So is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?
Come to Vietnam and look around and you would be forgiven for not knowing which is the official and which is the preferred name. Both are everywhere and the locals seem to flutter inconsistently between the two. Still, it is officially Ho Chi Minh City as of 2nd July 1976, following the end of the Vietnam War and the creation of Vietnam as a united communist state. However revered Uncle Ho may be, the Vietnamese are quite happy to use both Saigon and HCMC.. probably a matter of ease, innit?!
As with most large Asian cities, HCMC is chaotic but charming. There’s plenty to do and see and an aura of the exotic fills the city; a rural-urban melting pot of commerce and culture mixed in with fading ghosts of a colonial past. Yes, we were here to experience Vietnam, but our first mission was to brush up on our history, an easy task in a city brimming with stories.
First stop, War Remnants Museum. To be honest, none of us really knew any concrete facts about the Vietnam war. We knew a couple of basics and were well aware of the infamous horror stories about ‘naaam and the revolutionary repercussions that it initiated all over the globe, but we still needed to know the who, what, when, and why about the whole thing. Although informative, the museum was by no means 100% comprehensive and inevitably was unashamedly biased. Despite essentially being a propaganda museum for the Vietnamese Communist regime, we did manage to glean some important facts and we tried our hardest not to be any more anti-American than was necessary. I’m not even going to attempt to give any sort of potted history (a la ‘Facing the Killing Fields of Cambodia‘) – my knowledge is gappy, dubiously informed and peppered with enormous holes. We’re making our way through a selection of pirate copy books (see below) so with any luck by the time we come home we’ll be doctorate-level informed.. (I’m being serious, Ed). In the meantime, if you want background info, see Wikipedia. Or talk to Fiona Walker – she knows about this stuff.
What really struck us about the museum was the proliferation of photography. The 60s and 70s saw huge advances in photographic technology – cameras were more sophisticated, print more widespread, and the first colour photos were appearing in journals and magazines. So much of the museum collection comprised documentary photographs. One of the largest exhibits was ‘Requiem’ – a collection of war documentary photos taken by 134 journalists from 11 countries. The works ranged from army base boredom to individual pain to large scale destruction. The link between these photographers? The war had killed them all.
Many of the collections were under the name ‘Last Roll of Film’ as the photos had been developed from crushed and destroyed cameras found next to the photographer’s body. There were anecdotes from those who had worked with the various photographers telling of their personality, their bravery as well as the circumstances of their deaths.
Knowing the back stories and the bravery of the photographers was hugely moving and made the already brilliant photographs incredible. The photos told stories that demonstrated the sheer futility of the war, the pain, fear and desolation of all involved. Some I don’t think we’ll ever be able to forget: the GIs interrogating a wailing boy who at the moment was weeping as he was led to believe the shot he had just heard had killed his father: the mother and her four young children swimming to safety across a swollen river: a soldier posing holding a tattered shirt, attached to which is grisly remains of a Viet Cong guerilla.
Another gallery, the ‘Vestiges of War Crimes’ pavilion, depicted in grotesque detail the mistreatment of civilians during the war. This includes photos of mutilation, napalm burns and torture of both civilians and fighters. Among the images was the iconic ‘Napalm Girl’ – Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc running on a road after being severely burned by a napalm attack.
Another, and perhaps the worst, gallery presents a montage of photographs of the ‘second generation’ victims of the war – those children born after 1975 who were affected by the 75 million litres of toxic defoliant sprays dropped on the country during the war. The chemicals were nicknamed ‘Agent Orange’, a combination of the code names for Herbicide Orange and Agent LNX, used as part of the US’s chemical warfare programme. Vietnam estimates that 400,000 people were killed or maimed and that 500,000 second generation victims have been born as a result. The whole exhibition was a grisly portfolio of photographs in addition to some deformed foetuses preserved in jars.
Many of the perpetrators of these atrocities were on display outside – B52 aircraft, US Army Tanks, a selection of different sized bombs. It seemed almost fitting then that as we wandered round these grim remnants of war, the bloated raindrops that had been threatening all morning burst into a fully-fledged thunderstorm. Deafening thunder and whips of lightening – what a fitting soundtrack to a war museum visit.
There were a few small rays of hope in this horror, however. The following day we continued our history lesson with a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. En route we were taken to a handicraft workshop, where those who suffered from Agent Orange deformities were employed as skilled artisans. They made and sold beautifully crafted bowls, tablets and various traditionally decorated nicknacks. Yes it may have been overpriced, but still reeling from the graphic War Remnant Museum photos, it was worth it.
Onwards and upwards to Cu Chi. In a nutshell, the tunnels at Cu Chi are part of an enormous and intricate underground network built by Viet Cong fighters. The tunnels were the Viet Cong’s primary operational base and the site of many military campaigns during the war.
Our tour started out with a propaganda video, so subjective it was laughable, promoting the heroism of the Viet Cong soldiers. The young soldiers, many of them female, created homemade traps for ‘catching Americans’ and received awards for the number of ‘American Devils’ that they had killed. Set to WWII comedy tin-whistle music, we apologise but it was hard to take this seriously. The smirks quickly dissipated as we were faced with the real deal…
The actual tunnels were multifaceted – used for communications, shelter, and most importantly, combat. As the war dragged on, the Viet Cong soldiers continued building so the tunnel system became increasingly complex; kitchen areas with tiered smoke exits, wells that reached down to the water table below, air vents and even ‘hospital and recovery’ areas. The evident dedication in the building of the tunnels as well as the fierce resistance to invading forces clearly shows the ethos of the people of Cu Chi – a hard-working community who lived off the land and whose duty it was to defend themselves against any unjustified invaders.
The entrances were expertly camouflaged so that snipers could attack the enemy and then seemingly ‘disappear’ into thin air. We saw one opening that was no larger than an A4 sheet paper, others were coffin-esque sets of steps that descended into the inky blackness. We had the opportunity to explore a section of the tunnels as part of the tour.. one of the less delightful experiences we’ve had. As you can imagine, the air is stifling in the tunnel and seems about 10 degrees warmer than the already baking above ground temperature. The tunnels are too small to turn around in (Viet Cong stipulations said that they should be between 0.8 – 1.8m tall and 0.8 – 1.2 m wide) so once you’re in, you’re in. As ever, Imogen completely freaked out, most likely due to the fact that it was pitch black, there were people ahead and behind so if you panicked and wanted to get out you couldn’t, as well as a host of other irrational fears (“Is Vietnam earthquake-prone..??”)