Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: AK-47s, Claustrophobic Tunnels & Pho

One thing the Vietnamese are constantly and consistently amazing at (other than a self-righteous loathing towards the Americans) is Pho.Screen Shot 2017-08-18 at 11.34.48 AM

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.

French Architecture everywhere

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.

The old tunnels. Now they have been widened for the tourists
The depiction of bomb powder being recovered- Apparently there were many accidents and you wonder why. They are hacking at a live bomb!

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.

Choose your weapon of choice

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.

Ben Thanh Market

The Romanesque Notre-Dame Basilica is a Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The useful tourist office will tell you some of the details on the stained glass that adorn most of the walls.

Notre-Dame Basilica
The elaborate stained Glasses

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.

The post office
The interior of 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 bizarre interiors make this place worth a visit. (Website)

The Reunification Palace
A renovated working room

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 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 don’t mind skipping your dinner. (Website)

War photography anyone?
Comparative figures, really?

There is also an adjacent ground with all kinds of weaponry and a depiction of jail torture including the sadistically creative cages, guillotines etc.

The Jail apparatuses- The guillotine still seems pretty sharp

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.

Mariamman Temple
The elaborate sanctum

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 of walking.

HCMC is a place with varied attractions and best of all the drool-worthy Pho. You could travel there just for the Pho. HCMC should be on anyone’s Vietnam itinerary. And the accommodation can be rock-bottom cheap especially in the hostels!

Check out a great Vietnam travel Itinerary for five days here

There are stories abound about the occasional cheating in the airport. Do beware of such cheats!

Check out more on family travel to Vietnam here… or for Honeymoon travel here

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.


For more suggestions on what to do on your Vietnam trip do check out this post by Daniel Cowen-Rivers.

42 thoughts on “Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: AK-47s, Claustrophobic Tunnels & Pho

  1. We’ll head to Vietnam in about a month. It’s going to be the first country of our long time travel plans, so we’re quite excited! I like that you did not only point out the glamour of HCMC but also the tragic past of the country. So here’s to a better future!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was a fascinating insight into Vietnam and it certainly makes me want to visit. The Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel is so stunning. I’d like to visit the tunnels too if they’re not too claustrophobic!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. We enjoyed exploring Ho Chi Minh City on our first visit to Vietnam earlier this year. The War Remnants museum was particularly disturbing, though an important part of the country’s history. We stayed near Ben Thanh market and would go there regularly for fresh fruit. We found some amazing local restaurants around the market. The pho in Vietnam in general is amazing. So much and so good! Reading me makes me miss all my favorite Vietnamese foods 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice write up! I miss the amazing food of Vietnam – not just the ubiquitous Pho, but the Bahn Mi’s, the vibrant coffee scene, the cheep beer! I chose to shoot an AK-47 when I was there as well and they tried to convince me to shoot at a live chicken for an extra $20 – ha! (I declined) I think my wife and I will be headed back there in a few months and this posts has certainly up’ed my anticipation!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Not sure I would like to venture into those tunnels. The post office designed by Gustave Eiffel is so grand and quite different from the styling of the Eiffel Tower, of course 🙂 By the way… love the cartoons at the beginning of the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Vietnam has fantastic colonial architecture but such a bloody past that it breaks your heart. The tunnels were an emotional experience for me. However, now HCMC is totally different from its past. Love its energy and people.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Vietnam has been at the top of our list of places to visit for a long time now–we really need to get there soon! The Cu Chi tunnels and war remnants museum would be interesting to visit. They sound like they would be hard spots to see with all the history, but it’s always good to learn about a place on a deeper level. I would love to eat a ton of Pho too–yum!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This looks like a lot of fun but also scary at the same time! Is that even possible?! I can’t believe how sharp that guillotine is after all these years. I’m guessing someone has the task of sharpening it up for the tourists. Fun times!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow. I didn’t know you can take these kinds of tours. I am super intrigued to do so now. Especially one that takes you underground so you can experience it!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. WOW reading this reminded me of how I would like to visit Vietnam! Did you go caving by any chance? I have read that they have AMAZING caves to explore and that is what piqued my interest about Vietnam… their amazing caves. But YOU had an amazing time… lots of innovative things to do… must get my hands on some PHO.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Vietnam history is truly rich, I had been there for several times. People are warm and they can still tell and recall their ancestor’s story about the war and how tragic it has been. Good thing is that they hold of their culture and able to flourish them.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This sounds such an amazing time. Vietnam is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a long time now. The temple, palace and cathedral are such stunning buildings. I don’t think I would like the tunnels though!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This is just a reminder to us all that everything comes at a price, colonialism brought its own issues, and even worse did the war. How much is independence worth ? But a nice breakdown with good images. Vietnam seem to be growing in popularity as a tourist destination.


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