Our first impression of Ho Chi
Minh City was that itâ€™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 MekongRiver delta.
Selling food on the streets of Saigon
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 SaigonRiver,
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
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.
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
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
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 ChĂ 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
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 â€śon paperâ€ť. In reality it didnâ€™t exist! The people have to pay for
healthcare, school, etc.
Elsa coming out of a Cu Chi tunnel
The middle-class doesnâ€™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 â€śtraitorsâ€ť. 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
The district of Cu Chi is located
70 kilometers to the northwest of Saigon near
the so-called "Iron Triangle". Both the SaigonRiver 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 â€śspringboard for attacking Saigon.â€ť
He goes on to say: â€śWe 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
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.â€ť
By the early 1960â€™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
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 â€śone-hundred percent had intestinal parasites of
significance.â€ť In spite of these hardships, the NLF managed to wage successful
campaigns against a conscripted army that was technologically far superior.
our visit by watching a political documentary movie explaining the history of
the tunnels and their importance during the Vietnam War.
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 tunnelâ€¦ he couldnâ€™t
get enough. However, most of us werenâ€™t able to enter because we were either to
big or to scared.
walked around, seeing how they lived, the â€śrat trapsâ€ť 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
couldnâ€™t help comparing what had happened here with what currently happening in
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 didnâ€™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-47â€™s in movies but we had no idea that they
made such a loud noise. If you werenâ€™t using headphones your ears would hurt
terribly. We had some lunch and then headed back to the city.
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 WarRemnantsMuseum
and walk down Dong Khoi and Le Loi
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 Vietnamâ€™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
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
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.
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 â€” labeled My Lai
1, 2, 3 and 4 â€” 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
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 â€”
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 VietnamFriendshipVillage located outside of Hanoi. The center provides
medical care, rehabilitation and vocational training for children and veterans
who have been impacted by Agent Orange.
Department of Veterans Affairs has listed prostate cancer, respiratory cancers,
multiple myeloma, type II diabetes, Hodgkinâ€™s disease, non-Hodgkinâ€™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.
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.
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:
â€śTo the people of a United Vietnam. I was wrong, I am sorry.â€ť The museum is
certainly not unbiased in its representation of events in Vietnam in the
1960â€™s and 70â€™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. Itâ€™s as if the importance of a
human life depends on their nationality.
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.
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 GuimarĂŁes. 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 Vietnamâ€¦ what a mix! We left the
restaurant and returned to the Hotel.
Walking down Dong Khoi Street
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