Vietnam Ventures – Ho Chi Minh & Mekong Delta
The three intrepid travelers journey southwards to Ho Chi Minh city to soak in sights and sounds of South Vietnam. Written by Indranil Saha and this is his story.
Ho Chi Minh, as Saigon is known today is another bustling south Asian metropolis which has reminds you of India more than anywhere else in Vietnam. A teeming city of 85 Million, with its slow moving and sometimes chaotic traffic and a plethora of two wheelers would remind you of Bangalore or Mumbai.
The area was historically occupied by Khmer people for centuries till Vietnamese people started arriving here. It was only in 1698 that the Nyugen rulers sent in their noblemen to establish Vietnamese administrative structure. The Nyugen rule continued till the French captured town in 1859 and build this as their capital of Indo China till 1945. The French influence is thus visible in the key architectures of the city. Saigon was also the capital of the South Vietnam after independence and bifurcation in 1954, till the fall of Saigon to Vietcong forces in 1975.
The cathedral of Notre Dame, General Post Office, Caravelle Hotel, Opera House and the now razed palace of Governor General are testimony of the French influence in the country.
HCMC is also more cosmopolitan and also has a larger share of people who would quietly murmur against the current dispensation in their candid conversations. Those conversations also give you glimpses of chasms dividing the growing country. If you are able to get people to open up, you get to hear stories of pro South Vietnam people being sent to ’re-education camps’ and their progeny denied opportunity for better jobs in the Government sector.
After navigating through the heavy traffic, we head outside the town towards Cu Chi tunnels. The Cu Chi area is a fertile part of the Mekong delta and farmers have been historically growing rice for centuries. The Vietnamese forces build these tunnels during the French war. The tunnels were elaborated during the Vietnam War by the Vietcong forces and was said to be around 250 kms long and in three layers. This labyrinth allowed the Vietcong forces to hide and move supplies as well as decide where to strike and thus frustrate the South Vietnam/American forces. While the American bombing managed to damage the tunnel systems, but it was too little, too late to turn the tide of the war. These tunnels, along with a plethora of different kind of traps made life miserable for the American forces. Most of these traps could be produced from basic materials and were deadly effective. No visit to the Cu Chi tunnels are complete without exploring some of the remaining traps.
The variety of traps were laid in abundant numbers and thus inflicting substantial casualties on the ARVN/American forces.
The tunnels itself were very narrow and is more suited to the east Asian physique than the Caucasian ones, which meant that the Americans and their allies found it difficult to either enter or navigate them. The tunnels were built in three layers and was said to accommodate 18,000 ARVN personnel and families. The tunnels also led to high mortality among the ARVN due to malaria and other diseases.
A crawl through a fifty meter section of the tunnel was very challenging endeavor, both physically and mentally and led us to appreciate the resoluteness of the ARVN forces operating from these tunnels for years. These tunnel systems also had their own kitchens, makeshift hospitals, foundries etc. to sustain the ARVN forces.
The Cu Chi tunnels are an ode to the ingenuity and commitment of the ARVN and their allies to win the war against the Americans. Built with very little technology and equipment, building such tunnel systems points to great ingenuity of the people building them.
The next day was reserved for Mekong Delta. River deltas have been the cradle of civilization in the old world. To name a few, Nile Delta, Shat-El –Arab, Ganga- Brahmaputra Delta, the Irrawaddy and, of course, Mekong Delta. The Mekong River flows through multiple countries (China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia) and finally meets the South China Sea in Vietnam. It is the 7th longest river in Asia at 4350 km (Ganges 2,525 km and Brahmaputra 2,900 km). Floating on a boat in the river would remind you of the river Ganges in South Bengal, with a Cantilever suspension bridge that seems to be a replica of the 2nd Hoogly Bridge in Kolkata. The banks of the river are highly fertile and hence is very densely populated. The economy is mostly agrarian. A variety of fruits and vegetable cultivation is visible and like south Bengal, lots of bamboo, coconut and palm trees dot the landscape. The people living on the settlements in the delta seemed to be used to tourists and had a side business of entertaining and trading in local produce with the tourists. While the infrastructure was in good shape (roads, power and internet), the economic conditions were not as good as in the urban areas. Walking through the farms producing value added candies from coconut targeted at tourists, we could see another example of how tourism has benefited the economy. The Mekong delta we saw was very different from what I had personally pictured in my mind. I had expected to be a dense tropical forest with limited habitation and a very fertile soil. While there is dense vegetation, a large part of it today is planted by the local populace and yields commercial products like fruits and nuts. While I expected a sparsely populated land, what we discovered is a densely populated delta with a lot of economic activities.
People were farming, growing fruits and flowers, rearing Chicken and pigs, (some people also had snakes at their homes to sell skins) and also carrying out other traditional economic activities of any other delta in Asia. We were also able to witness some honey bee rearing and the fresh honey tasted sublime. What has remained unchanged in some parts of the delta still are the narrow waterways, hemmed by dense vegetation and navigable only by small boats. So, we hopped on to a row boat to traverse the narrow waterways of Mekong Delta. With both banks almost within arm’s reach, navigating the small canals in a small dingy was an experience nonpareil. How do I describe the experience? The level of water in the canal is slightly lower than the land around, which means you can see the mud and roots of the trees at the eye level (a different view from what we have seen till date). Raise your eyes and you can see the beauty of the dense vegetation of a tropical forest. Sailing through the plethora of pneumatophores and other tropical trees with their different shades of green playing hide and seek with the sun was an experience to remember.
The end of the short expedition took us back to a floating dock on the wide river, where our motor boat waited for us. Just to board the small floating dock (3 feet square) from the dingy and then to the motor boat was itself an adventure and surely not for the fainthearted.
Next on the list was the Cao Dai temple. Cao dai is a religion that has become popular in South Vietnam in the recent decades and is believed to have between 4 to 6 million adherents. The temples are brightly coloured and are believed to have been influenced by Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism and Islam. The temple should be seen, since I have not seen anything that comes close. The impact of different religions are visible and the ability to synthesize learnings from them is interesting, to say the least.
That leaves us with the last leg of our trip – The historic city of Ho Chi Minh City, historically known as Saigon.
While North Vietnam had strong Chinese links and central Vietnam was champa territory, the area around Saigon was Khmer territory till it was taken over by Vietnamese people in the 17th century. Then, the French invaded in 1759 and made Saigon the capital of French Indochina and key centre of the French colonial trade. The importance of the city in the French scheme of things can be gauged from some of the historic buildings of the city. The city center is built around district one and district three. The city center has a lot of decent hotels and staying in the city center makes it easier to explore the city on foot (we did so).
The two key buildings that remind you of the French architecture are the Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Basilica (The independence palace has since been pulled down and rebuild).
The Central Post Office was completed is 1891 and still functions as a post office. It is also open to tourists and you can send a postcard home from here. The architecture has a clear signs of French influence and should be experienced. The post office also has a map of Saigon and its surrounding areas from 1890’s, if you are historically minded. Standing inside the post office gives a distinct feeling of going back in time to 1890’s.
The Norte Dame Basilica, stands next to the Central Post office, as built in between 1863 – 1880 and has two bell towers measuring 190 feet. If you are interested in Churches, you should go in and see it. It is not as grand as some of the cathedrals of Europé but is one of the better ones of Asia (very few in Asia actually have been influenced by French).
Another French contribution to the city of Saigon was the Ben Thanh Market. The original market was built in 1859 and would remind you of the Old’ New Market’ in Kolkata. Well, the original market was destroyed in a fire in 1870 and the market was rebuild in the current location to become Saigon’s biggest market in the heart of district 1. The market was renovated in 1985 and three distinct segments – food, local handicrafts, clothing and accessories. The food and local handicrafts are surely a draw for the tourists. After 7 PM, a thriving night market opens up around this place and has shops selling similar stuff. The market is also famous for bargaining and pickpockets. So be warned!
While exploring the city, the Hindu temple close to the Ben Thanh market piqued my interest since I did not expect the city to have Hindu connections. The Mariamman Temple was built in the late 19th Century by the Tamil traders who came to the flourishing commercial capital of Indochina (incidentally, as I was to learn later, Central Vietnam has Hindu temples dating back to 4th Century build by Champa people at MySon in Central Vietnam and is regarded to be of similar importance as Akor Vat and Borobudur). The temple has no priests of Indian origin and is currently run by Vietnamese people and the trustees are appointed by the Government. While the architectural and sculptural similarities exists with the temples of Tamil Nadu, the impact of the local culture was also clearly visible (including the inscriptions in Vietnamese). What was shared by the local people is that there are not enough Hindus in the country currently and a lot of non-Hindus also visit the temple to offer prayers. That a Hindu temple has managed to thrive in a socialist country with very few native Hindus, is what makes it captivating.
The last historical monument we visited was the Opera House of Saigon/HCMC. Again build by the French in 1897 and stands out in the city centre due to its distinct French architecture. After 1956, it was used as the Lower House Assembly and was restored in 1995 to its old glory. The distinct architecture is what makes this a must visit.
In HCMC, incidentally, we moved away from our experimentation around Vietnamese food and stuck more to Indian food or relied upon the tried and tested KFC/MacDonalds.
This was not a reflection on the South Vietnamese food but was more to do with us missing our ’daal-chawal’.
Next day morning, we hit the streets to cover the modern sights of Saigon – the Walking Street (Nguyen Hue Street), Reunification Palace, War Remnant Museum and generally walking around the city centre of Saigon.
The Reunification Palace was originally build by the French (completed 1873) to house the Governor of Indochina and consolidate its newly established colony. The palace was also called Norodom Palace, after the kind of Cambodia (part of the then Indochina). The palace was partially destroyed in 1962 during the war with North and the newly independent South Vietnam decided to rebuild the palace in 1962 and was completed in 1966. After the end of war in 1975, the palace was renamed Reunification palace and was turned into a museum. The museum lets you experience the life of the early ruling elite of independent South Vietnam, who occupied the palace for less than a decade (must be record of sorts for a palace or presidential mansion).
Next on the list was the War Remnants Museum. One of the more popular museums in HCMC, this museum contains exhibits relating to the Vietnam War and the First Indochina war. It offers a few distinct category of exhibits – War machinery (tanks, fighters, bombers, artillery guns etc), Reproduction of Tiger Cages (torture chambers), documentation (mostly photographs) of the war with Americans and the French; the graphic photographs of various war crimes including Napalm bombs and Agent Orange.
One can choose to remain neutral and see the devastation a war can bring, irrespective of your country of origin and your ideology. As they say, in War, there is no right, it is only who are left (left alive). The horrendous costs of war(both civilian and military) has been very graphically depicted in the museum.
That brings us to the last stop of our tour, Nyugen Hue Street, more popularly known as the Walking Street. If you are looking for entertainment and have a Sunday evening to spare in Saigon, then look no further. Starting from the banks of Saigon river, it extends till the People’s Committee Building. Surrounded by plush shops, some great hotels and some lovely cuisines from across the world, this short stretch is blocked to vehicular traffic on the weekends. This place really comes alive on the weekends, teeming with various performances and exhibitions. Both locals and tourists, turn out in large numbers to enjoy the performances or just stroll around the place and soak in the atmosphere. Great place to unwind on a weekend.
What we missed visiting and would recommend is the Jade palace and the Saigon Saigon Bar (Caravelle Hotel).
When one looks back, one cannot but compare the two most important cities of Vietnam – Hanoi and Saigon. Both are great cities with very distinct culture and history.
Hanoi has been inhabited since 3,000 BC and was annexed by the AuLac kingdom in 197 BC, which ushered a millennium of Chinese domination. It was the seat of power from 1010 to 1892 and then again from 1902 to 1954(French Indochina). Hanoi again became the capital of reunified Vietnam in 1976. October 2010 marked 1,000 years since the establishment of the city. The Chinese influence on the culture and the culinary tastes of the city is woven in the tapestry of the city.
In contrast, Saigon was Khmer territory till the 17th century when the Vietnamese settlers started arriving. Since this was also the center of power as well as trade of French Indochina for a considerable time, the city is more cosmopolitan as compared to Hanoi. More people in here speak French than any other part of the country. Some of the most important landmarks build in Indochina by the French are in Saigon. The heart of the town (district 1 and 3) seems to have a distinct character, different from the rest of the city and has a French touch to it (the wide boulevards and gardens would remind you of the suburbs of Paris)
As we headed back to the hotel to check out and catch our flight back home, we were wondering what we could have done differently. What stood out in that discussion was that we should have dedicated a day to look around Hanoi, beyond the Old Quarter. We did not really explore Hanoi beyond the Old Quarter.
As our trip wound down and we looked back, this was a trip like no other for us as a family. We had never in the past, spend more than seven days in a country and this slightly longer stay allowed us to appreciate the country, its culture, its cuisine and its people better. The wide range of options (from history to geography; from Culture to shopping) the country presents to a tourist does make it an attractive proposition.
It was also fantastic to see the rapid strides made by the country after DoiMoi in the mid 80’s and has all the signs of challenging the Asian Tigers in the battle for economic supremacy.
We also realized that while the war has ended more than 40 years back, some of the fissures do remain just below the surface. Some of the locals who allied with the Americans were either banished from the big cities or have been sent to ’re-education camps’, often bear a grudge at the new dispensation. The benefits of the new found growth has often gone more to some of the erstwhile supporters of Vietcong than to the others. It would be interesting to watch how the new generation, born after the war, react to the feeling of marginalization due to the ideology of their parents. There seems to be a fear that some of them might not have their share of the rightful opportunities that a rapidly growing country provides due to the political choices made by their forefathers. What this does to the country in the coming years will a great lesson in political science.
Tourism has gathered momentum in Vietnam in recent years and it could soon be competing with Thailand in terms of tourist arrivals (which is not necessarily a good thing). Hence, if you intend to visit this beautiful country, it might be a good idea to do it sooner than later.
Bon Voyage !!