After my successful and stress free crossing into Vietnam, I arrived at Ho Chi Minh City feeling as though the best was definitely yet to come.
I stayed at the Ngoc Thoc Guesthouse which is run by a rather lovely lady and her family. They organised my tours and transport whilst I was in Ho Chi Minh. The hostel is clean and the family is friendly to a fault. I had a very pleasant few nights there.
I organised a half day tour to Cu Chi tunnels with my hostel. It cost me $5 (excluding the 90000 dong entrance fee to the tunnels) and I think it was good value. I got collected from my hostel and was amused by the tour guide for most of the day. The tunnels are a few hours drive outside of Ho Chi Minh City but you go through some good countryside on the way so it doesn’t feel too torturous.
When we arrived at the tunnels, we were pretty much herded to a movie room where we were shown a film about how and why Cu Chi became the centre for guerilla forces (a.k.a. the Viet Kong). There was a cut away showing the different levels of tunnels that people lived in during the war inside the movie room. You can see it below.
There were three levels. Level one was approximately three metres underground. Level two was approximately seven metres underground. The deepest level was approximately ten metres underground. Each room in the tunnel system had was specific use. There were rooms for sleeping, cooking, washing, eating, weapon making/repairing and strategising (I’ve probably missed some too). The tunnels were ventilated and several thousand people survived living in them for many years.
The tunnels were incredibly well disguised and entrances were difficult to spot. Here’s an example of a hidden entrance. You can see our tour guide demonstrating how the guerilla fighters could seemingly vanish into the ground.
The tunnels are very narrow and the secret entrances even more so. Had an entrance been discovered by western forces, I don’t think they could have got their hips/shoulders into the holes!
Some of the tunnels have been widened to accommodate tourists and there is a section 140 metres long that you can scramble through. It was quite surreal to think that people had lived, married, reproduced and died in the same tunnels less than 50 years ago but that now, tourists were making their way through them in droves.
The tour of the tunnels also covered the kinds of booby traps that were set in the forest by guerilla forces in Cu Chi. Some of them really make you wince and it’s easy to think them overly brutal but these guerilla fighters were mostly farmers and villagers unwilling to sacrifice their land. They were utilising every resource they could to keep their families and homes safe.
The Cu Chi tunnels is an interesting look into how and why guerilla forces functioned in the Vietnam war. I would say it’s worth going for a look if you can get a tour for less than $6-7. Our tour bus dropped us off at the War Remnants Museum on the way back.
Some of the images from the War Remnants Museum I have used are very graphic and upsetting. Consider this your opportunity to stop reading. No nasty comments will be approved. You’ve been notified.
There are large examples of war outside the museum building in the form of helicopters, planes and tanks. You can see below a chinook helicopter used by the USA during the war in Vietnam.
Here is a tank, again used by the USA, and a close up of the tread. You can see from the gouges and general missing tread that the tank has definitely seen a fair share of ‘action’.
Once you get inside the museum, the exhibits are smaller. You’ll find mostly pictures, documentation, maps, timelines and fact sheet type displays. Some of the photos I saw reduced me to tears. Here’s an example of one of them. I chose to show this photo as I think it shows just how scarring war is for those who died and those who survived be they soldiers, family or bystanders.
The sheer brutality applied during the war in Vietnam is incomprehensible. I realise that, as the museum is in Vietnam, it’s probably a more one sided view than is healthy but the facts and images I saw were not photo shopped or embellished in any way. They were very concise and to the point. When exhibiting about a village massacred by US special forces, the display simply stated how many men, women and children had been killed. That’s all. Just a body count. Maybe there is no extra explanation they can give for the deaths as it’s never been understood why the village was targeted. I don’t know. I just know that I read body count after body count.
Apart from the universal horrors of war, the museum also looks at the immediate and lasting effects of biological warfare. During the war in Vietnam, the USA coated massive parts of Vietnam in Agent Orange. This chemical killed all plant life it touched. You can see below the devastation it caused.
Agent Orange not only killed vegetation but also inhibited regrowth. You can see a before and after picture of the effects of agent orange below. The image on the right shows lush vegetation along the river bank. The left shows a desolate landscape and the result of agent orange.
The final, and possibly most horrendous effect of agent orange is to humans. It has the ability to mutate DNA with no outward effect on the carrier. The effect is only seen in the offspring of a carrier. Agent Orange mutation carriers give birth to children that can have a range of physical and mental disabilities. I am not going to go into the details here but recommend you look up the facts for yourself. Essentially, completely innocent parties are still suffering every day for something that happened before they were a twinkle in their Daddy’s eye. It is simply horrifying.
The last part of the museum is dedicated to a prison. After seeing Tuol Sleng in Cambodia, I had lost hope of there being any humanity in a Vietnamese war jail. I will admit that, by now, I was pretty spent. The day had been completely harrowing so, when I saw a guillotine inside the jail, I decided not to look or read any more. I just couldn’t take any more in.
I took a very slow walk back to my hostel from the museum that night in the pouring rain.
The next day, I went to Reunification Palace. It’s a very cool building that is still used for important state functions. Here it is.
The palace has free guided tours in several languages and they’re well worth taking.
The palace used to be the residence of the President. It has many rooms for formal meetings and entertaining. Here’s a state room.
Below is an entertainment room. You can see in the background there is a bar in the shape of a barrel. It’s very 70s.
One of the more surprising rooms was the personal cinema.
In the president’s living section, there’s a lovely garden set in an open, atrium style part of the building. The garden is surrounded by bedrooms and a dining room. Must have been pretty sweet to be the president.
On the roof, there is a helipad which was used to evacuate when necessary. The two red circles show where bombs landed on the palace during the Vietnam war.
Beneath the palace is two levels of bunkers. They were used by the president and his team for planning and shelter when necessary. You can still see the maps on the wall.
When North Vietnam secured the capital in the south, tanks crashed through the gates of the palace and secured surrender of the president. Here’s the scene then.
Here’s the scene today.
Reunification Palace cost me 30000 dong to go round and it was worth it. I would recommend a visit.
Quite close to the palace is Notre Dame cathedral. I couldn’t go inside but I had a walk around the outside. It really doesn’t seem like it fits in Ho Chi Minh.
Ho Chi Minh City is a busy city and although I didn’t see everything it has to offer, I was ready to leave after my few days there. I departed for the beach on an overnight bus. More on that next time.