We got an early start on Wednesday, May 19, our first day in Saigon, which was dedicated to sightseeing in a few small groups. We were joined by our guide from Destination Asia, Dzung. A real student of Vietnamese and US history, he added tremendous amounts of context and colorful detail to everything we would see and do during the day.
EMBA had two choices for sightseeing in the AM: a boat trip on the Mekong Delta or a visit to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels. Neither were close to central Saigon, so it was a one-or-the-other proposition. I chose to head to Cu Chi tunnels with 12 classmates and Professor Menezes. The trip out took a little under 2 hours, with crawling morning Saigon traffic turning to speedier highways outside the city and finally slower rural roads through farms, rice patties, and rubber plantations as we got closer to Cu Chi district (technically the outermost limits of Ho Chi Minh City). Dzung entertained us for the first hour of the trip with stories about the changing perceptions of the Vietnamese with regard to the US, capitalism, and other topics, and also pointed out interesting sights (some related to the "American War") along the way.
We got to Cu Chi around 10 AM. Cu Chi is a giant, complex network of tunnels dug initially by Vietnamese farmers in the late 1940s but expanded significantly in the 1960s by the Viet Cong as a way to hide from American forces. The finished network was incredibly complex, with living quarters, wells, meeting rooms, and more.
But more amazing than the facilities built into the network were the tunnels themselves. Long, durable, winding, and extraordinarily narrow and claustrophobic, the Viet Cong would travel for hundreds of miles to evade US tanks, infantry, and bombs. Several tunnels have been widened for tourist access by 4-10" inches; even so, as various members of EMBA made our way through them, our shoulders pressed against both sides of the tunnel. The original un-widened) tunnel entrances remain tough to find, and only certain body types can make it through their entrances.
US forces made multiple efforts to destroy the tunnels during the war, heavily bombing the area (B-52 bomb craters are visible everywhere) and coating it Agent Orange In fact, most of the trees you see today are non-native species introduced in the 1990s to try to reforest an area still polluted with chemical leftovers. Despite all of this, the US never managed to significantly disrupt the tunnel network, and an extensive network of gruesome booby traps – many made by carefully disassembling and reusing live but undetonated US ordnance dropped on the area – kept Gis from ever getting too close. In short, the Cu Chi tunnels were the ultimate low-cost disruptor.
It was at Cu Chi where we witnessed perhaps Vietnam's greatest capitalist triumph to date: A shooting range for tourists featuring weapons captured from American forces. Yes, here, in this wilderness area dotted with signs of America's failure (e.g., the hulk of a blown-out Abrams tank we passed) and no doubt the site of many wounds or fatalities for young Americans, you come across a large gift shop and snack bar with an adjoining shooting range where for only a few thousand Dong you can fire M-60s, M-16s, etc., as many tourists we saw were doing (including some of our own). To put this in perspective, can you imagine a shooting range and snack bar on the Pearl Harbor Memorial?
After lunch on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, we headed next to the Reunification Palace. This is the former Presidential Palace of South Vietnam from 1954-1975, and it was here on April 30, 1975 that North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates and South Vietnam ceased to exist. The building and grounds have been carefully maintained since then, including the original furnishings and the war command center in the basement levels.
It's a popular tourist site for foreigners and Vietnamese alike. In fact, while we were touring, we saw an elderly group of Vietnamese men, many in combat fatigues and wearing medals, in the company of their extended families on their own tour. Dzung explained that they were Viet Cong and North Vietnamese veterans.
From the Palace, we headed over the Museum of Vietnamese History. On the way, we passed the site of the US Consulate. Until the mid-1990s, this compound contained the remains of the US embassy, which was abandoned by the US and occupied by North Vietnam in April of 1975, and remained as a testament to America's failure in the war for decades afterwards (and a popular local attraction). In 1996, at the request of the US, Vietnam demolished the old building and allowed the US to build a new consulate. Still, we did not see any US flags flying, and a Vietnamese memorial honoring the Tet Offensive of March 1968 (during which the embassy was briefly captured) stands conspicuously in front.
The Museum of Vietnamese History was not something I had planned to see in Saigon, but it was definitely worth the visit. It's laid out chronologically starting around 400,000 BC (!) but moves quickly through the last two centuries of Vietnamese history. Short version of Vietnam's history: Conquered, re-conquered, and re-conquered again every few centuries by every major Asian power. Massive confluence of different cultures, religions, styles of writing, etc. Only since 1975 has Vietnam been truly independent. Our final stop of the day was the Saigon Central Post Office , built by the Eiffel Company in the early 20th century, when Vietnam was a French colony. It's a large, beautiful, active building often mistaken (understandably) for a rail station.
But more interesting, at least to me, is that by standing in front of the post office, you can see the Pittman Apartments. Never heard of them? You might not have, but you've undoubtedly seen them in this famous photo by Hubert Van Es, a photo that can still put that "sinking" feeling into the chest of any American (even one who, like me, was too young to remember the event when it happened).
It's not possible to take a photo of the Pittman Apartments from the same angle seen in the original photo today, thanks to all of the development in Saigon. All you can get is this photo of the top of an unremarkable, unattractive, aging apartment complex completely dwarfed by signs of Vietnam's rapid economic growth.
Our tour having ended, I headed out for a cup of coffee before heading back to the hotel and finally out to a great dinner at a local restaurant with a dozen classmates and Professor Russo. I wound-up buying an Americano at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (yes, the California chain) and walking past Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, and Louis Vuitton on the way there. Yes, in Saigon.
Written by Phil Obbard