|Good morning Vietnam! We are now in Saigon...a small city of approx. 10-12 million people and apparently, at least 5 million motorbikes! For many of you who have travelled through South East Asia, you've all seen how many people here have motorbikes versus cars. Complete families can fit on a motorbike and you can even call an UBER bike. Many reasons contribute to their wide use--cost, of course and also because the warm climate here allows year round use in a "controlled chaos" kind of way.
It took almost 2 hours to clear immigration and passport control because we opted to get a visa upon entry. Welcome to the world of communism where inefficiency is the way of life! So far, we've found this to be ONLY at the airports as once you get out of that process (plan to show patience),the cities/towns don't project the sense of Big Brother watching over you. In fact, Saigon (which the locals prefer to Ho Chi Minh), is probably one of the most modern Asian cities we've travelled to. The modern architecture, the plethora of bank owned buildings seem to be reflective of a capitalistic economic system than a communistic state.
Here is another country that has been defined by civil war. We visited the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace to learn more about this important period in Vietnamese history. What was especially valuable was that the museum documented by photojournalists who risked and many lost their lives in capturing these sobering and horrific images of front line activity. This was not FAKE NEWS!
The Vietnam War pitted North Vietnam or Viet Congs (backed by the communist parties of China and Russia) to South Vietnam (eventually backed by the US). It started in 1953 lasting 17 years and 2 months. A total of 8.74 million military personnel served on active duty over the duration of the war. There was a total of 14.3 million tons of bombs and artillery shells dropped during the war. The total cost of the war is estimated to be $676 billion dollars. Casualties were estimated at 3 million Vietnamese and 500K US servicemen.
Our first tour was a short one to the Cu Chi Tunnels, 15km outside of Saigon City. Since it was a Sunday, the traffic congestion was actually pretty bearable. The Vietnam war started in 1955 and it was fought primarily between North Vietnam (supported by the Communist parties of Russia and China) and South Vietnam, later supported by the US. The Viet Cong started to build the tunnels at the start of the war. Their task was to create a system of underground tunnels to fight the enemy of the south and the US. Over 15 years, the Cu Chi tunnels were built by this small community of mostly farmers to a network of approximately 250km of tunnels allowing them to live fully within its network. They had dining rooms, meeting rooms, bedrooms and kitchens all contained underground. There were cleverly disguised ventilation openings built every 100 to 200 metres to resemble termite mounds to prevent detection and to protect the network. There were 3 levels of tunnels--connecting to each other and ending out at the Saigon River in case escape was needed. The 3 levels were built to protect against the effects of bombs dropped by the US...First level was 3 metres, second level was 4-6 metres and third level was 8 - 10 metres deep. The height of the tunnels were maybe 2 metres high, allowing the people to easily crawl or to run bent over. In the 1970's the local people were small and short so they could navigate through this tunnels much easier at that time. Needless to say, since both of us are claustrophobic we did not test out the tunnels! Another interesting tidbits about the tunnels, the local people could not use oil lamps because that would have sucked up necessary oxygen so they used flashlights stolen from the US soldiers and they could only cook at night to prevent smoke detection. This is how they lived for 15 years!
In additional to all the secretly built openings, they also created these booby traps to cause severe injury or even death. They used reclaimed steel from bombs dropped by the US to make grenades, landmines and weapons. They basically used what is termed as Guerilla Warfare tactics to ambush their enemy since they did not have access to an arsenal of weapons (except for a few AK47s supplied by Russia). The US started withdrawing from Vietnam beginning in 1973 until 1975. The is was impetus that led to the surrender of the south to the north on April 30, 1975.
The next day was the city tour which started with a visit to the local market. It was much cleaner than many of the markets we experienced in the other countries we have visited to date. Next we visited a few local landmarks which included the opera house which was built in 1930. The Siagon Notre-Dame Basilica is another historic building that was opened in 1880. It is currently undergoing renovations so we were unable to enter the building. There is more of a catholic presence in Siagon than any other city we have visited to date. They actually celebrate Christmas by eating lots of really good food with their families. The Post Office was the next stop on the tour and it is a beautiful building. Two things that stood out, the first is that all the pay phone booths have been converted into ATM's. The second is that there is an elderly gentleman who lives two km's from the building and rides his bike to act as a public writer. He will write a letter in Vietnamese or French for anyone incapable of doing such. He has been providing this service for many years. He apparently still has a few elderly people that use his services.
When we were in Luang Prabang we met a couple with whom we were taking our cooking class. They raved about taking a Vespa Night Food Tour through Saigon. So of course, we thought it was a must do even though it was not part of our already jammed itinerary. We each had a driver and then we had a driver for our English speaking guide. We cruised around the city on our vintage Vespa amongst all the motorbikes while checking out the underbelly of the city with these locals. We had a Banh Mi from a take out shop that has been in making these delicious sandwiches for over 30 years, to a 1940's alleyway house converted to a coffee shop, to seafood restaurant, through a "dessert" spot where the owner still manages the cash register since the 1950s and finally to a funky cocktail bar for a night cap. We got picked up from our hotel at 6:30pm and got dropped off at 11:30pm! Not only did we sample delicious food but we got to experience riding in the chaos of motorbike traffic and cruised through many interesting districts within Saigon. We would highly recommend this if you ever visit Saigon.