In September 2010 I went back to Australia for a while after spending months travelling in the US, Europe and Asia. My return was to catch up with family and friends, do some travel there and a few months of contract work to boost the coffers, then I had planned to move to the US. But with the economy still in the gutter I thought, what the hell, I am going to Vietnam and Laos for 2 months (via Singapore)! So I put the relocation off for a while and headed to S.E. Asia. I wrote a number of travel emails from that trip and I thought it would be fun to revisit them with some additional info and photos. The following blog is Part 9 of that journey (South Vietnam).
November 30th, 2010
First cab of the rank for tourist things in my visit to Ho Chi Minh City was the reunification Palace (once the Presidential Palace) where the famous scene in 1975 occurred with the Communist T-55 tanks bursting through the main gates, leading to the fall of the then Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. Two T-55 tanks are on the front lawn painted with the correct numbers of 843 and 390, but the originals are actually in Hanoi and a military museum elsewhere in HCMC.
The tour of the Reunification Palace took you through the entire building including the personal quarters of the former President, offices, meeting rooms, private cinema, casino(!) and the basement which was a command centre and war room. Quite an ornate place with classic 60’s and 70’s tackiness in many rooms. Luckily the Communists didn’t destroy the place.
Then I went to the nearby War Remnants Museum (once known as “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government of South Vietnam“!), quite a showcase of captured US and South Vietnamese aircraft, tanks and weaponry. There were incredible photo galleries from the war, but it also highlights the atrocities of war and the aftermath of Agent Orange on the locals (more graphic photos including deformities). A sombre experience, but well worth seeing.
One of my favourite things in Vietnam (and also Eastern Europe) are Communist statues. They have some fantastic ones here, always with the same stern heroic styling showing the soldiers and people as strong, proud and brave. My favourite is a strange one in HCMC at the historic French colonial era central post office – a man and woman who are almost in a superman flying pose, with the Soviet “Sputnik” satellite flying next to them! Classic communist imagery.
I took a day trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels about 30km from HCMC these tunnels extended for over 200km across this area, called the “Iron Triangle” by the US. Famous for being a major thorn in the side of the French,South Vietnamese and US (also a small contingent of Australians). The Viet Cong would stage surprise attacks from these tunnels, turning up in the middle of enemy troops then disappearing before they knew where fire had come from – the Viet Cong were never truly defeated during the Vietnam War.
The tunnels were too many in number and the significance of them was never truly understood until after the war. The place was bombed, dug up, defoliated, many special tunnel related weapons were developed to destroy them, and most failed. Ultimately it was up to the poor old “tunnel rats” to go down there to flush out the VC. Scary, dark, hot, small tunnels – designed for the smaller Vietnamese frame. Full of booby traps, rats, bats, spiders, snakes and VC waiting to shoot you or blow you up. Not a place for the faint hearted, yet the VC lived and fought in these tunnels! They have lots of displays on the primitive, gruesome but effective man traps the VC prepared for the enemy (such as punji sticks and “tiger traps” which had a hidden trapdoor which would flip as you stepped on it, plummeting you onto spikes).
My experience was much safer, but I came out after crouch walking through about 100 metres of tunnels drenched in sweat! I cannot even begin to imagine what it was like for both sides down there in the heat of battle?
Part of this trip also included a visit to the Cao Dai Great Temple in Tay Ninh which is near the Cambodian border (about 90km from Ho Chi Minh City). Now this was a really fascinating place to experience. The Cao Dai religion is a combination of Christianity, Buddhism , Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism, Geniism, and Taoism! Cao Dai means something along the lines of “high dias” which alludes to the highest spiritual place where God reigns. The religious order started in 1926 and they built a very elaborate and huge temple.
The Cao Dai symbol is the divine eye. It features prominently in the centre of the temple and they pray in front of it.
It was amazing watching a Cao Dai religious ceremony there with hundreds of followers and priests entering the temple and taking their applicable places, each different group wore different coloured robes (priests in the bright robes). Now I am not religious at all but this was such an impressive sight! Then the prayer and chanting started! I can thoroughly recommend a visit to Tay Ninh just to see this temple and watch the ceremony!
Soon I am leaving HCMC for a few days to head to the Southern coastal city if Vung Tau. This was an area once controlled by the Australian military during the Vietnam War.