A last minute plan to catch up with a friend fulfilling conditions of flying hours and a place that neither of us had been to before, took me to Ho Chi Minh City for a weekend. At the time of booking my flight tickets all I knew was that Ho Chi Minh City was in Vietnam and that Vietnamese are smart and brave folks who managed to defeat the Americans in a 25 year long war. What led to this war, what were the consequences – none of this I was aware of. So to prep myself up for the trip I borrowed a book on Vietnam War from the city library. The book was un-putdown-able (though written in a very text book style). The heart wrenching history of unflinching Vietnamese resilience, citizen guerrilla fighters who tilled their rice farms by day and took on the American troops by night, unspeakable atrocities committed by American army – made me wonder what Vietnam would be like today; after all, the war happened not too long ago. In fact, Vietnam gained international acceptance only in the early 1990s.
But here I was in HCMC (or Saigon as locals call it), a bustling city with lots of scooters and taxis rushing away, some gaudy neon lit shops and buildings and a handful sky scrapers peppered around and hordes of people trying to find their way across the streets. Traffic rules sense here would make us Indians proud (at least we are better than some ;)). In a way, it resembled any mid-tier developing Asian city full of activity and action, and going about it routine chores. An Indian that I am, I felt instantly at home in this city chaos. I liked Saigon the moment I took the city in. Indians get a visa on arrival in Vietnam, just that you have to make an online application for visa approval. Simple process, takes about a couple of days to get the approval. On landing you instantly get a visa stamped in your passport after you hand over the approval letter to the immigration authorities. We then headed to “Backpackers district”. Yes there is an area called as such where one would find various budget hostels and hotels and travel tours.
Our first destination in HCMC, was undoubtedly the War Remnants Museum. Let me summarize the history briefly – Vietnam was a French colony in since 1840s and was fighting for its freedom. One of the prominent groups leading this group had a communist bent of ideology. It was led by now who we know as Ho Chi Minh. Post WW2, Vietnamese managed to liberate a substantial chunk in the North Vietnam but South was still dominated by French. Finally French agreed to liberating its colony but only after dividing the country into North and South. But this wasn’t acceptable to the leaders of the freedom struggle, they wanted one United Vietnam free and sovereign. Here’s where French exit and USA enters. This was the time of the cold war and both Russia and US were trying to expand their sphere of influence. US, fearing that if liberated and unified, Vietnam would become communist went on war with North Vietnam while support a corrupt, puppet regime in South Vietnam. Vietnamese could not match US’s strength in arms and technology, so it decided to launch guerrilla tactics to frustrate the Americans. This went on for 25 long years. For America there was really no other reason to continue the war but for its prestige but eventually they could hold forth no more and had to retreat. The museum charts this course of history in pictures taken during the warring years. In one section, it beings the war to life and in the second it shocks us with the pictures of “left overs” of the War. Not just orphaned families and destroyed villages, this war has left behind genetic deformities spanning over multiple generations. Thanks to “Agent Orange” – the chemical unleashed on the Vietnamese by Americans under the pretext of defoliating the forest cover to expose the guerrilla fighters. Dioxin – the chemical used in Agent Orange is so toxic that its impact in soil is felt over 10-20 years and in humans it impacts the genetic pool up to 3 generations leading to children born with physical and mental deformities. The pictures make you cry, literally – how can man be so cruel, that to for the sake of satisfying his own ego. After all what really was wrong with the Vietnamese demand for Freedom. Doesn’t America loudly proclaim itself the Human Rights protector of the World?
After spending over a couple of hours at the museum, we checked out the other historic buildings such as Reunification palace and Sri Marriamman Hindu temple. Just in case you are wondering what is a hindu temple doing in Vietnam – History stays that centuries ago Tamil traders from India regularly visited Vietnam for business. Some eventually stayed back and established this temple. Today, this temple is revered by local Vietnamese as well, Marriamman (Parvati) is said to bring luck and prosperity to her bhaktas. Also a Hindu empire called Champa Kingdom extended up to Vietnam until 1800s
Walking around HCMC, some sights you’ll frequently encounter – women in their traditional conical hats selling Knick knacks, fruits & coconuts and posters of Ho Chi Minh. What we see and call Vietnam today is but a culmination of the man’s vision. In 1946 when the French were unwilling to relent to the requests of liberating Vietnam, HCM had cautioned them “You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win.”
The next day, we visited the Cu Chi tunnels. To escape American bombings and supply food, arms etc. to guerilla fighters, Vietnamese made a network of underground tunnels. The layout and construction of these tunnels are state of art indeed. It is an intricate maze that’ll surely kill any enemy who slips in, either through suffocation or through booby traps laid for them. Amongst the biggest and most famous are the Cu Chi tunnels, laid close to Saigon in village of the same name, and spread over (or should I say spread under) 121 kms. The tunnel mouths are so small that only a small Asian people can manage to sneak in. The big white Americans had no chance. Thence, US army brought in “tunnel rats” – Asian people fighting for Americans, similar in size and structure to the Vietnamese.When I entered a tunnel upon to tourists, in one section I had to literally crawl and I am not tall by any standards.
I am a history freak and hence Saigon enchanted me, but even otherwise it’s a city worth a visit – be it for food or cheap handicrafts and paintings. Even as a Vegetarian I had no problem finding local Vietnamese veg. food. In fact most places we went to had a separate vegetarian menu (at least in the backpacker’s area). What thrilled me the most was a rice pan cake called Bahn Xeo, which to an unknowing eye would appear like a South Indian dosa! Today, Vietnam has moved on from warring days. It is amongst the fastest growing economies in South East Asia and its people are as aspirational as anywhere else. But memories of war linger on – as one of our tour guides said – “We have forgiven, but we haven’t forgotten”.
ॐ शान्तिः ||