Saigon : WAR

Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog

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Mario heads down under! :)

It of course impossible to visit Vietnam; to be in Saigon without one’s thoughts turning ever so often to consideration of the brutal conflict that caused so much damage to the nation and its people, most heatedly in the 1960s and ‘70s.  The so called ‘Hot War’ conflict of the Cold War military posturing between most notably the United States and the perceived geo-political threats of a “domino effect” collapse of nations into communist states in the aftermath decades of the Second World War.  Never officially a ‘war’, but a notorious and vicious ‘conflict’ carried out between the insurgent communist North Vietnamese Army of Ho Chi Minh and the U.

Bamboo spike booby trap.
S. backed and ‘supported’ Southern Vietnamese Army (AVRN).

Gray, Mario and I will today be immersing ourselves in a little taster of this bleak period of the country’s past.  A period however that from most conceivable angles can be seen to have been an ultimately victorious moment of history for the nation from which they continue to take great pride.  Social tensions and dislikes still exist benignly between the North and South of the country as a result of this shared history.  The perceived cold authoritarian seriousness of the conquering North as the South would have it set against the fun-loving, traitorous ‘puppets’ of the American Imperialists in the South as the North would have it.  Self-reliance, resiliance and tenacity are shared national character traits and long may they serve this nation well.

("This means War!") Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]

We start our day with an organised trip out of town to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels.  This area of south Vietnam was extremely hotly contested land owing to its proximity to the Southern capital of Vietnam, Saigon.  The U.S. military headquarters throughout the conflict.  The Cu Chi tunnels is a complex network of underground tunnels and rooms (more than 200 kilometres in total) that were built and utilised by the NVA (North Vietnamese Army dubbed the ‘Viet Cong’) in achieving for many years the dual objective of avoiding destruction at the hands of the U.S. and the continued military engagement and  success against the latter that the tunnels helped to facilitate.

The tunnels despite being not far from Saigon take a good hour to get to owing to the city traffic.

Arguably the definitively iconic engine of war from the Vietnam 'War' : the UH-1 Iroquois or 'Huey' helicopter.
  Entrance to the tunnels site is not usually included in your package trip there (the usual means of going and I think and about $5) and costs an additional 80,000VND ($4.50).  En route you will have a toilet break at the site of a factory for the employment of handicapped craftsmen and women who spend long days in the task of making many fine and beautiful ‘traditional’ craft products like mother-of-pearl inlaid pictures, crockery and furniture or crushed egg shell images.  Interesting and on one hand a worthy idea, but as one Australian lady saliently pointed out, with the lack of masks, ventilation and other health and safety basics whilst these people breath in fine dust and the fumes of black lacquering all day it’s arguable that the environment, long term, may do them more harm than good.
President Lyndon B.Johnson (LBJ) effectively declares war on North Vietnam.

Anyhow I digress.  Back to the Cu Chi tunnels.  It is an extremely popular and well-attended half-day trip for visitors (foreign and indigenous) from Saigon.  The site is busy.  Very, very busy.  And this does detract a little from one’s engagement with the sense of space, place and history that should be evoked.  We had a good and friendly English-speaking guide but there are so many groups of a like manner with their own guides trying to get best positions and talk the loudest and clearest that you feel a little harried and harassed moving from one spot to another about the wooded, bomb-crater pocked forests.  Hard to get a good view of the action sometimes.  Main sites include tiny, tiny ‘hidden’ tunnel entrances in the ground and an array of the many ingenious, crudely crafted and extremely painful looking weapons and ‘booby traps’ devised by the NVA to frustrate the progress of their unwitting enemy.

The infamous, imperiously destructive B52 Stratofortress Bomber.
  Generally a mechanism of the nature of a trap door with a contraption of dismembering, or disabling metal and bamboo spiked nastiness involved.  “Ouch!”.  Life for the NVA within the tunnels is illustrated too with mannequin displays and such like.

The highlight of the trip is a descent into and crawl through an accessible section of the tunnels themselves.  This is a slightly phoney experience, although very atmospheric nevertheless, as its widely known that the tunnels had to be ’done over’; widened and heightened to be able to allow physical passage of rather corpulent predominantly western visitors to the site.  The Vietnamese - my brothers and sisters in stature if nothing else - are small.  Very small.

Robert Capa : famous photojournalist died 25/05/1954 [apologies that this photo is uncredited by me]
  And these tunnels, out of necessity were suffocatingly shallow and cramped even for them.  Specialised U.S. Army units of unusually diminutive combatants had to be brought into existence and sent into disastrous military forays within the tunnels - dubbed the ‘Tunnel Rats’.

A shooting range also exists on site for the entertainment of gun-ho war junky visitors for about a minimum cost of $25 (I think?) for 10 shots with a gun of your choice.  I pass this activity by and explain - rather pretentiously but truthfully - that I consider it a privilege to live in a time and come from a country where it is not likely in my lifetime that I will ever have the misfortune to be compelled to pull the trigger of a real gun for any reason, so why start here.

The extremely posionous Agent Orange is still responsible for innumerable birth defects in modern Vietnamese society.
  Ya get the idea.

Upon our return to Saigon, gray heads off to meet a friend and Mario and I, sticking to the theme of war, head to the War Remnants museum in town (15,000VND entrance, $0.85).  This is a compact, often very powerful and moving and constantly highly informative site.  Fringing an outdoors collections of demobilised, captured American heavy duty engines of war such as tanks and the iconic UH-1 Iroquois or ‘Huey’ helicopters are a series of small but hard-hitting exhibition halls.  The first gives a blow by blow exposition of the events leading up to, during and beyond the ‘war’ in Vietnam.  Politically and militarily.  It is very sobering and enlightening to see this information presented from the point of view of the Vietnamese for a change.

  The Vietnam conflict being one 'war' where the maxim ‘History is always the voice of the victor’ does not really ring true.  The War Remnants museum goes some way to try to counteract this fact.

A war that addles the brain with its statistical complexity (and depravity) but key figures from the Vietnamese point of view include 3 million Vietnamese killed (2 million of which civilians); a further 2 million injured and 300,000 ‘missing’.  American casualties were in the region of 58,000 by comparison.  Figures for U.S. aviation bombing sorties are staggering too, a headline grabber I suppose being the staggering tonnage of bombs dropped during the ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’ campaign : 44 months / 306,183 aircraft sorties depositing 864,000 tons of bombs.

'Resiliance' [apologies that this photo is uncredited by me]
  Also from 1970 - ’73 - the (unsuccessful) 'Linebacker Raid' attempts to cauterize the NVA supply lines, the famous ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ led to 2,750,000 tons of bombs being dropped on Laos and Cambodia; more than the total tonnage dropped by the Allies in the whole of the Second World War.

The second hall entitled ‘Requiem’ for me was the most effecting as it presents the conflict through the photography of photojournalists who lost their lives during the conflict whilst contributing so profoundly to the elucidation of events in the ‘war’ before there deaths with their work.  We are talking a large number of dead and ‘missing’, the Vietnam combat theatre being the first to set what has become an increasing trend towards the precariousness of the position of the ‘impartial’ photojournalist in a conflict zone.

Chatting at the traffic lights.
  Journalists were often captured and executed by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge during their reign of terror that chronologically followed precisely from the time in 1975, the American troops having left, that Saigon was finally claimed by the NVA.  Most famous amongst the dead was probably Hungarian born U.S. photojournalist Robert Capa who died after stepping on a land mine in the early stages of the second Indochina War in 1954.  One of my favourite black and white photojournalists, the Brit Don(ald) McCullin came to great prominence through his photos of the Vietnam conflict also but survived and so his images do not reside in this moving visual epitaph at the War Remnants museum.  Tears routinely hover about my eyes throughout my time in this exhibition.
basket seller's bike.
  Black and white photography always cuts to my soul, and I can't deny it is mostly, in the first instance, from my awe at the stark and brutal honesty of black and white 20th century war photojournalism that my love of monochromatic imagery was born.

Much more disturbing, and no less moving is the information provided and images that accompany the explanation of the chemical desecration of the Vietnamese landscape and people by the U.S.  mass tonnages of defoliant sprays and bombs carpeted onto the landscape in attempts to remove forest cover for the NVA and kill off arable farming land for food supplies.  The notorious chemical agents ‘Purple’ and ‘Orange’ amongst others.  Their legacy not just scars upon the landscape that in places still exist today, but the extremely harmful effect on the Vietnamese people through mass toxicity and the cause of countless unimaginable birth defects and genetic aberrations within the future generations of the effected populace.

  This effected also including many U.S. serviceman whose task it was to handle and deploy these chemicals throughout the conflict.  It’s harrowing stuff.

Blimey!  It’s been another day of hard history and hard facts.  Tiring in its power to sway the emotions through the force of so much terrible history.  But again, as I always maintain, a necessary journey.  Travel shouldn’t be smelling and watching roses every step of the way.

The remainder of the day sees me shunned away from the Chinese Embassy (a story for another time) and Mario and I continuing to be utterly mesmerised by the monstrously beautiful, chaotic flow of traffic throughout the rush hour streets of Saigon.  We cannot take our eyes or lenses off of it!  We’ve bought tickets for $26 a head and tomorrow depart for a two day trip to the Mekong River Delta.

Skyline cables.

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Mario heads down under! :)
Mario heads down under! :)
Bamboo spike booby trap.
Bamboo spike booby trap.
(This means War!) Muju [www.muju…
("This means War!") Muju [www.muj…
Arguably the definitively iconic e…
Arguably the definitively iconic …
President Lyndon B.Johnson (LBJ) e…
President Lyndon B.Johnson (LBJ) …
The infamous, imperiously destruct…
The infamous, imperiously destruc…
Robert Capa : famous photojournali…
Robert Capa : famous photojournal…
The extremely posionous Agent Oran…
The extremely posionous Agent Ora…
Resiliance  [apologies that this…
'Resiliance' [apologies that thi…
Chatting at the traffic lights.
Chatting at the traffic lights.
basket sellers bike.
basket seller's bike.
Skyline cables.
Skyline cables.
They dont look too happy despite …
They don't look too happy despite…
Communism and Cables
'Communism and Cables'
Workers in the Handicapped handicr…
Workers in the Handicapped handic…
Artistry at the Handicapped Handic…
Artistry at the Handicapped Handi…
Cut mother of pearl patternings.
Cut mother of pearl patternings.
The rather noxious smelling black …
The rather noxious smelling black…
Going going gone! at the Cu Chi …
"Going going gone!" at the Cu Chi…
Staggering stats from the Vietnam …
Staggering stats from the Vietnam…
Village life : conflict zone style.
Village life : conflict zone style.
Say hello to my little fwend! :)
"Say hello to my little fwend!" :)
Intimidation  [apologies that th…
'Intimidation' [apologies that t…
The police can do nothing to have …
The police can do nothing to have…
Saigon rush hour.
Saigon rush hour.
Street wise? :)
Street wise? :)
Salted squid.  I tried.  I did not…
Salted squid. I tried. I did no…
Night restuarant in Saigon side st…
Night restuarant in Saigon side s…