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Saigon, Cu Chi

Dr. Bob McElvaine's 2010 Vietnam Journal


May 22, 2010
Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

Following another sensational meal at Mango and our last night in Hoi An, we drove to Da Nang for our flight to Saigon. Before we reached the airport, we made a stop at the Marble Mountains just south of the city.

I'll be brief on Saigon. It is an experience that everyone coming to Vietnam should have, but it's not my cup of tea. It's too big. It's too crowded. It's too ... American. Downtown there are stores from many of the most expensive designer names in the world. Hanoi is the official capital of the so-called Socialist Republic of Vietnam, but Saigon is plainly the real capital of the Capitalist Non-Republic of Vietnam. They can officially call it Ho Chi Minh City, but, as I noted on my first visit here, Saigon is not now and never has been Ho Chi Minh's city.

On this trip, Anne Waldrop put the same point succinctly: "If Saigon is communist, I'm black."

Saigon traffic

One hears various figures on the official and unofficial population of the city, ranging from 8 million to 11 million. There are a minimum of 4 million motorbikes, and a noticeably growing number of automobiles since my first visit a year and a half ago. "The traffic is just crazy," Heather Keenan pointed out. "There had to be thousands of motorbikes at every given stop light ... In general the city was crazy busy and could easily be mistaken for a downtown anywhere in America." "I couldn't imagine myself living in such a crowded city," Dan Garza said. "The congestion is suffocating." Amen to that!

When we arrived, the pent-up demand among the students for a brief taste of American food led us to KFC. It was OK. We only did a drive by of the former presidential palace this time, and then went on to the War Remnants Museum, which has shocking displays of the effects of Agent Orange, among other things, such as tiger cages in which the South Vietnamese government kept some prisoners (which is not, of course, to suggest that the North Vietnamese and VC weren't doing similar things).

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon - 21 May 2010

Then it was on to the Notre Dame Cathedral and the beautiful Saigon Post Office. Two things were different this time at Notre Dame: We were able to go inside, and, outside, in Anne's words, we "saw beggars, actual victims of Agent Orange, without hands and feet. This is yet another example of the war being made personal and real due to the trip and being in Vietnam." This was the first time I had seen these victims on the streets and it certainly does have a much greater impact than seeing pictures.

"Every time I see a disabled or crippled person," George Holmes said, "I have to stop and think, 'Did we do that?' It seems like every day I'm more and more astounded at how little of a grudge they hold (or at least appear to hold)."

In the evening we taxied downtown to have a drink on the roof lounge of the Majestic Hotel and take in the beautiful view of the Saigon River at night. It was much too expensive (by the Vietnamese price standards we have come to know and love) to eat there, so we went on to the Vietnam House, where I had been with the group in January, for another excellent dinner, although I was almost asleep by the later portions of it.

In Saigon, we again have access to Facebook and CNN, as we did in Hanoi, but not in between. I don't know whether the government for some reason thinks there is more need to keep information and networking capability from the people in the provinces than those in the major cities.

The government-run media are pointing to the riots in Bangkok as evidence of why democracy is dangerous. Probably some people here are buying it.

Today, we made the obligatory journey out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which I call Viet Disney. They are now showing a very propagandistic film made in 1967. It refers to the Americans as "white devils." It appears to me that such propaganda is foolish and counterproductive. The truth is bad enough.

Anne in a Viet Cong hole, Cu Chi

The students enjoyed going into the VC tunnels, although only four of them were able to make it all the way through the section open to tourists. Seeing the very extensive tunnel system in this Viet Cong stronghold so close to Saigon was also another graphic lesson on the war. "After viewing the tunnels," Dan wrote, it just became so apparent to me that [American] victory in Vietnam was just never a possibility. These people were just so dug in; they would never give in."

The three guys and Fran also enjoyed firing automatic weapons at the firing range. "Fran was awesome," Dan testified of his fellow Texan. "She stepped right up and laid down some thunder ... as did I. It felt so legit to be in Vietnam shooting automatic weapons."

Dan firing AK-47, Cu Chi

We returned to Saigon to have another outstanding lunch, this one at the Indochine restaurant, which has the atmosphere to match the food.

George's war wound having become infected, our guide, Linh, took him and some of the rest of us to a clinic, where he was treated quickly and effectively. It was another interesting experience for us. "I have NEVER been treated so expediently or with less hassle," George said.

In the evening we went to a restaurant that Đuc had recommended, Nha Lang Ngon. It was a very different atmosphere from the Mango Rooms - large and noisy, with picnic tables. But the food was outstanding. Đuc would not steer us wrong! He had also recommended an acoustic music club, and we went there, but it was too crowded to get in.

Enough of Saigon. On to wonderful Cambodia!