout the tour of the Viet Cong encampment and tunnels, we heard live gunfire. At first, we thought it was for effect but later found out tourists could pay to fire guns on a range that was right near a concession area. Some of us felt that was in extremely bad taste.
Toward the end of the tour, I went through a short section of tunnel, which had been expanded for Western tourists. I still barely fit, given my height. Details were given about how the tunnels were too small to turn around in, so enemy soldiers entering sometimes had no choice but to move forward into a trap or ambush. The whole area is more a celebration of the Viet Cong success than a solemn representation of a difficult and brutal time in the history of the country.
Submission and repression
In preparing for the visit, I watched some of The Vietnam War by Ken Burns on Netflix. I felt it did a good job discussing how and why events unfolded as they did. Notably, the French were responsible for early failures (although they probably have a different view). Later failures largely fall on our leadership trying to save face. It is unclear to me how modern Vietnam reflects Ho Chi Minh’s vision of a united Vietnam.
Since the fall of Saigon, former supporters of South Vietnam and their progeny have been systematically repressed. Some animals are more equal than others, after all. On the other hand, this adolescent behavior is not unique in time or place amongst societies. Just about every nation has some skeletons. The difference is how many of them are still in the closet.
One man I spoke to planned to emigrate to San Jose (basically where we used to live) in 2 years. His uncle was arranging for a job where he could earn $150K/yr, an amazing salary to him. I chose not to discuss the state of chain migration or the cost of living at home. It is good to have something to aspire to.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience and learn more about Vietnam first hand. I appreciate being able to examine the current reality of life there and put my prior opinions in perspective. I may come back sometime, but, with a large world as yet unexplored, it may be a while.
What would you like to visit in Vietnam?