Traces of Old Saigon

October 10, 2011

Saigon. A mere mention of the name will bring vivid imagery to the minds of many Americans, even if we have never seen the city with their own eyes. We picture surreal visions of an exotic, tense, and war-torn place that is frozen in time. But in reality, this modern metropolis bears little resemblance to the images of old. Saigon has raced into the 21st century with abandon. Vietnam's economic engine has enough skyscrapers, pollution, and urban sprawl to rival any city in the region outside of Bangkok. It may lack the charm of the old city of Hanoi, but definitely not the overwhelming number of motorbikes!

After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, Saigon was officially renamed "Ho Chi Minh City." (Many Vietnamese still refer to it as Saigon, however, so I will just refer to it as such.) As an added measure, and perhaps to leave no doubt as who is in charge now, every major street in the city is lined with flags displaying either the communist sickle or the "red flag with yellow star", which was originally used by the victorious North. The former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace was renamed "Reunification Palace", and has been magnificently preserved in time. I zipped over on a motorbike taxi to check it out for myself.

I was standing on the site where the war officially ended, after a tank of the North Vietnamese army bulldozed through the main gate. The South Vietnamese government, who had worked hand in hand with the Americans for many years, capitulated. But aside from the palace's great historical significance, I was really drawn to the kitschy 1960's architecture and interior design.

Outside of Saigon city lies another popular tourist destination related to the war: the Cu Chi tunnels. Other travelers had told me that it merited a visit, so I joined a tour bus for a day trip to the site. Our guide, Minh, spoke excellent English, and I would soon find out why: he was a translator for the Americans for seven years during the war. He told us that he took part in the disastrous Battle of Hamburger Hill, and from the way he spoke it was clear that the horrors of war were still vivid in his memory.

On our way to the tunnels, we stopped at a uniquely Vietnamese place that ended up being my favorite part of the day. The religion of "Cao Dai" was established in South Vietnam in 1926 and represents a remarkable fusion of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. During the war, adherents of Cao Dai formed their own powerful militia and opposed communist forces. For many years following reunification they were repressed as punishment. Nevertheless, the religion now counts over three million followers. Colorful Cao Dai churches dot towns and cities all over the South, but we visited the central place of worship in the town of Tay Ninh. We arrived right before noon prayers, and hundreds of the devout were streaming in to participate.

The "Divine Eye" is the symbol of Cao Dai
Witnessing the prayer rituals of the Cao Dai was an exotic experience to say the least. The interior of the church presented a colorful mishmash of architectural styles and themes. Similar to Islam, men and women were separated, and they spent much of the time in a prostrate position. Most were clad in white robes, except for some high-rank males who wore bold-colored garments. A choir-backed band played hypnotically discordant music from a balcony above the worshipers. To an ignorant observer such as myself, the combined result felt profoundly otherworldly.

I could have stayed and lingered for far longer, but the tour bus was moving onward to our next destination. Most Americans have heard stories of Viet Cong soldiers who descended into complexes of tunnels and thus became nearly impossible to defeat. Cu Chi was a hot spot in this system, and fighting raged here for years while the U.S. tried in vain to eradicate those using the complex. At the site of the tunnel area, we were first shown how guerrillas disappeared quickly underground when enemies were near. We were then pointed towards examples of some of the nail-ridden booby traps that awaited the unwelcome Americans, along with a graphic painting illustrating the gory carnage that resulted.

We also passed a destroyed American tank, a large crater left by a B-52 bomber, and a selection of U.S. bomb and shell casings. Next, we had the opportunity to crawl through a recreated tunnel, in order to get a sense of the hardship that the Viet Cong fighters dealt with underground. I could barely squeeze through on my hands and knees, and the heat was so intense that I was drenched in sweat after a few seconds. The thought of staying in such conditions for hours or days at a time while bombs rained overhead was enough to make me dizzy.

Entrance to a tunnel
I consider myself to be a peaceful person, so imagining the death caused by and inflicted upon American forces here left me very unsettled. But that was nothing compared to the despair that I would feel the following day when I visited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. Before entering this museum, I first explored the front area which houses several tanks and aerial vehicles used by the Americans during the war.

Inside the museum proper, several floors of photographic exhibits depicted the course of the war and its horrible consequences. Large black and white pictures offered vivid evidence of the pain and destruction reaped by American troops, and accompanying text told of tragedies and atrocities. Side-by-side photos of lush tropical jungle before and after napalm-bombing cut right to my heart. But the most gut-wrenching exhibit displayed images of victims of the chemical known as Agent Orange, with inhuman physical mutations and conditions that have affected not only war survivors but also their unfortunate offspring.

I was losing composure and had to skip a large section of the museum. While undoubtedly biased and propagandized in tone (no wrongdoing of the Northern forces is ever mentioned), I could not dispute the terror that my countrymen had unnecessarily and immorally sown in these lands. My heart goes out to the Americans who suffered casualties here (any the many who still suffer) in service of what they were told was an honorable mission, but the reality is that the Vietnamese fared far worse. After all, it was we who rained bombs and chemicals down on their lands, and not the other way around. And while I realized that all of this happened before I was born and I had no reason to feel personal guilt or shame, an uncomfortable truth lurked below the surface. The United States was and still is the most powerful nation on Earth. Often we have used our power to do great good in this world. But all too frequently we have unleashed our crushing military superiority to ill ends. Something toxic still exists in our culture that allows us to justify inflicting terrible violence on others in the name of ideology. The conflict in Vietnam has been over for over thirty-five years. But I left the museum with the sinking feeling that America hasn't changed as much as we'd like to think.


It would seem perfectly reasonable to assume that many Vietnamese people would feel lingering resentment towards Americans. In fact, other travelers had even warned me that I shouldn't expect a warm reception from everyone due to my nationality, or because of my accent. But I was cheered to discover that this was simply not the case. I've always believed that no matter the country in which I find myself, if I smile and give out positive energy, than others will respond in kind. That where I am from matters much less than who I am. And in Vietnam, this proved to be true to the utmost. Everywhere I went I was warmed by the smiles and graciousness of locals. In fact, never have I traveled to a more hospitable country in the world. In every guesthouse that I stayed in, the staff were extremely friendly, polite, and helpful.The rooms were always clean, and the value for the money was simply exceptional. Most importantly, I was always made to feel welcome and at home right away.  

With the lovely Ms. Hang, friendly staff member of the Hanoi Guesthouse


I was leaving Saigon with unresolved emotions over what I had just seen. But before I crossed the border into Cambodia, I decided to make a side trip to the Mekong Delta, an area renowned for its beauty but also for being the theater of some of the most brutal fighting in the war. Awaiting me was an extraordinary experience that would lift my spirits and encourage me to look at Vietnam in a whole new light. I was about to embark on an unforgettable adventure.


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