One thing the Vietnamese are constantly and consistently amazing at (other than a self-righteous loathing towards the Americans) is Pho.
This slushy concoction of noodles, rice, leaves and all kinds of meat is all kinds of sweet, sour, bitter and amazing all at once. Just ask for a spoon and fork if you are as inept as met at the Chopsticks! The only hard part is you are not quite sure how to define what the bowl of soupy-slush tastes like. Nevertheless, it’s something that stays with you long after you leave Nam. This should be on your list of things to do on any Vietnam visit.
Vietnam is crudely a product of French colonialism. France violently assumed control over Vietnam in the 1850s and in 1862 set up the colony of Cochinchina in southern Vietnam. In 1882 it invaded northern Vietnam and forced the Vietnamese Emperor to accept the establishment of a French protectorate over central and northern Vietnam in 1883. This effectively brought all of Vietnam under French control.
The French colonial regime was famous for its brutality and relentless exploitation of the Vietnamese people. Resistance to colonial rule was intense in the early years, but weakened after the late 1890s. The situation began to change dramatically in the late 1920s as a number of nationalist movements, such as the Indochinese Communist Party (formed in 1930) and the Vietnam Nationalist Party (formed in 1927), became more sophisticated in terms of organization and ability. Such groups grew in strength during the turmoil of World War II. On 19 August 1945 an uprising occurred in which Vietnamese nationalists overthrew the Japanese administration then controlling Vietnam. On 2 September 1945 Ho Chi Minh officially established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The French attempted to reassert control over Vietnam by invading the country in December 1946. This launched an eight-year war in which the Vietnamese nationalist forces, led primarily by the Vietnamese Communists, ultimately forced the French from the country in late 1954. Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam for the next twenty-one years. During this period the North experienced a socialist revolution. In 1959 North Vietnam began implementing its policy to forcibly reunify the country, which led to the outbreak of the American War in Vietnam in the early 1960s. This concluded on 30 April 1975 when North Vietnamese soldiers captured the city of Saigon and forced the surrender of the South Vietnamese government. On 1 January 1976, the Vietnamese National Assembly declared the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, thereby completing the reunification of the Vietnamese nation. (Ref)
On our first day, a guided day tour to the Cu Chi tunnels was something we planned as were severely short on time. We also desperately wanted to try our hands on the AK 47s at the famous gun range near the tunnels.
We managed to cross over the colossal chaos of HCMC traffic and our tour started with a souvenir shop that we could have definitely given a skip. The eerie tunnel complex is a real work of art. The tunnels themselves are about three feet high and many miles long and in the shape of noodles in my Pho. They are absolutely bewildering. It’s more so when you hear the guide’s stories about how the soldiers stayed for months on a stretch and how meticulously they planned their attacks.
As you crawl through the tunnels, your tour guide tells you the war stories and about their indigenous weapons. They also show you the weird and menacing human traps and the harrowing experience is not for everyone.
Once we were done with tunnels, all of us headed to the shooting range. Probably the only place where they let you handle an assortment of live weapons.
Once you choose your weapon, you tee off at the shooting range. I tried the AK 47. As you can see I was nowhere near the target, I, however, managed to achieve a sore right shoulder by the end due to the AK47’s recoil. So be careful handling it. Not that you would ever touch one after this trial!
The next day we went on a walking tour of HCMC with Saigon Free Walking Tours. The tour started at the famous Ben Thanh market. This place is a medley of all kinds of smells, tastes and sights. After a brief tour here, we headed to the Notre-Dame Basilica.
The Romanesque Notre-Dame Basilica is a Catholic cathedral dedicated to Virgin Mary. The useful tourist office will tell you some of the details on the stained glass that adorn most of the walls.
We then checked out the post office nearby. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the guy who designed the Eiffel Tower. This is by far the most character filled post office I have been to. Just take a look at the pictures. Pretty awesome for a post office.
After some souvenir shopping at the post office, we headed to the reunification palace. This desolate building is associated with the city’s fall in 1975. The deserted rooms and the tank that has stood here since forever and the bizzare interiors make this place worth a visit. (Website)
Then we headed to the war remnants museum. To say that we experienced the melancholy of the grueling Vietnam war here is an understatement. This place is filled with all the gory details of the wartime. There are rooms dedicated to the war photographers. Its definitely not for the faint-hearted (read hanging and maimed body parts, aplenty). It is surreal how this country endured such atrocities which were mostly fought between its northern and southern citizens with a fair contribution from the West especially the USA. Take a look at the photos below if you dont mind skipping your dinner. (Website)
There is also an adjacent ground with all kinds of weaponry and a depiction of jail torture including the sadistically creative cages, guillotines etc.
After the war weighed heavy on our brains, we were thankful that our guide took us to the nearby Mariamman Hindu temple. In the middle of a busy street, this temple sure seemed like an oasis after our senses had taken a battering the whole day.
Another USP of HCMC is the omnipresent massage parlors. They are not only very relaxing but fairly well run and cheap. So we were there every night after the long day walking. HCMC is a place with varied attractions and best of all the drool-worthy Pho. You could travel there just for the Pho. And the accommodation can be rock-bottom cheap especially in the hostels!
What I Saw: there are many good movies depicting the horrors of the Vietnam war. Here a few that I watched. Personally, I liked ‘Apocalypse now‘ the most.
What I Read: ‘The Things They Carried‘ by Tim O’Brien paints of picture of soldiers navigating through the perilous Vietnam jungles during the war. It’s as accurate a depiction of war challenges as any.