Saigon (Vietnam), 29.07.2013
From Phnom Penh a bus took me to Vietnam in six hours. The ride was nothing spectacular, the Cambodian landscape flat, poorer then what I had seen before, and dirtier. The Mekong bus was also not as nice as the Giant Ibis from Siem Reap. And there was the boring and bureaucratic border crossing, the first one on this trip since the Pakistani-Indian one at Wagah. It felt strange to not have the car here.
Shortly after 14:00 we reached the urban area of Saigon, today called Ho Chi Minh City, or simply HCMC. The city is huge, much bigger then Phnom Penh, but not as modern as Bangkok, although this is changing. Traffic is tough, scooters are everywhere, and cars are big, and often expensive. The driving style isn’t aggressive though, as I’ve seen in so many countries in the past months. The Mercedes quota is probably among the highest I’ve seen since Baku. While on the outskirts the houses are mainly small and low, the more we drove into town the higher and bigger they got. There are a lot of skyscrapers, modern construction, rich buildings. There seems to be a lot of money in town. Almost 40 years since the end of the war, that saw Vietnam united again as one communist state, capitalism has truly won the battle here. Without guns, but through consumption, investment, business. The city center is full of stores selling electronics, scooters and cars, cell phones. Glitz and bling abound, the atmosphere is lively. Once out of the bus, I walked 20 minutes to the hotel through the heat. Many people said hello, welcoming me on the street, smiling friendly.
My friend Timo had recommended me a hotel here, the Japanese run Nikko Saigon. A great recommendation, exactly what I needed after the bus ride. From the room on the 17th floor I had an amazing view of the city, at day and night. After freshening up I went to find to find some food, it was already getting dark and I hadn’t eaten since the border. A couple of streets from the hotel I found an open air restaurant with basins of fish and seafood that looked good. Also here I got a lot of smiles as a welcome, and the waitress explained me the menu with a few English words and a lot of patience. Wile I waited for the food, a guy I suppose was the owner came, welcomed me and shook my hand. I noted that the normal waitresses were all dressed in jeans and t-shirts with brand names on them. There was Victoria’s Secret, D&G, Mango etc. I got my food from Gucci, and it was delicious (the food). On the way back to the hotel some hookers on a scooter followed me, hard selling. It reminded me of a scene from Full Metal Jacket.
The next morning I got up early for a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels that the Vietcong dug to resist American bombardments. The guide picked me up in the hotel, and then we drove through town to collect other tourists from their places. This got me an hour of sightseeing of Saigon and I was, again, very positively surprised. I had expected a much poorer, backward place, with a significant presence of communist ideology and propaganda. But this city is booming and has modernised tremendously, as I had noted the day before already. In the city center there were luxury brand boutiques left and right. Old colonial buildings like the post office, the opera house or Notre Dame basilica were beautifully renovated, and plenty of new high rises had been added, all steel, glass and flashy lights. The impression I got was of great organisation, cleanliness and order. There were plenty of communist flags in many buildings, and some posters picturing Ho Chi Minh and communist workers’ scenes, reminders of the political ideology that officially is still alive. They seemed terribly outdated, as if time had stood still many decades ago. But on the background of what was happening all around here it became evident how the ideology had lost as it couldn’t keep the pace with the economic reality of what people want.
Once we had everybody on board we left Saigon for Cu Chi. The first stop was at a factory where victims of American chemical weapons used in the war were making handicrafts. We were shown the entire production process of wood being treated, carved, painted, lacquered and finally washed. The shop next door showed the huge variety and beauty of items.
Then we drove to one of the two tunnel complexes that were preserved for tourists. Our guide, Typhoon, explained every detail very well and laughed a lot at his own jokes. The introduction video was a classical communist propaganda piece, highlighting the heroic resistance of the Vietcong fighters and showcasing some of them as particularly brave American-killers. It was impressive to see how in an area adjacent to several US bases the Vietnamese had dug around 250km of tunnels and bunkers that could not be destroyed. And this at a mere 30km distance from Saigon. During the tour through the compound we were shown hidden entrances, ventilation shafts, deadly traps made of bamboo and metal. There was also a shooting range where tourists could fire rounds of real ammunition with real guns from the war. I thought it was scary to do this in a place where just 6.000 of the 16.000 fighters of the area had survived. But plenty of people loved it. Then we went to crawl through the tunnels, that were increased in height and width to fit big western tourists. It was a claustrophobic experience to pass a few meters of tunnel, and I left it sweating. I can’t imagine how these guys could live here, in much smaller tunnels, with snakes and rats feeling also comfortable in them, for weeks and weeks under constant bombardment, fighting American raids and tanks that came to destroy the tunnels with explosives, gas and water if they found them. The whole area had been converted into a moon landscape by US aerial bombing. We saw many huge bomb craters in the jungle and unexploded ordnance of all sizes.
After this crazy experience we drove back into Saigon. I had to ship something back to Europe, so I left the hotel after lunch to go to the post office. This building in French colonial style has been well restored, and just a huge Ho Chi Minh painting has been added to the original decoration. The service was quick, efficient and friendly, I was in and out in half an hour. In front of the post is the Notre Dame cathedral, another French building well preserved. I walked for several hours through the city, passing the former presidential palace and the War Remnants Museum, that was closed unfortunately. There are still a lot of French buildings standing and in good shape. But modern construction is everywhere. Big restaurants, bars and coffee shops, stores for all kinds of products, but also stylish designer outlets along the many branded stores are everywhere. When I came back to the hotel after dark I was exhausted from the day, but loaded with so many impressions. Saigon truly is another great surprise on this trip and I hope I’ll be back some day to too far away.