Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog

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People's Committee Building

Our first impression of Ho Chi Minh City was that it’s in another world compared to Hanoi. It looked to us as if it was 20 years ahead of Hanoi in organization, cleanliness and ethnical diversity. It was clear to us that the French and US presence had had an enormous impact on the financial capital of Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam and is located near the Mekong River delta.

Selling food on the streets of Saigon
Under the name Prey Nokor, it was a hamlet of Cambodia before being annexed by the Vietnamese in the 16th century. Known as Saigon until the end of the Vietnam War, it was the capital of the French colony of Cochichina and later of the former state of South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. In 1975, Saigon was merged with the surrounding province of Gia Dinh and renamed Ho Chi Minh City (although the name Saigon is still frequently used). The city center is situated on the banks of the Saigon River, 60 km from the South China Sea and 1760 km south of Hanoi.The metropolitan area which consists of Ho Chi Minh city metro area, Bien Hoa, Thu Dau Mot and surrounding towns has more than 9 million people, making it the largest metropolitan area in Vietnam and Indochina.
City life

Ho Chi Minh City began as a small fishing village known as Prey Nokor. The area that the city now occupies was originally swampland, and was inhabited by Khmer people for centuries before the arrival of the Vietnamese.

In 1623, King Chey Chettha II of Cambodia (1618-1628) allowed Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Trinh-Nguyen civil war in Vietnam to settle in the area of Prey Nokor, and to set up a custom house at Prey Nokor. Increasing waves of Vietnamese settlers, which the Cambodian kingdom, weakened because of war with Thailand, could not impede, slowly Vietnamized the area.

City life
In time, Prey Nokor became known as Saigon.

In 1698, Nguyen Huu Canh, a Vietnamese noble, was sent by the Nguyen rulers of Hue to establish Vietnamese administrative structures in the area, thus detaching the area from Cambodia, which was not strong enough to intervene. He is often credited with the expansion of Saigon into a significant settlement. A large Vauban citadel called Gia Dinh has been built, which was later destroyed by the French over the Battle of Chi Hoa.

Conquered by France in 1859, the city was influenced by the French during their colonial occupation of Vietnam, and a number of classical Western-style buildings in the city reflect this, so much so that Saigon was called "the Pearl of the Far East" or "Paris in the Orient".

Cu Chi Tunnels

In 1954, the French were defeated by the Communist Viet Minh, and withdrew from Vietnam. Rather than recognizing the Communists as the new government, they gave their backing to a government established by Emperor Bao Dai. Bao Dai had set up Saigon as his capital in 1950. At that time Saigon and the city of Cholon, which was inhabited primarily by Vietnamese Chinese, were combined into one administrative unit, called the Capital of Saigon. When Vietnam was officially partitioned into North Vietnam and South Vietnam (the Republic of Vietnam) the southern government, led by President Ngo Dinh Diem, retained Saigon as its capital.

At the conclusion of the Vietnam War, on April 30, 1975, the city came under the control of the Vietnam People's Army.

Cu Chi Tunnels - Where's Miguel?
In the U.S. this event is commonly called the "Fall of Saigon," while the communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam call it the "Liberation of Saigon."

In 1976, upon the establishment of the unified communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the city of Saigon (including Cholon), the province of Gia Donh and 2 suburban districts of two other nearby provinces were combined to create Ho Chí Minh City in honor of the late communist leader Ho Chi Minh. The former name Saigon is still widely used by many Vietnamese, especially in informal contexts. Generally, the term Saigon refers only to the urban districts of Ho Chi Minh City. The word "Saigon" can also be found on shop signs all over the country, even in Hanoi.

Today, the city's core is still adorned with wide elegant boulevards and historic French colonial buildings.

Cu Chi Tunnels - Miguel in the hole
The most prominent structures in the city center are Reunification Hall, City Hall, City Theater, City Post Office, Revolutionary Museum, State Bank Office, City People's Court and Notre-Dame Cathedral.

We left the Hotel around 8:00 on a half-day Vietnamstay tour to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels (70 km from Ho chi Minh City).

The tour guide that picked us up was a chubby, 30 year old, talkative man. As we road to the Cu Chi tunnels we talked about Vietnam, its government and its people. He told us that Communism in Vietnam was only “on paper”. In reality it didn’t exist! The people have to pay for healthcare, school, etc.

Elsa coming out of a Cu Chi tunnel
The middle-class doesn’t exist and police are corrupt. The only political party that can exist is the Communist Party and political police are always around looking for “traitors”. We were very surprised that he was so open and honest with us.

After a 1 hour drive we finally arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels which are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Cu Chi district of Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels (200 km) that underlie much of the country. The Cu Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam's base of operations for the Tet Offensive in 1968.

The tunnels were used by NLF guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters.

Cu Chi Tunnels
The role of the tunnel systems should not be underestimated in its importance to the NLF in resisting American operations and protracting the war, eventually persuading the weary Americans into withdrawal.

The district of Cu Chi is located 70 kilometers to the northwest of Saigon near the so-called "Iron Triangle". Both the Saigon River and Route 1 pass through the region which served as major supply routes in and out of Saigon during the war. This area was also the termination of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Because of this, the Cu Chi and the nearby Ben Cat districts had immense strategic value for the NLF. Mai Chi Tho, a political commissar stationed in Cu Chi describes the region as a “springboard for attacking Saigon.” He goes on to say: “We used the area for infiltrating Saigon-intelligence agents, part cadres, and sabotage teams. The Tet Offensive of 1968 was prepared and the necessary troops and supplies assembled in the Cu Chi tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels

In the beginning, there was never a direct order to build the tunnels; instead, they developed in response to a number of different circumstances, most importantly the military tactics of the French and U.S. The tunnels began in 1948 so that the Viet Minh could hide from French air and ground sweeps. Each hamlet built their own underground communications route through the hard clay, and over the years, the separate tunnels were slowly and meticulously connected and fortified. By 1965, there were over 200 kilometers of connected tunnel. As the tunnel system grew, so did its complexity. Sleeping chambers, kitchens and wells were built to house and feed the growing number of residents and rudimentary hospitals created to treat the wounded. Most of the supplies used to build and maintain the tunnels were stolen or scavenged from U.S. bases or troops.

The medical system serves as a good example of Vietnamese ingenuity in overcoming a lack of basic resources.

A group photo on top of a destroyed US tank
Stolen motorcycle engines created light and electricity and scrap metal from downed aircraft were fashioned into surgical tools. Doctors even came up with new ways of performing sophisticated surgery. Faced with large numbers of casualties and a considerable lack of available blood, one man, Dr. Vo Hoang Le came up with a resourceful solution. "We managed to do blood transfusion," Vo said, "by returning his own blood to the patient. If a comrade had a belly wound and was bleeding, but his intestines were not punctured, we collected his blood, filtered it, put it in a bottle and returned it to his veins.”

By the early 1960’s, the NLF had created a relatively self-sufficient community that was able to house hundreds of people and for the most part, go undetected by large numbers of American troops based, literally, right on top of the tunnels.

American soldiers used the term "Black echo" to describe the conditions within the tunnels.

Susana in a tunnel
For the NLF, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, spiders and mosquitoes. Most of the time, guerrillas would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels; especially malaria, which accounted for the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. A captured NLF report suggests that at any given time half of a PLAF unit had malaria and that “one-hundred percent had intestinal parasites of significance.” In spite of these hardships, the NLF managed to wage successful campaigns against a conscripted army that was technologically far superior.

We began our visit by watching a political documentary movie explaining the history of the tunnels and their importance during the Vietnam War.

My AK-47!
We then headed for the guided tour where we had the opportunity to actually enter the claustrophobic tunnels. Daniel was like a rabbit hopping from tunnel to tunnel… he couldn’t get enough. However, most of us weren’t able to enter because we were either to big or to scared.

As we walked around, seeing how they lived, the “rat traps” they used, their cunning use of American tiers to make shoes etc., we started to understand how the Vietcong had won the war. It was incredible how they used such rudimentary techniques and weaponry to defeat the powerful United States military industrial complex. In an all out guerrilla war they were able to inflict heavy damage; we couldn’t help comparing what had happened here with what currently happening in Iraq.

During the tour we had the opportunity of firing an AK-47 assault rifle! The guys of the group had been looking forward to this moment.

Delicious snake liquor! Yummy!
We could choose between various weapons including an M-16 (they didn’t have any more bullets) and various shotguns, but had our eyes were fixed on the AK-47. Each of us bought 2 bullets for 1 USD each and went to the firing range were a military officer was waiting to help us out. We put on special headphones and began to fire one precious bullet at a time. We had seen AK-47’s in movies but we had no idea that they made such a loud noise. If you weren’t using headphones your ears would hurt terribly. We had some lunch and then headed back to the city.

As we returned to Ho Chi Minh City we asked the tour guide to drop us off at the Notre Dame Cathedral at the Paris Square. We wanted to have lunch, visit the War Remnants Museum and walk down Dong Khoi and Le Loi St.

Rute and her Cu Chi hat
, finishing off at the Bem Thanh market. We had lunch in a modern Mall, ate some delicious hamburgers and drank espressos. Then we headed for the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes. Despite its anti-American message, this museum is one of Vietnam’s most popular among Western visitors because it reflects the view of the war from the perspective of those that suffered the most.

The United States spent 130 billion dollars on the war and abandoned billions of dollars worth of equipment in Vietnam. Some of it stands on the museums grounds: a 175mm cannon; an M-48 tank; and an emblematic Huey. The main hall is a monolith of granite-faced concrete suspended above an open floor.

How to make Vietnamese Spring Roll (You can Hear the AK-47's in the background)
Inside we saw gruesome photos, some of them Pulitzer Prize-winning, depicting American brutality in the war. Among them are images of the My Lai Massacre and the deformative effects of Agent Orange, white phosphorous and napalm.

The My Lai Massacre, which is little known in the US, was the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children, by U.S. soldiers on March 16, 1968, in the hamlet of My Lai, during the Vietnam War. It prompted widespread outrage around the world and reduced American support at home for the war in Vietnam.

Rute ready for war at War Remnants Museum
A U.S. Army report estimates that 347 Vietnamese were killed at My Lai.

Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, Americal Division arrived in Vietnam in December 1967. Their first month in Vietnam passed without any direct enemy contact. During the Tet Offensive of January 1968, attacks were carried out in Quang Ngai by the 48th Battalion of the NLF. US military intelligence formed the view that the 48th Battalion, having retreated, was taking refuge in the village of Song My. A number of specific hamlets within that village — labeled My Lai 1, 2, 3 and 4 — were suspected of harboring the 48th.

US forces planned a major offensive on those hamlets.

On the eve of the attack, U.S. military command advised Charlie Company that any genuine civilians at My Lai would have left their homes to go to market by 7 a.m. the following day. They were told they could assume that all who remained behind were either Viet Cong or active Viet Cong sympathizers. They were instructed to destroy the village. At the briefing, Captain Ernest Medina was asked whether the order included the killing of women and children; those present at the briefing later gave different accounts of Medina's response.

The soldiers found no insurgents in the village on the morning of 16 March 1968. Many suspected there were Viet Cong in the village, hiding underground in the homes of their elderly parents or their wives.

My Lai Massacre
The American soldiers, one platoon which was led by Lt William Calley, killed hundreds of civilians — primarily old men, women, children and babies. Dozens were herded into a ditch and executed with automatic firearms. The soldiers said they were convinced any and all villagers could be a threat. According to the report of a South Vietnamese army lieutenant to his superiors, it was an "atrocious" incident of bloodletting by an armed force seeking to vent its fury.

The massacre was halted when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., a 24-year-old helicopter pilot, landed his OH-23 and confronted Lt Stephen Brooks about attacks on wounded Vietnamese civilians hiding in a bunker. Thompson threatened to have his two door gunners open fire on American servicemen with his ship's machine guns if the attacks continued. Thompson also called in two additional helicopters to provide medevac for twelve wounded Vietnamese civilians.

The military tried to cover-up what had happened, but independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, after extensive conversations with Lt Calley, broke the My Lai story on 12 November 1969; on 20 November, Time, Life and Newsweek magazines all covered the story, and CBS televised an interview with Paul Meadlo.

National Chief of Police Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executes an NLF officer in Saigon during Tet
The Cleveland Plain Dealer published explicit photographs of dead villagers killed at My Lai. As is evident from comments made in a 1969 telephone conversation between United States National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, revealed recently by the National Security Archive, the photos of the war crime were too shocking for senior officials to stage an effective cover-up. Secretary of Defense Laird is heard to say, "There are so many kids just lying there; these pictures are authentic."

Agent Orange was the nickname given to a herbicide and defoliant used by the U.S. military in its Herbicidal Warfare program during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange was used from 1961 to 1971, and was by far the most used of the so-called "rainbow herbicides" utilized during the program.

Spreading Agent Orange
Degradation of Agent Orange released dioxins, which have allegedly caused harm to the health of those exposed during the Vietnam War, although numerous studies have shown no direct effects of exposure to Agent Orange. Agents Blue and White were part of the same program but did not contain dioxins. Studies of populations highly exposed to dioxin, though not necessarily Agent Orange, indicate increased risk of various types of cancer and genetic defects; the effect of long term low level exposure has not been established. Since the 1980s, several lawsuits have been filed against the companies who produced Agent Orange, among them being Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Diamond Shamrock. U. S. veterans obtained $180 million in compensation in 1984, while Australian, Canadian and New Zealand veterans also obtained compensation in an out-of-court settlement the same year. In 1999, South Korean veterans filed a lawsuit in Korea; in January 2006, the Korean Appeal Court ordered Monsanto and Dow to pay $62 million in compensation.
The effects of Agent Orange
However, no Vietnamese have obtained compensation, and on March 10, 2005 Judge Jack Weinstein of Brooklyn Federal Court dismissed the lawsuit filed by the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange against the chemical companies that produced the defoliants/herbicides.

An international group of Veterans from the US and its allies during the Vietnam war working together with their former enemy - veterans from the Vietnam Veterans Association - established the Vietnam Friendship Village located outside of Hanoi. The center provides medical care, rehabilitation and vocational training for children and veterans from Vietnam who have been impacted by Agent Orange.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has listed prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, multiple myeloma, type II diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, peripheral neuropathy, and spina bifida in children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange as side effects of the herbicide.

Children flee a South Vietnamese napalm strike. This picture was to become one of the most iconic of the war.

Outside other halls hold more photos, including the Requiem exhibit. All of the photos here are by correspondents who died during the conflict, including Larry Burrows, Henri Hurt, Dana Stone and Sean Flynn.

The final gallery explores the worldwide protests against the war. The most touching exhibit is a collection of medals, including a Purple Heart donated to the museum by an American army sergeant with an inscribed brass plaque that reads: “To the people of a United Vietnam. I was wrong, I am sorry.” The museum is certainly not unbiased in its representation of events in Vietnam in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Don't worry, it's just a statue
Nonetheless, it drives home the fact that civilians are the biggest losers. During the Vietnam War 5.000.000 Vietnamese were killed, 4.000.000 of whom were civilians!!! Comparatively only 59.000 American soldiers died. The disparity in deaths illustrates the overwhelming superiority of U.S. firepower. Again we were reminded that in the West we only remember the 3.300 US soldiers that have died in Iraq, but never talk about the 600.000 estimated Iraqi deaths. It’s as if the importance of a human life depends on their nationality.

We left the Museum and walked back to the Notre Dame Cathedral and Main Post Office. We took some pictures and continued down Dong Khoi St. where we were able to see the famously pictured helicopter landing pad pictured during the fall of Saigon.

War protest poster
When we arrived at Lam Son Square we turned right to Le Loi St. arriving finally at Bem Thanh market where we had the opportunity, after difficult negotiations, to spend our Dongs on presents for family and friends.

Around 19:30 we got on a mini-van taxi and decided to eat at a Brazilian restaurant. When we arrived we were greeted by the owner, who was a nice Swedish man who to our surprise knew Portugal very well and had even had a textile company in Guimarães. Since his company had closed he decided to move to Vietnam and start a restaurant business. He told us that he had traveled the world but there were 3 countries that he loved the most: Sweden, Portugal and Vietnam… what a mix! We left the restaurant and returned to the Hotel.

Walking down Dong Khoi Street

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Peoples Committee Building
People's Committee Building
Selling food on the streets of Sai…
Selling food on the streets of Sa…
City life
City life
City life
City life
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels - Wheres Miguel?
Cu Chi Tunnels - Where's Miguel?
Cu Chi Tunnels - Miguel in the hole
Cu Chi Tunnels - Miguel in the hole
Elsa coming out of a Cu Chi tunnel
Elsa coming out of a Cu Chi tunnel
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
A group photo on top of a destroye…
A group photo on top of a destroy…
Susana in a tunnel
Susana in a tunnel
My AK-47!
My AK-47!
Delicious snake liquor! Yummy!
Delicious snake liquor! Yummy!
Rute and her Cu Chi hat
Rute and her Cu Chi hat
How to make Vietnamese Spring Rol…
Rute ready for war at War Remnants…
Rute ready for war at War Remnant…
My Lai Massacre
My Lai Massacre
National Chief of Police Nguyen Ng…
National Chief of Police Nguyen N…
Spreading Agent Orange
Spreading Agent Orange
The effects of Agent Orange
The effects of Agent Orange
Children flee a South Vietnamese n…
Children flee a South Vietnamese …
Dont worry, its just a statue
Don't worry, it's just a statue
War protest poster
War protest poster
Walking down Dong Khoi Street
Walking down Dong Khoi Street
Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral
Some leftover bombs
Some leftover bombs
City life
City life
Leonor in a Cu Chi tunnel
Leonor in a Cu Chi tunnel
Cu Chi Tunnels - A trap
Cu Chi Tunnels - A trap
A Cu Chi Tunnel trap
A Cu Chi Tunnel trap
Main Post Office
Main Post Office
João in a Cu Chi tunnel
João in a Cu Chi tunnel
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
War protest posters
War protest posters
A Cu Chi Tunnel kitchen
A Cu Chi Tunnel kitchen
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
On a Cu Chi tunnel bamboo bed
On a Cu Chi tunnel bamboo bed
Cu Chi Tunnels - A typical Vietcon…
Cu Chi Tunnels - A typical Vietco…
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Left over US tanks and planes
Left over US tanks and planes
Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral
Insence
Insence
The Bridge of Love
The Bridge of Love
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
A taste of snake
A taste of snake