We landed in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) on Lunar New Year Eve. Lucky for us, the city was unusually quiet as many residents had traveled home to be with their families for the holiday.
With over 8.2 million residents living in twenty-four districts, Ho Chi Minh City is the most populated city in Vietnam. After traveling several months in developing countries we find a certain comfort in big cities where a Circle K, expat sports bar, and a familiar fast food joint is never far away. It is hard to believe that the first McDonald’s didn’t open here until 2014 since we came across three of them within walking distance during our stay. We also passed the corporate offices of two of my former employers and I wondered what it might have been like to work for the same company a world away.
We checked into the Roseland Point Hotel in District One, the main tourist district. The hotel was across from Bitexco Financial Tower which is the tallest building in the city and easy to spot when we are trying to find our way home! The location was quite strategic as it was a block away from Nguyen Hue Street which is a walking street filled with elaborate flower displays that attracted nightly crowds dressed to the nines for photos. We joined the rest of the crowd at midnight on our first night to watch the New Year’s fireworks display then hustled back to our hotel to catch a few hours sleep before an early morning wake up.
We couldn’t think of missing America’s biggest game so we were up at 4:30am the next morning to get a seat at the bar to watch the Super Bowl. Game On Sports Pub Saigon was broadcasting the game and was conveniently located just steps away from our hotel. By 6am the bar was packed with expats wearing their favorite team sports jerseys and eating wings. Aside from it being ridiculously early on a Monday morning, it felt like we were right back in the States. The early morning wake up paid off when one of the two boxes we picked turned out to match the final score which won us the grand prize of $4.9M Dong ($220 USD). The Year of the Monkey was off to a great start!
Ho Chi Minh City was once known as, and still commonly referred to as, Saigon. Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam and the epicenter of the Vietnam/American War. Now visitors like us come to the city to tour the war museums and learn from the past.
First, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, a 150-mile long network of multi-tiered interconnected tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The usual question of “where are you from” at the start of our tour was met with some hesitation as we told our guide Hanh that we were Americans. “Oh, you my enemy” she replied with a laugh. The next few hours she would detail the ingenious techniques the Viet Cong used to elude American troops.
At the tunnels, we learned about the multi-tied construction and saw the primitive hand tools used to dig the tunnels.
We saw many of the gruesome booby traps and heard deafening sounds from the shooting range where tourists could pay the equivalent to $1-2 per bullet to fire M16, M69 or AK47’s. While walking through the paths over the tunnels and hidden entrances, I envisioned the not so distant past when this same territory was occupied and how terrifying it must have been to be where I was standing.
We listened with great interest as we were told what it was like to live underground for months at a time under threat of bombing, ‘tunnel rats’, disease and creepy crawlers. We will never look at termite mounds the same after seeing they were used as a decoy to vent cooking smoke.
We saw the well-hidden entrance doors and squeezed through part of a dark tunnel the Viet Cong would have actually used. Now it is widened for Western tourists but still not for the faint of heart.
We saw a B-52 bomb crater and shoes fashioned out of tires to mask the footsteps as the Viet Cong moved about above ground. The tour concluded with a taste of what the Viet Cong would have eaten, boiled tapioca and tea.
The next day we were off to the War Remnants Museum. Here the courtyard was full of American helicopters, aircraft, and tanks, an unexpected site as inside depicted the atrocities American troops committed during the war.
Seeing the conflict through an alternate point of view was a humbling experience as we read exhibits with wording like American “puppet government” and “imperialists”. The museum was filled with three floors of photos showing antiwar movements from around the world, the effects of Agent Orange and Napalm both past and present as well as a myriad of other photos detailing the carnage and loss of life. We proceeded somberly through each room looking at the pictures, stories and statistics until the museum closed for lunch.
As with other war sites in Vietnam, the museum had a heavily biased portrayal of the war. Rationale suggests that there might be more behind the U.S. ‘invasion’ than the Vietnamese have visitors to believe. What’s indisputable is that both sides suffered great loss to which I am empathetic.
Visiting forty years post war, I had a feeling of senselessness when I saw communist flags and propaganda posters lining city streets from Vietnam to Laos. So many lives were lost to halt the spread of communism which still going strong.
Aside from the rhetoric at the war memorials, we encountered no anti-American sentiment from the Vietnamese people. In over three weeks of touring the country, we meet nothing but happy, hospitable and friendly people. The nation is visibly young as median age is only 30.8 years old. Like us, the war was before their time. Without a doubt, the war has had a tremendous impact on their families and homes but the Vietnamese are not holding any grudges. This war-torn nation is not looking back on the past. Instead, they are focused on work and education to build a brighter, more prosperous future.
Many Americans still think of Vietnam with prejudice and painful memories of the controversial war. I hope the younger generation will visit with an open mind and leave with a new sentiment about Vietnam.
Is Vietnam a destination that you would ever consider visiting?