First off, let’s have a geography lesson. We have wondered our whole trip why people refer to the city as Saigon and others as Ho Chi Minh City. When the North and South were divided, it was as a whole referred to as Saigon. After the war, most of the area then became known as Ho Chi Minh City when the areas became reunited. The name came from the leader who is credited with reuniting everyone. However, within Ho Chi Minh City, there are 24 districts and three of them still refer to themselves as Saigon. In this blog, I will just refer to HMC as a whole. Honestly, I have been dreading visiting HMC after visiting Hanoi. Hanoi, while beautiful and educational, was quite assaulting. It is easily the loudest city I have ever been in; with the constant construction, honking, yelling, etc. The vendors were more aggressive here and sly. The air pollution made it a bit difficult to breathe, and the amount of trash everywhere you looked was horrendous. Out of respect, I have decided to not post any pictures of the amount of trash in the cities, but I’m sure you can google it yourself. I imagined to myself that since HMC was easily double in size that it would have all of these things but worse off. Luckily, I was wrong. The city did not feel so cramped. Things were more spread out, the traffic wasn’t so bad (or I was finally used to it). People obeyed the street signs and traffic lights, and air pollution and trash weren’t nearly as bad as Hanoi. We met so many expatriates (people living outside their native country)! The craziest was when we entered a random bar and ended up sitting right next to a couple from Aurora, Colorado. Everyone that we had come across had gotten jobs to teach (not always English), and they had nothing but good things to share. We also learned that Asian children had not really heard of playing tic-tac-toe and absolutely loved and evolved it further. Down to business. We ended up staying at SG Capsule hostel. If any travelers are reading this, DO NOT GO THERE! The pictures from the website were mostly fake. They promised free amenities that were a lie. To get in, you walk down an alley and there is a glass door with SG on the outside. The owner did not answer our calls so we had to bang on the door until someone finally let us in. There is a number padlock on the door that way too many people have the code to. You walk in and there is a row of beds two feet in front of you, and roughly five feet to the left are a few more beds and two feet behind that are the toilets. Whatever you do in that bathroom, we will all hear. The owner lived in one of the beds along with her friend who kept the place “clean”. However, he would let his friends in at all hours of the night turn on all of the lights which was terrible because the curtains did not completely close around you, and they were insanely loud. There were a few thefts, though we were lucky and it was not our stuff. The only good thing about the hostel is the location, but honestly spend an extra buck or two and go elsewhere. I did learn that after 30 years I have apparently been wearing earbuds wrong my whole life. The nightlife here was incredible. We found a Central Market outdoor that had easily 30 different stalls to eat from. We ended up drinking enough beer to be brave enough to volunteer in a pinata contest! We won free food and beer! Ten yards down the same street is a large indoor market (Ben Thanh) with a few hundred goods stalls and some food stalls. During the day the clothing and other goods were insanely cheap, and they would haggle for even less. My walk away game is on point. At night these stalls would move their goods out on the streets and hike their prices way up. A dress I looked at during the day was 120,000 dom ($4), and at night that same dress was 900,000 dom (roughly $20). So don’t buy at night. I bought a banana dress! The food here was quite similar except for a few changes. For example, northern Pho is not served with greens and lime, but southern Vietnam does do this. This city is split between the cheaper side and the wealthy side. The architecture left from the French can be found on the wealthier side, along with some amazing rooftop restaurants and bars. There is also a strip over in this area where the street will be closed down for traditional dance shows and other things.
For tourist attractions, there is the American War museum (as we know it the Vietnam War), the Independence Palace and Cu Chi Tunnels. There is a Ho Chi Minh Museum, but we visited one in Hanoi so we skipped it. For the Cu Chi Tunnels, I would recommend doing a tour. The drive alone takes about two hours. For the tour, it is $7 with the transportation and English speaking guide included. You do have to pay the entrance fee, but that is only 110,000 dom. This was an amazing experience. They have on display about seven different traps the Vietnamese used, almost all of them containing sharpened metal bars that were somehow hidden in the ground. The most frightening was a five-foot deep dug out hole with sharpened bamboo hidden by a false door that resembled the earth. Sometimes the Vietnamese would have to live in their tunnels underground for a few days to a few weeks so they built air shafts. They would use bamboo to push through the ground, then cover with dirt mounts leaving the bamboo endings slightly exposed. Their body odor would inevitably allow Americans to find them using dogs so the Vietnamese started putting chilies and spices to mess with the dog’s ability to locate them. However, the chili would cause the dogs to sneeze which the American’s learned was another way to locate a tunnel entrance. The Vietnamese had a tunnel that led under one of the American bases, so they would sneak out at night, steal clothing and cigarette butts from the American base and leave them around their ventilation shafts. That way when the dogs came near, they would only smell the odors of the Americans. While we are walking through the jungle learning of these traps and tunnels, there is a gun range nearby where visitors can shoot the guns used in the war. To hear the guns going off nearby while hearing the stories of the soldiers made for a realistic vision. We then went to the gun range where Walter shot an M1 and we had a quick lunch. Afterward, it was time for a walk in the tunnels. The tunnels were so small we had to walk in a squat position the entire time. Every 20-40 meters we would come to a bunker where we could do a standing stretch before continuing on. Without our camera lights, the tunnels were absolutely pitch black. No light whatsoever. The guide informed us that the tunnels had actually been widened to accommodate the size of the tourists. In reality, the tunnels used to only be no taller than 80 centimeters and no wider than 50 centimeters. The Asian population then was quite small. They would have to army crawl through these tunnels to get to the bunkers. Americans could not fit, so they would enlist the help of the Chinese or French (someone smaller) to crawl in a bit and look for signs of life. The soldiers also had to cook without having a smoke so their diet mostly consisted of rice and taro root. The war lasted 20 years. 20 years living like this! We visited the Independence Palace, but it only takes about an hour to do. There isn’t much to learn in the palace itself, but there is an Exhibit building next door that is more educational. The American War museum is a must-see when visiting HMC. I will warn you though, nothing here is censored. When you arrive the entrance fee is 30,000 I believe, and you need to start at the top floor and work your way down. For this war they allowed more than 200 photographers to be on the front line and capture everything they could. There are pictures of bodies in the aftermath of explosions, shootings, and mass murder events. I had to leave the room a few times. On the next floor, you will find a room for Agent Orange and Phosphorus gas atrocities along with pictures of the aftermath of that current exposure and the next few generations of deformed descendants. Once again, it was quite difficult to take in all at once. The next room is for weapons used in the war and the costs of everything. The lower level is mostly excerpts from Americans that had fought in the war. Once outside you can walk through a mock set up of the imprisonment structures that were used to hold Vietnamese soldiers. Most of these involved barbed wire. This museum has to be the most heart wrenching educational experiences I have ever gone through. I’ve spent time working with a medical examiner performing autopsies, but this visit left me with heavy thoughts and a knotted stomach. There was a memoir that was seemingly recommended in one of the rooms in the museum, In Retrospect the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam by Robert McNamara. Overall I enjoyed HMC way more than I thought I would. Along our journey through Vietnam, more than once I was told that HMC was worse than Hanoi. People see things so differently these days. I do love receiving advice from fellow travelers, but I don’t think I would ever truly take their words to heart. If I had listened to what everyone was saying, I would have missed out on some truly memorable experiences.
Pictured above: The shooting range and all of the shells afterwards. An example of getting into a tunnel from above ground. An open area of woods that was the result of a bomb blast. A sharpened bamboo false door trap.
Pictured above: tanks, weapons, and killing devices from the American War museum. LED screen filled with pictures of some missing in action or killed photographers on the front lines.
Pictured above: Meeting and reception halls of the Independence Palace.