Saigon : WAR
Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog› entry 133 of 268 › view all entries
It of course impossible to visit Vietnam; to be in Saigon without oneâs 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 â70s. The so called âHot Warâ conflict of the Cold War military posturing between most notably the United States and the perceived geo-political threats of a âdomino effectâ collapse of nations into communist states in the aftermath decades of the Second World War. Never officially a âwarâ, but a notorious and vicious âconflictâ carried out between the insurgent communist North Vietnamese Army of Ho Chi Minh and the U.
Gray, Mario and I will today be immersing ourselves in a little taster of this bleak period of the countryâs 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 âpuppetsâ 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.
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 âViet Congâ) 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.
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 oneâs 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 âhiddenâ tunnel entrances in the ground and an array of the many ingenious, crudely crafted and extremely painful looking weapons and âbooby trapsâ devised by the NVA to frustrate the progress of their unwitting enemy.
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 âdone overâ; 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.
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.
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 âHueyâ 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 âwarâ 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.
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 âmissingâ. 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 âOperation Rolling Thunderâ campaign : 44 months / 306,183 aircraft sorties depositing 864,000 tons of bombs.
The second hall entitled âRequiemâ 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 âwarâ before there deaths with their work. We are talking a large number of dead and âmissingâ, the Vietnam combat theatre being the first to set what has become an increasing trend towards the precariousness of the position of the âimpartialâ photojournalist in a conflict zone.
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 âPurpleâ and âOrangeâ 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.
Blimey! Itâs 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 shouldnât 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! Weâve bought tickets for $26 a head and tomorrow depart for a two day trip to the Mekong River Delta.