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#50 Ho Chi Minh City – Or was it Saigon?

Our last stop in Vietnam was history-loaded Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City. There seems to be no real concensus what name should be used, even among the Vietnamese. Depending on who you talk to and in what context, you will come across both names. We had quite a full schedule here with daytrips to the Mekong Delta and the notorious Cu Chi tunnels. That is why we didn’t get to see a whole lot of the city itself. Even so, I managed to squeeze in a little sightseeing and coincidentally, François, a good friend of the family with business in China, turned out to be on a trip to Ho Chi Minh during the same time.

The country’s biggest city has a lot to offer when you know where to look for it. We didn’t. And we didn’t put the time in to figure it out, so we just stuck with some of the better-known attractions. While Barbara enjoyed a relaxed day in our comfortable hotel room, I roamed the backpacker street Pham Ngu Lao with tons of travel agencies, to figure out our program for the coming days. I found a guy with his own little office that looked trustworthy enough and I arranged both the Mekong Delta tour as well as transportation to the Cu Chi tunnels with him.

With that settled, I had some time to walk around. I visited the market, the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The latter is basically one big, grim indication that Vietnam still has a long way to go to get closure on its war history. The museum displays American war machines, inumerous photographs of people wounded by weapons, burnt by Napalm and deformed by Agent Orange. I surely wouldn’t want to justify the US involvement in the conflict, or any of the cruel war-crimes committed during the time for that matter, but waging such one-sided propaganda against a country while completely omitting the home-grown problems leading to the conflict in the first place and the cruelties committed by the Vietnamese against their own people doesn’t appear to be an ideal way to deal with the past in my view.
Not much more knowledgeable, but definitely shocked, I wandered back to the hotel.

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Sidestreet
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Walk-in hair salon
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Ben Tranh Market
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Ben Tranh
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Reunification Palace
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North Vietnamese tank that crashed through the gates of the Palace in 1975 to end the war
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War Remnants Museum
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War machine exhibition
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Mural of destruction
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More war machines
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“Agent Orange aftermath in the US aggressive war in Vietnam” – a telling introduction
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Explicit images of horror

Properly exploring the Mekong Delta would take several days. Due to the limited time available, we opted for an arranged tour that would give us an idea about the culture and the life of the people inhabiting the region as well as the landscapes. As we haven’t heard very good things about the tour we didn’t have any expectations and were ready for everything from death-defying bus rides to ferociously overcrowded tourist traps. The good news is that the bus rides were fine. The rest of the tour wasn’t spectacular, but we met a few nice people and had a fun day riding boats on the Mekong, visiting a Coco Candy factory, a fruit tasting accompanied by folklore music and being ferried up a sidearm of the river crammed with boats full of locals and other tourists. And although I wouldn’t say that it’s a must to visit the Delta, no matter what many of the tourist guides think, we didn’t feel ripped off paying 11 USD for a full day’s program either.

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Quick stop at a Buddhist temple
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Happy Buddha

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Public transport in the Mekong Delta
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Raw material for the candies
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Candy production
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Rice spirit with snakes and scorpions
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Traffic jam
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Silly tourists
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A beer with a new friend

The next day we went to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, the famous underground tunnel system about 75km outside Ho Chi Minh City which has been built and used by the north Vietnamese during the Vietnam war. As the site can get extremely crowded once the tourist buses arrive we hired a private driver for the day and made sure we would arrive right when it opens. Once inside, a guide led us into a hut where we would watch an old propaganda documentary praising the Vietnamese fighters that killed so many Americans with their traps and coming out of the tunnels seemingly from nowhere. At one point, the visitors can actually go down and squat through a section of the tunnels. After about 30 metres I had enough and took a side exit. Although they have already been slightly enlarged for the tourists, it was still very tight and way too hot. It is hard to imagine how they could work, cook, sleep and move around in these tight spaces for so long.

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Getting a slightly biased history lesson

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Vietnamese fighters recycling bombs
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Putting a good face on the serious matter
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Traps

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In the evening of the same day, François arrived in Saigon. He was visiting the local agent of the company they both work for and they arranged a room for him in the same hotel Barbara and I were staying in. Right after he dropped his bags, the agent and his younger brother escorted us to a local restaurant. The rest was simple; they ordered food and beer, we ate and drank.

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The next morning, we met for breakfast and then it was time for all of us to move on. François had a day full of meetings and factory visits and we headed to the airport. Destination: Hong Kong.

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