Saturday, 30 December 2017

Ho Chi Minh City

Viet-Cam tour – First leg

Ho Chi Minh City, which was formerly called Saigon, is the business and financial hub of Vietnam, with a prominent history going back hundreds of years.  It was formerly called Saigon and was the capital of South Vietnam. Earlier Vietnam was under French rule and when they left Vietnam after the defeat of Dien Bien Phu, they left the country divided at the 17th parallel as North and South Vietnam. Soon after, North Vietnam which was under communist rule launched a guerrilla war against South Vietnam to reunite the country under communist rule.  In the civil war U. S. got involved on the side of South Vietnam and the communist guerrilla fighters, called Viet Cong, successfully fought the anti-communist forces of South Vietnam and U.S.  In 1973, America signed a cease-fire and left and in 1975 South Vietnamese resistance collapsed and Vietnam was reunited under Communist rule. After the takeover of South Vietnam by North Vietnam in 1975, Saigon was renamed as Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, after the late Communist leader and President of North Vietnam, and abbreviated as HCMC. However the informal name of Saigon is still in use by people, and the city centre and the Railway station bear the name of Saigon even now.  Today, Ho Chi Minh City with its classic French architecture as well as ornate temples and pagodas is a popular tourist destination and this was also the first city of visit in our Vietnam- Cambodia tour.

This short account of History of Saigon and South Vietnam is relevant to our visit to Cu Chi tunnels on the morning of 4th Dec. 2017.  The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Cu Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country.  The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were also of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and in countering the growing American military effort.  By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels of Cu Chi allowed North Vietnamese fighters in their area of South Vietnam to survive, help prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972, and the final defeat of South Vietnam in 1975. The relics of Cu chi tunnels are preserved with the traps, weapons used, models of fighters and back--up personnel.  We could imagine how difficult would have been the life in the tunnels infested with ants, scorpions, spiders and other insects with no free access to air, food and water.

Our next visit was to the Museum which was earlier called Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes and now renamed as War Remnants Museum.  It brings before us vividly the brutal effects of war on its civilian victims powerfully.  The museum exhibits a guillotine brought in by the French government and used by the French and South Vietnamese to execute their prisoners until 1960.  The Museum also features the grisly photos of victims of war who were exposed to strong pesticide and chemical spray and of the infamous My Lai Massacre.  If the visit to Cu Chi tunnels was disturbing, the visit to the Museum was shocking.  The photos of  children affected by US bombing and napalming was so harrowing that we left that section midway.  Also on display in the grounds were US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons.

In the afternoon we first visited the Reunification Palace, which was the former residence of French governor-general.  After their evacuation it was rebuilt as the official residence of the President of South Vietnam and was called Independence Palace.  After the fall of South Vietnam, it is called Reunification Palace and is used for holding official receptions or meetings and is open to visitors, on free days.  In the ground floor are the meeting rooms, and in upstairs is a grand set of reception rooms, used for welcoming foreign and national dignitaries.  In the second floor there is a banquette hall, bar and there is also a roof top cinema and helipad.  In the basement is the bunker equipped with telecommunications centre, war room and warren of tunnels.  In the back of the main building are the living quarters used by the then President.  After going round the Reunification Palace, we also went round Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office, the latter famous for its striking French architecture, and retired for the day.


Next morning we went on a tour of Mekong delta.  Mekong river is the longest river in Southeast Asia and runs over 2700 miles from the Tibetan Plateau to South China Sea through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.  We traveled from Ho Chi Minh City to My tho, a former naval base and now a bustling port city in the Mekong Delta, about 2.5 hours away.  Upon arrival in My Tho, we boarded a motorized boat for a cruise in the Mekong River. After cruising for some time, we transferred to a small row boat to reach a little island village through a narrow canal with lush vegetation on both banks.  We strolled the island gardens and attended a traditional local music performance.  Later we enjoyed a horse cart ride in village roads.  Continuing to another island in the Mekong Delta in another row boat, we had our lunch in a picturesque scenic restaurant in that island.


After lunch we went to see the Vinh Trang Pagoda in My Phong village.  The beautiful structure features a mixture of Chinese, Vietnamese and Angkor (Cambodian) architectural styles.  There are three entrances to the pagoda. The central iron gate is always closed, while the two side gates only are open. The pagoda is surrounded by gardens of ornamental trees, ancient trees and bonsai, creating a peaceful atmosphere.  In the garden we have big statues of standing Buddha, laughing Buddha and lying Buddha. This pagoda provided shelter for Vietnamese patriots and is recognized as a national historical and cultural relic by the government.

In the evening after resting for some time in the room we visited by ourselves without the guide and driver, the temple for Goddess Mariamman, which was near our hotel.  It was built in 19th century by the Chettiar community living there at that time.  Many of them have gone back to India or shifted to other countries during the time of civil war. However the temple is still well maintained and is patronised by the local Chinese and Vietnamese people who believe in the Goddess as Goddess of good luck.  Joss sticks, jasmine, lilies and tender coconut are the offerings made to Goddess. Besides the main shrine for Goddess Mariammam, there are two other shrines for the guardian deities Madurai Veeran and Pechchi Amman and statues of other deities in the hallway.   The temple also has a Rajagopuram with a number of statues.

Next day we left for Siam Reap in Cambodia for the second leg of our Viet-Cam tour, my abbreviation for Vietnam-Cambodia tour. The entire tour including air tickets were organized through Odyssey tours.  Lucy, the tour guide in HCMC had been very friendly and helpful and made our experience in Ho Chi Minh City enjoyable.  Photos taken in this leg of the tour can be seen in my Flickr album "Ho Chi Minh City" @