A visit to Ho Chi Minh city wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels about an hour away by bus. The tunnels were the base for the Viet Cong during the war with America and remained undetected for many years.
The tunnel entrances were camouflaged and very small, and we were able to crawl through 100m of the network to see how it felt – hot, cramped and uncomfortable. Thousands of people lived in the elaborate network and often only emerged at night time.
In Vietnam it’s very hard to learn about the history because it’s so one-sided, demonstrated quite laughably by a propagandist video we watched about the tunnels, where we were told that the Vietnamese guerrilla fighters had “a WONDERFUL time hunting and killing the Americans.” As with many historical sites in Vietnam, if you can see past that you’ll get a certain level of understanding of what happened.
The same can be said for the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh city, a large museum mainly filled with harrowing photography from the war, supplied by the American photographers who were on the front line. Some of the rooms should come with a warning and I was surprised to see adults allowing young kids to look at images of mangled or headless bodies at the feet of soldiers looking pleased with themselves.
I also learnt about Agent Orange (which I’d never even heard of), the highly toxic chemical sprayed over much of the land to destroy crops and food supplies, which killed many people in the process. Babies born of contaminated parents have a whole range of deformities and it’s still ongoing – each generation affects the next, in American and Australian veterans too.
Near to the War Museum is an area of Saigon with a distinctly French feel, home to the Notre Dam Cathedral and a spectacular post office.
The traffic in Ho Chi Minh is the worst at times, but I managed to cross the roads without being hit, sometimes with the help of nice locals who walked to my side to shelter me from harm and guided me across the road.
As I walked through a park with a friend we were stopped by a girl who asked if she could practise her English. We agreed to sit for a couple of minutes and were instantly surrounded by at least 10 others all eager to talk to us. We ended up having a right laugh with them and chatted for around 45 minutes until we got too hungry and decided to leave. They were all university students who come to the park every night to talk to foreigners and I admired their determination and willingness to learn.
At night we went to a busy road in district 1, also known as the backpacker’s area. Ordinary convenience stores become busy roadside bars serving cheap draft beer. Pull up a chair, find a space (whether it’s in an alleyway, at someone else’s table or even in the road!) and enjoy the atmosphere as you mingle with travellers and locals all there for a good time.
Before I came to Vietnam people told me I’d be robbed, scammed and cheated and that the people would be rude, but I’ve found none of it to be true. In fact I’ve had nothing but smiles, friendliness and cheery banter from the Vietnamese. What an incredible country, I’ll really miss it.