Our next stop was Ho Chi Minh City, renamed after the Northern Vietnamese took over in 1975. We had been led to believe that the name Saigon was a bit offensive to the Vietnamese due to the history, but fortunately, this more pleasant name lives on even among Vietnamese. They use the names somewhat interchangeably, and anyone from District 1 says they are from Saigon. The train schedules and even the airport code (SGN) still refer to the old name.
Because it is the biggest city in Vietnam, I expected it to be even more chaotic and crazier than Hanoi. That it was, but it was also a lot more built up and western than I realized, with grand tree-lined boulevards and public art from the French colonial period, and high-rise hotels and fine dining from when American money flowed there.
There were still a ridiculous number of motorbikes among the cars, bicycles, and cyclos on the street, and crossing the street was still hair-raising, but it actually seemed to me to have a little more structure than a place like Hanoi, where roads were small, traffic lights barely existed, and sidewalk space was all used up.
Still, chaos rules in Saigon, and the infrastructure still looks cobbled together sometimes, as attested by the frightening tangle of power lines along the roads.
We only got a taste of the city the first night by eating at the outdoor food stalls at the nearby market. The next morning, we went straight to the Cu Chi Tunnels 45 minutes away. Though it was in the south, Cu Chi was the site of a group of peasants loyal to North Vietnam during the war. The U.S. led many bombing campaigns in this area, and to survive, the people of Cu Chi used many guerilla warfare techniques and built an impressive network of tunnels under the jungle, complete with meeting rooms and hospitals. It made you realize how insane jungle warfare must have been for all sides. The Cu Chi people built brutal traps intended to injure enemy soldiers' legs on the theory that a dead soldier removes one enemy from the battlefield, but an injured soldier needs help and removes two soldiers or even three if both legs are injured. The traps were hidden in a dense jungle and included sharp spikes, so I can only imagine how paranoid one would be fighting there.
The bombings happened during the day, so the people there had to farm at night, and then crawl into the claustrophobic tunnels to escape enemy fire during the day. Despite repeated bombings and atrocities that killed many people, Cu Chi was never defeated thanks to the tunnels. We got to walk through one that had been widened for westerners but still felt cramped and sweaty.
We got back and went to lunch at Pho 2000, sitting at the table where Bill Clinton had lunch there in the year 2000 (commemorated throughout the restaurant). In the afternoon, we got a cyclo tour around the heart of the city and ended at the War Museum, showing history, weapons, and, primarily, pictures from the Vietnam War.
The conclusion of the day: War sucks. Seeing all the deaths and injuries to soldiers and civilians, the damage to property, and the atrocities that were committed on all sides only solidifies my belief that the best way to support troops and country is very often to oppose war.
This was our final night with our first tour leader, Tan, and with only the seven of us in the group, so there was a farewell dinner. It was a very interesting dinner and deserves its own entry, which will follow this one.
The following day, Dee and I explored some more of the city. We visited the markets and later the Jade Emperor Pogoda, and we discovered a nice neighborhood with many good restaurants and interesting shops along the way. Because we forgot our map, it took us a while to find it, but we persevered and found an interesting temple with several rooms for worship.
We met up with Rob at 4pm and walked over to the Sheraton Hotel. I had been talking for days about wanting to get a view of the entire city, and the Sheraton has an bar on the 23rd floor open to the outside. It was totally worth it to see how far the city sprawls in all directions, and we got a good sunset over the hazy skyline.
Rob and I had also been talking for days about finding some propaganda posters like the billboards posted around the cities. We hadn't found anything and had conceded defeat when, on the walk back to the hotel, Rob spied a poster at the back of a store. Success!
That night, we met our new group. We added 5 people, a young British woman, 23, fraternal twins from Australia, 19, their friend Grace, 26, and Grace's mom Evelyn. We also changed tour leaders from Tan, who is Vietnamese, to Matt, who was born in Britain but now considers himself Kiwi (New Zealand), and spends almost all of his time traveling. It was both weird and fun to add new people after having the same group for 10 days, and we prepared for our upcoming time in Cambodia.