Our guide in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) says his Catholic family moved here from Northern Vietnam in 1954. His father was killed in 1973. We don’t ask how. After the war, the family didn’t move back. Living in a small communal village is good, he says because everyone helps each other, everyone shares what they have, but…there are always murmurs behind you.
Saigon is huge, with wide streets. Women wear shorts and T-shirts in addition to skirts. There’s more diversity of appearance and attitude than in Hanoi. Our guide says the young people in Ho Chi Minh City are heavily influenced by Korean celebrities and fashion while Hanoi is influenced more by China. Our hotel is on one of the long sides of a huge open rectangle with the Sai Gon River at one end of the rectangle and the Hotel de Ville at the other end.
There are no signaled intersections despite the thousands of scooters and cars and buses. We want to cross the street to get to the river, but the hordes of scooters are intimidating. A young Viet girl next to us steps out into the road and we follow her like hungry baby ducks. She puts her hands out to the side, as if she could hold the mass back. Miraculously, the horde does slow, it maneuvers around us as we walk quickly to the river. Our crossing guard disappears before we can thank her. Later, we watch as teenagers escort groups of tourists across the road, collecting a toll fee tip from the grateful survivors.
The Sai Gon River here is filled with ships and garbage. Not much to see on this side of the street so we prepare to cross back. We wait until we see an older Viet man preparing to cross and we scoot over behind him. He doesn’t acknowledge us exactly, but he does motion Bob to move back from the traffic. Then he launches out into the street, holding out his arms and motioning for motorists to slow. Another traffic miracle occurs. We dog our unknown guide’s heels. When we reach the curb in safety, he lopes away—perhaps it was a deed of merit for Buddha.
We drive to the Cu Chi Tunnel complex to visit the remains of some of the extensive tunnels used by villagers and North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Termite hills disguise air vents, the jungle looks sparser than I expect. All the debris left by US troops seems to have been turned into useful items—tires into sandals, bomb fragments into knives or tools. There is a display of traps used by the villagers, adapted for use against American soldiers. I can’t imagine how an American soldier of 18 or so would feel on patrol, knowing that traps and snipers could be anywhere, unable to tell friend from foe or trust what anyone in a village is saying to you and with everything seeming to want to kill you.
We hear a succession of gunshots—is there a reenactment of combat? No, this complex also boasts a modern swimming pool and a gun range right across from one of the gift shops. It’s a multi-use park.
Our guide takes us to the Post Office in Saigon later. We don’t know why we are going to a Post Office, but when we go inside the yellow stucco building, we are greeted by an enormous portrait of Uncle Ho at one end of the cavernous building. Wooden phone booths from a by-gone era line the walls with clocks giving the time for various parts of the world hanging above them. The booths no longer have phones in them; instead they are festooned with advertisements for electronics. Across from the Post Office is Notre Dame Catholic Church, currently being remodeled, and right next door to the Post Office is a McDonalds.
In Hanoi, I didn’t see billboards of Uncle Ho and except for the mausoleum and the park, I didn’t see much of Ho Chi Minh. But in Saigon, there are billboards, and pictures of Uncle Ho everywhere. Guess they need the reminder. The “Hanoi Hilton” is now a venue for showing the cruelty of the French government and for displays of the Hilton’s most distinguished prisoner-Senator John McCain. In Saigon we visit the very modern-looking Presidential palace with its clever concrete louvers before each long, narrow window—for protection. We see the war maps. It’s nice to get outside where there are plants and trees.