SIX NIGHTS IN SAIGON
(HO CHI MINH CITY)
"No good. This gun is no good!" The son of a Viet Cong is examining the K-54 Polish pistol that I am about to fire. I am at a shooting range located at the Cu Chi Tunnel area outside Saigon and for some foolish reason decided to try my luck with the only pistol they had. Why I couldn't have chosen something safe like an AK-47 or M-16, I don't know. He says the weapon was made in the 60's. I ask if it is safe to shoot. He doesn't hear me or else doesn't want to hear me. So I take the pistol and start firing. It proves to be safe enough. But because of the weapon or because of my bad aim I see bullets kicking up dust downrange but when I ask if I hit anything, i.e., if they passed through the target first, he shakes his head.
The tunnels are so small I have to crouch and work my way through carefully. And yet, incredibly, I am told the tunnels where tourists go have been enlarged a bit so people can get through. I think of the bravery of the Vietcong in these tunnels, spending months below ground, and of the American "tunnel rats" who had to go down after them, and I am stunned by the courage of all involved. There is even a glossy brochure describing the Cu Chi Liberation Zone and tourists can take photos alongside dummies made up to look like Vietcong. There is also a display of the types of clever traps set out by the Vietcong in the area as in the photo above.
In Saigon itself at the War Remnants Museum (formerly the "War Crimes Museum") I looked about at the exhibitions and, sure enough, all the horror of war is there. But it goes without saying that the victor gets to write what happened so the assassinations, killings and atrocities of the Vietcong and the NVA are not there while those of the losers are on full display. History is written by the winners. Always. Outside the building are American planes and tanks and a helicopter. A man with stumps for arms approaches me. He says a landmine got him and beneath his trousers he has false legs. He wants to sell me a book so I chose the Cu Chi tunnel book just to make a purchase. But it is a fascinating read and I am glad he approached me otherwise I would not have read it. I also think he approached me because all around are tourists and couples from abroad mingling about the military hardware but I am the oldest and he no doubt felt that men my age would be most likely to feel for him and buy something. He is not wrong.
I am amazed at how spread out Saigon really is, when riding motorcycle taxis it seems to go on forever. They do not yet have fancy flyovers like Thailand so it is flat and really does continue on. The economy is not good and the Vietnamese dong is going down, even against the dollar. So much so that they had yet another devaluation. But people I meet are extremely friendly and many said their father or uncle was fighting with the Americans during the war. The guard at the Museum of Vietnamese History mimicked firing a weapon and said "American GI number one!" Oh. During the Southeast Asian war games 1961 -1975 I thought we came in second, runner-up, so to speak, but maybe I'm wrong; I'll have to check; maybe we won.
According to the motorcycle taxi drivers, the corruption in Vietnam is like that in Thailand, the police will pull them over but most problems can be settled on the spot. And also according to the motorcycle taxi drivers, sex is available, no problem, one even offered marijuana. Indeed, in less than a minute walk from my hotel near the river - the lovely, colonial-style and several decades-old (1925) Majestic - there is a bar with young ladies, some of whom lounge on the sidewalk asking if I wouldn't mind stepping inside. Of course some of the hotels of Saigon are famous for where journalists once hung out waiting for the military to give its latest report ("five o'clock follies). Hotels such as the Rex and Caravelle are two of the most famous and, remodeled of course, are still there. The roof gardens and roof bars of these hotels make them places for excellent viewing over the nearby area. But Saigon is quite naturally a quieter city than Bangkok although the incredible hordes of motorcycles make it seem noisier. The motorcycles drive in all directions at round-a-bouts and I think it is only because they drive slowly that there are so few accidents. As for English-language bookstores, alas, nothing to write home about.
Saigon also has a lot of local bars and clubs including Apacalypse, Blue Gecko, Lush and Q-Bar and a lot more. I had heard that some of the bouncers in some of these bars were not so friendly but I smiled and inquired about closing hours, etc., and they were quite gracious. I guess they like old guys who are polite and most likely won't cause trouble. Bars such as the Q-Bar can be pretty dead during the week but really pick up on weekends. They also get started a bit late for my taste so I didn't really hang around to see the height of the action. But even while I was there there were certainly attractive young ladies about. But all along the tourist section ("District 1") there are girls on the sidewalk handing out leaflets and pamphlets for such services as Roses Spa (Thai massage 60 minutes US$15, etc.), Blue Moon spa (foot reflexology, etc.), Hello spa ("serving you from haed (sic) to toe), Baloma spa for ladies and gentlemen (nail art on request), Chuc Ahn spa ("skin whitening" of course!), and a lot more. Knock-off clothes and bags and whatnot are also available at markets and along some of the streets and in the relatively small shopping malls.
There is a small backpacker area ("pham ngu lao") but it is nowhere the size of Bangkok's Khao San road and not nearly as interesting. The markets are certainly worth going to, both the Ben Thanh market (known to the French as "Les Halles Centrale") and especially the Cholon Chinatown area market. I found the best way to reach the various temples and markets is to take a motorcycle taxi but there is nothing wrong with hiring a car for the day. There are also the usual Saigon tourist spots such as the opera house, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Reunification Palace, the old post office and various parks. Outside the Reunification Palace are the North Vietnamese tanks which crashed through the gates in 1975 of what was then the Presidential Palace, ending the bloody conflict once and for all. Tours through the building are interesting so do not skip this tourist spot. In the basement is the war command room with its then state-of-the-art radios and other communication equipment, etc. used by the Saigon government and their maps on the wall, detailing the conflict in detail.
So Saigon has plenty to see in a week and that gives the traveler time to relax and not rush from place to place. But, fun though it is, it is a hard city to understand in such a short time. The usual northerner vs. southerner feelings of unease, the expatriates and their bars and clubs, the moods, the aura, the ambiance of the city - it is a unique Vietnamese flavor, just as their famous noodles are unique. And it would take more than a week to go deeper and to capture it adequately.
In the same direction as the Cu Chi tunnels is the Cao Dai Temple, described as the Holy See of Cao-Daism, a religion which blends Taoism Buddhism Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism and probably Marxism for all I know. But do not miss it as the place is very colorful and the guides know when the ceremonies are about to start. Although this religion is less than one hundred years old, it has about three million people. I am told it is now in no way political so although the Hanoi government does not aid it in any way, it does not hinder it either. Their ceremonies are extremely photogenic.
So. What does it all come down to. For those of us stationed in Southeast Asia during the war, we have our memories and our emotional baggage. But it is good to remember that more than half of the Vietnamese alive today were not even born when the war ended. The war truly has ended. I was last in Saigon in 1968, at the airport. I was in the Army Security Agency traveling from Bangkok to Taipei just a few days after the Tet Offensive. They expected to be rocketed again which they were a few days later but by then I was safely and soundly in Taipei, ROC. I am sure that those four hours I spent in Vietnam in 1968 at the airport were crucial to the war effort. I'm just not sure whose war effort they were crucial to...