Ho Chi Minh © 2010 . All rights reserved.

War Wounds

My time in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the city formally known as Saigon, was unusual for a backpacker. I was supposed to be meeting a friend of a university friend from my year studying abroad in Canada. Sounds convoluted? Well it was. His name was Bac, and from the couple of brief emails I had exchanged with him I suspected he wasn’t fluent at speaking English. It started normal enough, my bus rolled into town and as I looked for my bag I was beset upon by the usual mototaxi drivers and hotel touts. After checking out a few hotels, and being stalked by a crazy lady who just seemed to randomly point at hotels and tell us to go there, then point to a different one and tell us to go there too, we dropped off our bags at some budget place that didn’t smell too bad and I called Bac. He’d arranged for me to stay with a friend of his (this is getting a few layers of friend of friends deep now), but I had already paid for my hotel for the first night and he said something about coming around to pick me up at 8 to show me some of HCMC anyway.

My HCMC guide Bac and some of his work colleges.

By this point the travel crew was starving so we went hunting for food and found our cheapest street food yet (50 cents for a tasty bowl of Pho Bo). I don’t think I’ve properly described the typical street food in Vietnam so hold with me for a slight detour. Usually it’s a noodle soup (pho) or rice (com) with some sort of meat (chicken beef or pork). My favourite was pho, and in this case there would be a little lady with metal cart with a large drum of soup off the side of the road next to some minuscule plastic tables and chairs. In general the smaller the chairs, the cheaper the food. Often the chairs would be plastic stools less than a foot high, the type you would imagine a 3 year old using to have a tea party with his teddy bears. You sit down and have one or two things to choose from (maybe beef or chicken) and then a steaming hot bowl of delicious noodle soup would be in front of you and you hunch over the table, knees up near your ears, and chow down. You could eat all your meals a day like this for about $3, and so bowls of pho became my yard stick for value (sure you might think $5 is cheap for a meal back home, but here that could get you at least 5 bowls of pho).

This building looked important, but I'm not sure what it was.

Anyway. We finished our pho and were standing around in the side alley when a Vietnamese guy rolled up next to us on a motorbike and said “Excuse me. I looking for British man, Tris”. “Bac?” I ask ignoring the fact he got my nationality wrong and then shake his hand and introduce myself after he nods. I have no idea how he found me down the side alley, and I said a temporary goodbye to Doug and the Welsh two while they were making jokes that I was probably going to get raped and would never make it back. I jumped on the back of the bike and after finding his fried Ngoc (whom I was supposed to stay with) we went out for a second dinner. This time they took me to a place to get some sort of Vietnamese pancakes that are typical of Mekong delta region in the south. It was an egg pancake that resembled the love child of an omelet and a crepe, wrapped around shrimp and bean sprouts. You put a a pile of this on a large lettuce leaf, added some mint leaves and then rolled the whole thing up. It was delicious.

After second dinner I got dropped off again at the hotel and went out for some beers with the backpackers, running into Rob and Pipper (from Nha Trang) again. Riding back through the center of District 1 (the heart if HCMH) I decided that this city was my favorite in Vietnam. Like most Asian cities it comes alive at night and their were colorful lights everywhere on the streets and parks, and loads of Vietnamese chilling out in all the parks and plazas.

Backpacker Alley by night. Cheap hotels, expensive drinks and no curfews.

Most of my time in the city was spent hopping between museums. The only one really with mentioning is the War Remnants Museum. If you have read my post on the DMZ you probably know that museums here concerning the war are extremely biased. Americans were the demon spawn of Satan, and the north Vietnamese were the shining lights of justice. This museum wasn’t any different, but it did have amazing exhibits and photography. In particular the exhibit on the effects of Agent Orange was particularly moving. It was extremely disturbing and heart breaking seeing all the photos of children born with horrible deformities due to their parents exposure to one of the most toxic chemicals ever produced. Even worse was while the effected US soldiers won a large law suit for compensation and support, the vietnamese have received nothing.

Tiger Cage
The infamous Tiger Cage from Phu Quoc island.

The exhibit on photographers who died during the war was also extremely good. These guys were the unsung heroes of the war as it was their images which captured and exposed the horror of the conflict to otherwise oblivious people in living rooms the world over, giving fuel to all the anti-war movements. There were other sections that had very confrontational photos of American GI’s holding severed heads, or piles of corpses of Vietnamese women and children with captions like Americans slaughtering innocent women and children. As awful as these are what thy don’t tell you is that women and children were also killing many soldiers in the war, and so there is a lot of grey area with regards to who were civilians. One last tragic part of the museum was the exhibit on the POW camp on Phu Quoc island where captured Vietnamese endured barbaric torture. Overall, on an emotional level I would compare this museum to when I visited the Atomic Bomb memorial museum in Hiroshima. The largest different between the two though is that the Hiroshima museum was much more objective in it’s facts about WWII.

While in HCMC I also took a day trip out to the Chu Chi tunnels. This was a 200km network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong and Chu Chi people during the Vietnam war to escape constant bombardment by Americans and to wage their guerrilla warfare. The tour also included a propaganda video which said about 100 times how good the Chu Chi were at “killing Americans”, and gave specific stories for example about a 14 year old girl who was a great Chu Chi hero for killing many Americans and destroying American tanks. It ended up sounding like subliminal messaging and any american watching would probably leave looking over their shoulder every 5 minutes. The tunnels themselves were dire. The entrances hidden in the leaves were about a 30x30cm square, which I climbed down and then had to crawl through claustrophobic tunnels about 1m high and 50cm across as bats swooped over my head. These tunnels had been enlarged to accommodate tourists too, the original tunnels were even smaller so American GI’s basically couldn’t even fit their shoulders across. On the way out I also did the obligatory stop off at the firing range and shot a few bullets from an AK-47. This was my first time firing a gun and it was scary easy to do. The sound was another matter though and 3 bullets later I felt like I had just spent 3 hours at a spinal tap gig with my head next to the PA.

Chu Chi
Jumping down into the Chu Chi tunnels.

HCMC wasn’t all depressing war stories though. On my second night I got Bac to take me to a place called Acoustic Bar, which I had heard was the happening music spot of Saigon. It was definitely a local place, not a backpacker haunt, and until my travel friends arrived later I was the only Westerner there. It was a really cool bar and they have shows every night. Basically there is an extremely talented house band (guitar, bass, keys, drums) and then 4 or 5 singers get up and do about 5 covers each of western and Vietnamese songs. I was really impressed. All the singers I saw were very talented, and their guitarist was my hero of the night. He was busting out some epic guitar solos that oozed soul rather than technical wizardry. In the night they played covers of everything from Bob Dylan to Lady Ga Ga.

Acoustic Bar
The first singer at Acoustic Bar playing Knocking on Heavens Door.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to stay till the end a I had to leave with Bac for the “meeting of the house”. He drove me half an our out of District 1 to District 7 where his friend Ngoc lived and I was to spend the night. Ngoc’s place was quite modern and his parents extremely hospitable and sweet even though they couldn’t speak any English. They kept me up till midnight asking about my family, Australia and various other things before I had to take my leave because I was exhausted. The fact they woke me up at 6am the next day didn’t help me catch up on any sleep (Vietnamese begin their days very early). For breakfast I was given a bowl of noodles with some fried meat on it that was very tasty and sort of tasted like chicken wings. As I was eating I asked what it was and it wasn’t chicken, it was frog. Nonplussed I kept eating but in the back of my mind I kept remembering a lady I saw chopping frogs in half with a machete at a street market in Hanoi. The whole experience was interesting but it was all quite a logistical nightmare as well. It would have been much easier just to stay at the hotel but I couldn’t say no after they went to all trouble of organizing it for me. In the end it was all an interesting cultural experience.

Some chickens waiting for the pot at Ngoc's house.