Ho Chi Minh City and an explanation of where we are now

Since I am so behind on posts, I should explain that we left Vietnam on March 7th for Bali, Indonesia. We intended to stay in Bali for three weeks, but left early as things with COVID-19 were heating up worldwide. We are now in Australia and intend to stay until travel is safer.

The US government has called for US citizens abroad to return home if they are not prepared to remain in place for an extended period of time. The government’s call to return to the US is not a call to patriotism, but out of concern for the well-being of its citizens who may not be prepared to remain out of the country for an extended period of time.

For any concerned about us, we are prepared to remain in Australia until travel conditions are safe. We have consulted with the United States Consulate in Perth concerning this decision.

Our decision to remain in Australia is based on many reasons, among which are: we cannot return to our home until August (it’s rented out until then), our current health insurance is only active outside of the US (in the US, we wouldn’t be covered right now), Australia has good health care, and the situation with COVID-19 in Australia right now is a little better than in the US.

We are sheltering-in-place here just like most people in America. The state of Western Australia has locked down travel not just to neighboring states, but also between cities, so we will be in Busselton, a small town south of Perth, until the virus is under control and the travel ban is lifted.

But, there could be worse places to be in quarantine than Western Australia with an empty beach just across the street!

Anyway, on to the post about our last stop in Vietnam.

Our last few days in Vietnam were in the largest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

Nolan on the bus to Ho Chi Minh City
Scooters everywhere. It was scary to cross the street.
Scooters are used for everything in Vietnam

Right away, Ho Chi Minh was different from Hanoi, the second largest city. It was much cleaner. In Hanoi, people literally dumped their garbage on the street. At night people came with brooms and handcarts and cleaned it up. The same was true in Quy Nhon–there was always garbage everywhere by the end of the day. Ho Chi Minh had public garbage cans and dumpsters and the streets were much cleaner.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh
Independence Palace (Dinh Độc Lập), also known as Reunification Palace. Home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates
Historic Post Office

The food was also much better in Ho Chi Minh. I guess it’s hard to say since we only saw a limited slice of both cities, but it seemed that way to us. Despite originating in the north, pho was much better in the south. The bahn mi was also quite a bit better in the south than in the north.

Southern Vietnamese pho, in our opinion l, more flavorful and better than the pho in the north.
Margaret enjoying pho bo.

We didn’t have a lot of time in Ho Chi Minh and prioritized seeing the war remnant museum and the tunnels in Cu Chi.

War Remnants Museum

The war remnant museum displayed many of the tanks, planes, guns, and shells used by America against Vietnam. It had a display dedicated to the war protests among GI’s and civilians in America, and to the protests to the war in other countries in the war. Many of the GI’s stories were gut-wrenching and moving.

Posters from various countries promoting the anti-war movement.
Senators Kerry and McCain, both veterans of the Vietnam war, were key to legislating to lift the economic sanctions that kept Vietnam in poverty after the war.
Inspiring words on display in the war remnants museum.
The museum did not focus on the terrible cruelties of war so much as it highlighted all the support for the anti-war movement within the US military servicemen, the US public, and within other countries around the world.

The museum also housed a display showing the terrible effects of Agent Orange, a chemical sprayed from planes that killed all the vegetation it contacted, reducing the cover where Vietnamese guerrillas could hide. Agent Orange is a chemical “intercalating agent”, meaning it inserts or intercalates a new base into DNA stands, inducing all sorts of mutations (many resulting in cancer) and permanently altering the DNA. Even trace exposure in results in permanent, irreparable damage to DNA that is passed on to the offspring of those exposed. Because of this, the affects of Agent Orange are multi-generational and still occurring in children born today.

Photographs showing some of the effects of Agent Orange
Video showing how one man affected by Agent Orange has learned to work around limitations and build furniture. He employs several other people similarly affected

We spent our last day visiting Cu Chi, a village located close to Saigon that was a stronghold for the Vietcong.

The villagers of Cu Chi dug tunnels in the compact clay plateau above the Mekong River. The tunnel construction started in the 1950’s under the French, but continued to the end of the Vietnam War.

The people lived in the tunnels, coming out at night to farm and to fight.

When you see this place and read the stories of those who lived in the tunnels, it becomes clear why the US never had a chance in Vietnam.

The Cu Chi villagers lived in an unsanitary, cramped, dark, and low oxygen environment with the constant possibility that the bombs dropped by the B-52’s would collapse the tunnels and bury them alive.

The US went to Vietnam to stop the spread of communism. But the truth is, those who supported the communists were not so much dedicated to the ideals of communism as they were to an independent and self-determined Vietnam.

They were generally the poor and working class who had grown tired of the oppression that they had endured for centuries under a ruling class. The oppression had worsened under the policies of the French who maintained their power by bolstering the upper classes. When the French left and the US intervened, the government they helped put in place maintained the dominance of the ruling class to the point of extreme poverty and starvation of the lower classes of people.

And so communism was not what they were striving for so much as an end to decades of French oppression and centuries of oppression before that.

Their level of commitment is something that cannot be grasped by someone who hasn’t known what it is like to live in those conditions for generations.

Living in the tunnels and fighting was just more misery and suffering for a people who had endured it for so long.

The Vietnamese were not just ready to die fighting for their country, they were ready to live in unbearably deplorable conditions, half-starved, indefinitely and then die fighting for their country.

Unfortunately, having eventually won the war, the government in Hanoi did not/could not live up to the hopes and expectations of the Vietnamese people and life after the war continued to be very tough.

One entry point into the tunnels. The wood lid would swell when wet, sealing tight the opening during heavy rains and preventing water from getting into the tunnels.
Worker showing how the tunnel entry was concealed after entering the tunnel

The tunnels had three levels. The first was used for daily life–cooking, working, waiting, sleeping. The next, deeper layer was safer from shelling and bombs. The third, deepest level exited the plateau into which the tunnels were dug just below the level of the Mekong river and was used as an escape when Americans filled the tunnels with toxic gas–the Vietcong would follow the deepst tunnels to where they met the river, swimming through the several meters of water-filled tunnel into the Mekong river and then rising to the surface to escape.

Model showing the levels of the tunnels

The tunnels were intentionally dug low and narrow–on average 3 feet tall and one and half feet wide. Hollow bamboo poles placed vertically from the tunnels to the surface carried some fresh air into the stuffy tunnels. Cooking was accomplished using similar ventilation to carry smoke out of the tunnels. The tunnels had hospitals, schools, work stations and other places to go about the daily tasks of life during war. By the end of the war, at least 75 miles of tunnels had been constructed

Excerpts from A People’s History of the Vietnam War (Jonathan Neale)

An account of Le Van Nong, a farmer turned guerrilla who lived in the Cu Chi tunnels for years.

“The tunnels we were in stank and we stank. The tunnels were usually very hot and we were always sweating…At night we tried to cook the rice for eating the next day. If there was no time to prepare the rice, we went without food for the whole day until the next night, and we tried to come up to cook. It really wasn’t possible for us to cook underground, the smoke was always asphyxiating, you just could not breathe, there was no air down there anyway. Sometimes we were driven to attack the Americans and make them go away, just to we could come up and cook at night, cook in the open. You cannot imagine what pleasure it gave us. “

Vien Phong was a poet who worked in the tunnels, writing and printing leaflets for distribution in Saigon. He slept in a hole three feet high dug out of the side of a tunnel:

“I had not dug the shelter too deep, for we learned from bitter experience that the deeper the shelter, the greater the chance of being buried alive after a bombing attach, so I built a moderately strong shelter that could deal with the bomb fragments. When the enemy carried out their anti-guerrilla operations above, I went into my sleeping shelter, lit a candle, and read books or poems until the air was so foul I had to extinguish the candle and lie in the complete blackness of eternal night, listening to the tanks and guns above me. I did not know, and nor did my comrades, whether we had judged the depth of our tunnels correctly. One lay there, wondering if a tank would crash through the ceiling of your sleeping chamber and crush you to death, or worse, not quite to death.”

Dang Thi Linh was originally from Saigon. Helicopter gunships had killed both her father and mother in separate incidents. She worked as a dancer in one of the traveling theatre groups the Vietcong sent around to raise morale. They performed in the tunnels and were very popular. Peasants traveled from the surrounding villages and came down into the tunnels to watch. Air was always a problem. Above ground, the audience would have sung along with the performers. Below ground, the audience was usually silent, so as not to use up the air.

In any case, it was an eye-opening experience to visit the tunnels. There is a section of tunnel you can crawl through (although it was made specifically for tourists and is wider, taller, lit, force ventilated, and only 40 meters long), but Nolan and I got our fill of being in tunnels while we were in Turkey. So, the girls went without us, but apparently they had got their fill, too as they bailed out at the first side exit and didn’t make it the full 120 feet.

Entry to the tourist tunnel
Jane in a tunnel entry
Bamboo was used as ventilation pipe
Tunnels were vented through fake termite mounds
One of the many simple, yet terrifying and effective booby traps used against American and South Vietnamese soldiers

Even though our stay in Ho Chi Minh was short and the Cu Chi tunnels and war museum occupied most of our time, we enjoyed other things the city offered. We ate good food, both Vietnamese cusine and some foods we missed from home, including pizza and Mexican food. We also, found a great spa where our whole family got to soak our feet in a big pool with little fish that ate your dead skin. After sitting in the pool for 1/2 an hour, Ashley, Jane and I all decided to get pedicures and foot massages.

Feeding frenzy

And then, we left Vietnam. We loved it. We stayed right up to the last day allowed on our visa. Like our experience in Morocco, going to Vietnam was a step back in time where you could see farmers working their rice paddies with water buffalo, people living in boats on the sea and on the river, and women carrying fruit or flowers to sell on a milkmaid’s yoke. It was a wonderful experience.

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