Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City

7 January 2002

I’m back on my own again; Bill left this morning. Our journey here didn’t get off to the most auspicious start: overbooking on the bus meant we spent the entire four-hour journey sitting on the floor. But thankfully things did get better.

Our first full day here was taken up by a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the CaoDai temple. The Cu Chi Tunnels are like the Vinh Moc ones up in the DMZ but more touristy. They are incredibly tiny – just 80cm high in places – and they stretch for miles.  They’re also almost unbearably hot. Even going just a little way through them I thought I was going to pass out, but the Viet Cong practically lived in them.  Apparently, the Americans knew all about the tunnels, it’s just they couldn’t do a right lot about them. It’s just struck me, though, that while the Americans feature rather heavily in the war-related sites I’ve seen so far, there’s bugger-all mention of the South Vietnamese army. It’s almost as if they never existed.

Anyway, back to the Cu Chi Tunnels: there’s some rather impressive home-made anti-personnel devices (man-traps and the like) on display, along with some decided less impressive examples of animal husbandry. Another ‘attraction’ at the site is a tiny, bare cage containing a couple of monkeys. It’s not the first time I’ve seen animal ‘attractions’ like this in Vietnam. Why anyone thinks tourists find these attractive is beyond me. Fingers crossed that as Vietnam develops economically it will develop in other ways, and such abuse becomes unacceptable.

To describe the CaoDai temple as ‘unusual’ is to understate understatement. The religion of CaoDaiism is (as far as I know) unique to this part of the world. It was established in the 1920s by a bunch of people who tried to create the perfect religion by chucking together elements of practically every religion on earth, from Taoism to Christianity. The temple is as eclectic as you might expect. The front, with its two towers, reminded me of a north European Cathedral (Notre Dame, but goodness knows why), but there’s also a cylindrical tower like you’d find on a mosque, the walls are like a Spanish yellow, but the roof looks like it’s been built from bits nicked from the Forbidden City in Beijing. The interior is insanely colourful, featuring an awful lot of creatures that could be dragons, or snakes, or dolphins. Or the bastard love-children of all three. Oh, and some rather more conventional statues of the likes of Marie Curie and Victor Hugo, who are regarded as saints.

Still, as far as I can tell, CaoDais don’t wish harm on anyone, so if their mad temple floats their boat and makes them happy, then that’s OK by me.

Bill’s last day we spent sightseeing in Saigon (without being robbed!). That was actually a bit weird for me. It’s only a couple of years since I was here, and then I had pretty much done the city inside out. As a result, I know the city, but I don’t know it well, and as I was showing Bill round everything felt quite familiar, but at the same time it didn’t. One thing that wasn’t familiar was a new gallery at the War Remnants Museum (the name speaks for itself, think tanks and tales of Vietnamese heroism and ingenuity), featuring pictures taken by photographers who died in the Vietnam War. The most moving for me was that of woman photojournalist Dickey Chappelle being given the last rites by an American army chaplain after being mortally wounded. She looks almost like a child, sleeping peacefully on the ground, but then you notice the front of her shirt is dark, and even in a black and white photo you know that’s blood. What makes it even sadder is that the bloke who took the picture, Henri Huet, was himself killed a handful of years later.

On a happier note, we had coffee and ice-cream in Saigon’s tallest building, the Prudential Tower. It was bloody expensive (don’t know exactly how expensive as Bill kindly paid), but WHAT A VIEW!!! Our waiter told us he has a brother and sister in San Francisco and he hopes to join them in a couple of years. He’s studying web design but he reckons there’s no opportunities here because of bureaucracy and corruption.

View of Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City from the Prudential Tower.

View of Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City from the Prudential Tower.

I’ve just been reading up on Prudential Insurance and it turns out it’s the first insurance company in Vietnam. It’s been set up by an overseas Vietnamese returnee and he’s having a difficult time persuading locals of the benefits of insurance.