Friday, February 26, 2010

HO CHI MINH CITY( or SAIGON)

Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam. It is still referred to this day by the locals as Saigon. There are over 9 million people that live in the metropolitan area. It was once known as Prey Nokor, an important Khmer seaport prior to annexation by the Vietnamese in the 17th Century. Under the name Saigon, it served as the capital of the French colony of Cochin China and later of the independent state of South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. In 1976, Saigon merged with the surrounding province of Gia Dinh to become Ho Chi Minh City. The center of the city is situated on the banks of the Saigon River.

An interesting factoid is how the name Saigon came about. The most favored etymological translation is the Sini-Vietnamese one which states that “Sai” is a Chinese loanword that means twig or stick while “Gon” is another Chinese loanword meaning cotton. So together the word means Cottonstick or Cottontwig. It is said that the name originated because of the many cotton fields that the Khmer people had planted in the area during the Prey Nokor times which can still be seen near the Cay Mai temple and surrounding areas. The funny thing is that most of the Vietnamese who fled the country during the communist takeover still today will not refer to the city they live in as Ho Chi Minh City. It is still and always will be to them simply Saigon. Of course, the reason the name changed from Saigon to HCMC is because of the god-like status of the former communist ruler. Why not change the name of the city that used to serve as the epicenter for the south resistance to HCMC just so as to add insult to injury, makes perfect sense right? In addition to that, let’s also put a war museum right smack in the middle of town that shows all the glorified battles that were won in the name of Ho Chi Minh just so you don’t forget. As if! One other thing we noticed here which we have already noted a couple of times is that there is still a lot of animosity in the south because they still don’t like the fact that they lost the war and because of the here is some mud in your face just to remind you that you lost. Very interesting to see in person.

So there are really only 3 things to see in Saigon - I like this name better for obvious reasons : ) so it is how I will remember HCMC. 1) The Reunification Palace, 2) The War Remnants Museum and of course, 3) the Cu Chi tunnels.

The Reunification Palace was built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam’s presidential palace. This is where the communist tank crashed the gate on April 30th, 1975, the day Saigon surrendered. Apart from a repaired front entrance, the building had been left just as it looked on the day.

The War Museum is a museum that even the non-museum goers would appreciate although it is not for the faint of heart. Lots of gory stuff is depicted on the walls. I am told that you definitely get a sense of just how awful the American War was after you get out. I didn’t get a chance to see this museum as I was not feeling so well for a couple of days but Katie did so maybe she can tell you how she felt after she got out.

The most popular tourist attraction near Saigon is by far the Cu Chi tunnels that were a central part to the American War. The tunnels are self explanatory. But what you don’t know is just how vast these tunnels were. In the district of Cu Chi alone there are over 200 KM (120 miles) of tunnels, each of them all networked to link to each other somehow. The tunnels actually extend all the way to what is now the Cambodian border which is miles and miles away from Saigon. We took a tour of the tunnels as this is really the only way you can see them because if you try to do it on your own as our guide told us, you would simply get lost. They were very serious about you sticking close to the group as well. I think this is because they didn’t want anyone maybe accidentally stepping on an old war trap or falling into an unmarked foxhole as this place is littered with stuff that would make paint splatter war games seem boring. Our guide for the day just so happened to be a comedian as well. He did a very good job of keeping us entertained. In one instance he was explaining to us how termite mounds were used to cover up entrances to the tunnel system. He gently touches the termite mound and puts his ear next to it and says: “It’s real, it’s fake, I don’t know”. Ofcourse this is a phrase now that Katie and I have decided to incorporate into our daily language routine as it hit our funny bone to the utter core. He took us to a few actual tunnels that were still hidden out of site and had his assistant show us how they used these tunnels to basically win the war. They were very, very, clever people and I am convinced that were it not for the land that they used to their advantage so well that the outcome of the war may not have been the same as it is today. We got to go inside a portion of the tunnel system and crawl around for about 20 or 30 feet or so. The tunnels that we went in were of course expanded so fat people like me could get a feel for what it was like to live in them. If I remember correctly, the families of the Vietcong actually lived in the tunnel system for over 2 years. That’s a long time to be in a tunnel that you can barely breathe in. As our guide put it, imagine living in there for so long where snakes, rats and all kinds of other creepy crawly creatures came to visit you all the time. Talk about resilience. This took great patience and bravery. I developed a real admiration for these people more than I ever had before after witnessing firsthand what they had to endure during the war. One of the most memorable sights in this area was the big bomb craters that are strung out all along the tunnels. Evidence of the futile attempts of the frustrated Americans to dislodge the Vietcong from the underground world they lived in. In some places these huge bomb craters have now become ponds. Very surreal to see this in person. Crazy stuff!

The highlight of the Cu Chi tunnels for me was not the tunnels themselves, albeit they were very fascinating to see, but instead it was the chance to shoot real war guns that got my blood pumping at a blistering pace. Ooooh, what a rush! I got to shoot an AK47 and an M16. Words cannot explain how cool this was! I could have stayed there all day if it didn’t cost a fortune to shoot the damn things. Well worth the money though. Even Katie got in on a little bit of the action.
As for the rest of Saigon, it is just like any other big city. Lots of cool little areas you can hang out and have coffee, tea or a beer and just enjoy the day chatting it up. One cool thing about hangin out in Saigon was that since the Tet holiday was still going on we saw a bunch of cool flower displays in one of the promenade areas that we took pictures for you guys to see as well.







Off to Cambodia next so I’ll let you know how that goes. Ciao!

1 comments:

Anonymous,  February 27, 2010 at 9:15 AM  

Sounds like a pretty cool time! 2 questions Chris - since when have you EVER been fat?....and what's up with being too sick to go into a nice, indoor museum that's probably well kept and cleaned daily..but you are well enough to crawl around in wet dirty tunnels with snakes and rats and shoot guns?...sounds like a scam Barela!! haha....typical male...

Pat

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