Saigon is quite a different place than its northern cousin, Hanoi. While Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam in a political sense, Saigon is undoubtedly the commercial center of the country. It’s big and modern, with cosmopolitan cafes and restaurants lining its boulevards and a busy lilt reminiscent of the western powers that held sway here for so many years. It’s also steamy and hot compared to the cool, crisp air in the north – a bit of a shock to the system.
Jen was stuck in bed nursing her knee, but Gil and Sue teamed up together to explore Saigon. We stayed in Pham Ngu Lao, the U.S. military enclave turned backpackers ghetto, which is lined with cheap eats and street side “bars” serving up beer in plastic jugs. From there, it was a short walk to the city’s best cultural and art museums, as well as a few nice parks – a welcome respite from the motorbike clogged streets.
As with Hanoi, there are many sites that are historically significant to the Vietnam War. The Reunification Palace (originally built as South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace) marks the location where the Communist tanks plied into the city on the day Saigon surrendered in 1975. It has been left exactly as it was on that day. Another reminder of the country’s troubled history is the War Remnants Museum, which documents the atrocities of the war in heartbreaking realism, including photographs of victims of the war and children born long afterward with defects as a result of Agent Orange and other chemicals used by the US military.
Sue and Gil also took a trip out to the Chu Chi tunnels, part of the infamous network of tunnels that reached all the way to the Cambodian border and allowed the communists to maintain control over the rural areas outside of Saigon. Guided by a former Viet Cong soldier who was clearly proud of the fact that he had a hand in defeating a global super power like the USA, they patiently listened to intricate (and often uncomforting) explanations of booby traps used to capture US soldiers and then filed into the passageways to experience the claustrophobia first hand. They passed on the opportunity to shoot off a machine gun though – the potential liability of a per-bullet pricing system just seemed too great…