Rain, robbery and remnants of war in Saigon…

We arrived in Saigon earlier this week looking forward to our last city and last stop in Vietnam before heading up to Cambodia, but unfortunately it didn’t quite live up to expectations!

Our hotel was situated in a rather dark alley in the middle of ‘backpacker area’ off Pham Ngo Lao Sreet and as soon as we found it, we sort of wished we hadn’t!

I think the previous reviewers on Hostel World must have been bribed as their raving comments about the hotel didn’t quite live up to the hype. The My My Arthouse is run by a very strange woman and her even stranger son – she greeted us in her nightdress while he sat in front of the computer eating a sandwich and watching Celine Dion music videos. They didn’t ask for our passports, our names or ‘sign us in’ but instead just told us to take our shoes of before giving us a room key!

It was a weird place, but hey, the bed was comfy, it was relatively cheap and in a good location (discounting the rat-infested alley and the odd drug dealer who hung around there!)

To be honest we didn’t really get a good feeling about Saigon from the start – the backpacker area in particular didn’t have the same cool vibe as Hanoi and the weather was absolutely awful for the entire duration of our stay! During our first day we got completely soaked and had to literally wring out our shoes after we’d been outside – something we haven’t had to do since the monsoons in India!

Our first port of call during our first day was to sort out the next leg of our trip and arrange our travel plans for Cambodia. We originally wanted to take a bus to Chau Doc near the border, then take a boat through the Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh, but after walking around in the pouring rain all day getting quotes from various travel companies we decided on getting a bus all the way there instead – $6 instead of the $40 each it would have cost us to do the bus/boat option!

While we were doing the rounds in the streets of Saigon we had an encounter that completely dented our opinion of the city. We were crossing the road, clutching our umbrellas, when a motorbike raced round the corner straight towards me causing me to stop abruptly – Richard had just reached the other side of the road but I was still in the middle and in a split second the passenger on the bike reached out, grabbed the necklace I was wearing and ripped it off my neck, before speeding away!

I was so shocked and it happened so fast that I couldn’t even scream out for Richard – it took me another split second to realise what had actually happened. A split second later than that of course I was crying my eyes out on the pavement! The necklace was a gift from my mum – a St Christopher designed to keep me safe while traveling and I couldn’t believe that they had taken it. They wouldn’t even be able to do anything with it as it had snapped as he grabbed it, so I couldn’t understand what they had gained from it. They may be poor and desperate here, but that necklace was far more valuable to me than any amount of cash they could possibly get for it.

For the rest of the day we were really subdued and honestly couldn’t be bothered doing anything at all. We bought some noodle soup and bars of Toblerone and took them back to the hotel to eat before going to bed.

The next day we decided to try and make the most of things so went to apply for our Cambodian visa from the embassy. We’d heard that people get ripped off quite a lot by getting a visa on arrival and we couldn’t be bothered with the hassle – at the embassy it costs just $21 and the process couldn’t have been easier. We just took our passports, one photocopy, one photo and 840,000 Dong, filled out a form and were told to come back at 4pm to pick our passports up.

As we’d rented a moped for the day we went to see the sights while we waited for our visas to be processed. It was still pouring with rain so we invested in a couple of those ponchos that are all the rage in Asia – we felt completely ridiculous, but at least they kept our clothes dry on the bike!

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Driving around Saigon certainly wasn’t as much fun as Hanoi and not just because of the rain. In Hanoi there are literally no rules of the road and it all sort of works – a bit like ‘organised chaos’ but here they have tried to enforce some order in the form of really annoying one way streets which just result in chaos without the organisation! Cars, bikes and bicycles blatantly flout the so-called rules and make the whole driving experience quite stressful and really dangerous!

We drove along the Saigon river, past the Ho Chi Minh museum which is situated right on the river bank. It’s here that the river splits into the Ben Bgne Arr Oyo and you have to cross over one of three bridges. The Saigon isn’t the most beautiful of rivers and certainly doesn’t beat the Danube or any of the other big rivers we’ve come across on our travels – it’s just long, extremely dirty and not particularly nice to look at!

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After running the gauntlet again across town, we drove to the Reunification Palace – also known as Independence Palace, where the iconic photo of the Vietnamese tank bursting through the gates was taken during the Fall of Saigon.

It’s not the prettiest of palaces, in fact it looks a bit like a 1960’s office block with flags outside, but it’s the significance of the place that made us want to go and see it.

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After that we headed over to the nearby War Remnants Museum – formally known as “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government” before it was changed to the “Museum of American War Crimes”, then the “War Crimes Museum”, before being renamed to its current, not so un-PC name.

The museum comprises a spectacular display of photographs from the Vietnam War, including a collection of photographs by war reporters who subsequently died, giving visitors a unique ‘inside look’ at the harsh realities of this time. The first display is called “Vestiges of war crimes and aftermaths” and is a display of various massacres, shootings and ‘evidence’ of torture perpetrated by the Americans. Many of the images are truly shocking and feature women, children and babies lying dead in the streets, but you cannot escape how incredibly one-sided the display and the museum is as a whole.

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As well as this display, you can also see photos from the French Occupation, photos of napalm and phosphorus bomb victims, as well as ‘now and then’ photos of Vietnamese cities. Scattered between the photographic displays are several military weapons with an impressive array of equipment such as helicopters, fighter jets, bombs and tanks displayed outside.

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Also outside is a re-creation of the prison on Con Son island, where prisoners were held and tortured during the Vietnam War – here you can see the ‘tiger cages’ that these prisoners were forced to stay in, as well as read graphic descriptions of the abuse that went on there. Not the most uplifting of activities, but visiting the museum was certainly fascinating and we’d urge anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh to add it to their itinerary!

Later that evening we went out to eat in the backpackers area and found a great little place called Café 333 – the food there was awesome, and good portion sizes too which is hard to find in Vietnam! After dinner we went round to a local bar (the kind where you have to sit on little plastic stools on the pavement!) and ordered the local brew – a mini-pitcher of beer (about 4 pints worth) for 14,000 Dóng. We ended up sitting next to a couple of young Vietnamese lads who were clutching books about England. They were studying at university and were just itching to practice their English on us! They even ended up teaching us some cockney rhyming slang as well as filling us in on the ‘characteristics of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish people’ (according to their book).

After teaching them a few more choice English words, we left them to it and went round the corner to meet Richard’s cousin (well, second cousin!) in a bar. He lives in Saigon so we’d agreed to meet up – apparently Richard met him when he was about 5, but he doesn’t remember! We had a great night trading life stories and ended up staying out for a few hours longer than planned, rolling in at around 3am! Usually this wouldn’t be a problem, but we had to get up at 6.30am to go on a tour to Cu Chi – about 2 hours drive from the city and just knew we’d have a sore head!

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Cu Chi is famous for its complex labyrinth of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The VC guerrillas used them as hiding spots as well as communications and supply routes. Many VC fighters lived in these tunnels also, in very cramped, dark conditions. The US army tried to destroy the tunnels lots of times by carpet bombing with B52s as well as sending in soldiers to draw out the Viet Cong. These attempts weren’t particularly successful and any American soldiers who tried to go down into the tunnels would either get stuck or come across the many booby traps that were laid for them.

On the way to the tunnels we stopped at the Handicapped Handicrafts factory, where people who were affected by napalm bombs and other chemicals used during the war, work to create some amazing objects such as paintings, bowls and other ornaments. We had a good look around there before getting back on the bus and heading to Cu Chi.

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Our guide for the day was a man called Tung, who had some really interesting stories to tell us about the war and Cu Chi itself, where he was born. He actually fought with the Viet Cong against the Americans and had first hand experience of building the tunnels as well as daily life inside them. He even had a gunshot wound on his shoulder to show us which was pretty shocking!

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When we first arrived at the Cu Chi complex we were shown a ‘reference’ video which explained that before the war the area was a peaceful farming community, where simple peasants lived together in harmony until the Americans arrived “like a batch of crazy devils” (actual quote) and bombed them all! The video was chock-full of anti-US propaganda and showed young girls and men from Cu Chi laying bombs in the jungle to blow up US soldiers, before receiving ‘American Killer Hero’ medals. I know we shouldn’t have, but we did giggle a little bit about some of the extremely subjective language used!

After that we spent a good couple of hours in the bamboo forest, seeing tunnel access points, fox holes, booby traps and the bunkers that were used for recycling unexploded American bombs and weapons. The whole place was fascinating and we got a great insight into this side of the war. Being in the exact place that it all happened really helped us imagine how it was for both the Viet Cong, US and people of Cu Chi, especially with the loud gun shots that echoed around the forest every now and then from the on-site shooting range.

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Speaking of the shooting range – guess who just HAD to have a go with an M30 machine gun? Yes Richard! His 10 live bullets took about 0.5 seconds to erupt from the gun as he aimed for the animal cutouts placed in the distance but I just about managed to capture it on camera!

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With gun shots still ringing in our ears we headed down into the tunnels themselves – they had been widened slightly for Western visitors, but God they were tight! It was so hot and sweaty and we had to bend everything just to get through. If you’re claustrophobic you probably wouldn’t want to go down there in the dark. I had to come up after about 10 metres but Richard went on for another 100m, coming out very hot and dirty the other end!

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Before we left Cu Chi, we had time to sample the food that the Viet Cong ate to survive in the tunnels – tapioca and tea!

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The Cu Chi tunnels is definitely one of the ‘must sees’ during any visit to Ho Chi Minh – especially if you can get a good guide – our Tung worked for T.M Brothers Café on De Tham street and he really did make the whole experience come alive for us!

Once we got back to the city itself we caught up on our missed sleep so that we’d be nice and fresh for the journey to Cambodia the next day. Despite the great day we had at Cu Chi I personally was quite happy to be leaving Saigon. We were both keen to experience something different in a different country now and felt like we had seen enough of Vietnam for the time being.

As with so many other countries we’ve visited, Vietnam has been a land of contrasts – meeting the nicest people, but having the worst experiences. It’s been a fantastic adventure and the landscape and people have been so much more than expected! But it’s also given us two awful experiences (the psycho travel agent and motorbike robbery) which have abruptly reminded us that no matter how beautiful, Vietnam is still a very poor country filled with some very desperate people – something that is difficult to remember when surrounded by mountains, beaches and smiles, unless you stop and take a good look around.

Cambodia, we expect, will be a different experience altogether and we’re not quite sure what to expect but are certainly looking forward to finding out….

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