The final leg of our journey was to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as the government prefer everyone to call it. From Mui Ne, we got a taxi to the nearby train station of Phan Thiet. The taxis in Mui Ne seem more expensive than the rest of the country and the half an hour journey cost us 200000D. Our accommodation had booked us our train tickets for 150000D each and the journey to Saigon was about four hours. Our carriage was actually quite comfortable, air conditioned and we had some good views along the way. Once in Saigon we took a taxi to our accommodation Ailen Garden Hotel; basic and without breakfast, but set down a quiet side street around the corner from the main restaurant and bar area of District 1. Saigon has lots of amazing places to eat at, a few of our favourites being: Bun cha, Saigon Bagel, Royal Saigon Restaurant, Hum Vegetarian Lounge and restaurant, the ABC bakery for breakfast and the hungry pig for breakfast (English builders tea and a fry up!).
Before arriving in Saigon we had already booked a tour for the following day to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels with our guide Tam. This cost $25 each for a private tour, which was pricey, but after our disasterous group experience earlier in the trip we felt it was worth it! The tunnels are a huge network located just outside Saigon and are part of a much larger network that underlie lots of the country. They were used by Viet Cong soldiers in their resistance to American forces as hiding places during armed combat, living quarters, communication and supply routes. The tunnels are very claustrophobic and it is amazing to think people spent days living in this tiny cramped labyrinth. After an initial propaganda style video about the war, Tam took us around the rest of the site, explaining the war, the boobytraps used against American soldiers and the general life of the local people during this time.
Following our Cu Chi Tunnel tour, we headed to the war museum in Saigon for the afternoon. It was difficult to differentiate propaganda from the truth, but really interesting to see history from the Vietnamese governments viewpoint. The museum had horrific images of agent orange victims, so isn’t for the faint hearted
For anyone who needs a summary of the Vietnam War see below….
Brief history of the Vietnam war
In the late 1800s France took control of Vietnam. In the 1900s, dislike for the French governance emerged and Ho Chi Minh, a prominent communist leader, led large scale nationalist movements through a militant nationalist organisation called the Viet Minh. During Wold War II, when France was under Nazi occupation, it lost its foothold over Vietnam and the Japanese took control of the country. The Viet Minh resisted the Japanese and at the end of WWII when Japan surrendered, Ho Chi Minh’s forces took hold of Hanoi (in northern Vietnam) and declared Vietnam to be an independent country. However, France refused to recognise this, and returned to Vietnam driving Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces into the north of the country. Ho Chi Minh asked the U.S for help, however the U.S distrusted communism (they were involved in the cold war with the communist USSR at the time), and so decided to aid the French instead. Fighting between the French and Ho’s forces continued until a peace settlement was sought and Vietnam was divided into the communist North and South Vietnam (under a French backed emporer), with a demilitarised zone between.
The U.S believed that communist North Vietnam would trigger the whole of SE Asia to fall to communism and so offered their support to the anti-communist politician Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem took control of South Vietnam and subsequently cancelled the scheduled elections. Diem’s regime was unpopular and corrupt but the U.S continued to support him for fear of the communists taking over South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh started a resistance against Diem’s regime in the south known as the Viet Cong. The U.S president JFK backed a coup to overthrow Diem, and installed a new equally as corrupt leader. The next U.S president Lyndon B. Johnson pledged to continue JFK’s work in Vietnam but not to get too involved. However, North Vietnamese forces allegedly attacked U.S Navy ships and the U.S retaliated by starting bombing campaigns and deploying troops to the area.
The Viet Cong’s guerrilla tactics and sparsely dispersed population left the U.S with few bombing targets, so they used chemical weapons such as Agent Orange to try to make headway. In 1968, the Viet Cong and the Northern Vietnamese Army launched the Tet Offensive – a campaign that attacked South Vietnamese cities and U.S targets all at once. Although the U.S army resisted these advances, the media portrayed the event as a defeat and public morale for the war dropped. Anti war protests took place across the U.S. President Johnson’s successor Richard Nixon promised to slowly withdraw U.S troops from Vietnam but at the same time went behind the U.S congress and authorised bombing of Viet Cong sites in Cambodia and Laos. Political pressure from these illegal actions led to the formation of a cease fire in 1973 and the withdrawal of U.S military personnel. The U.S government continued to provide financial support to the South Vietnamese army, but this soon dwindled and in April 1975 the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese who reunited the whole country under Communist rule.
Following the reunification, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were sent to languish in reeducation camps, children of South Vietnamese fighters were prevented from attending the best colleges or getting the good jobs. In Vietnam today, we found no one willing to discuss what happened after the reunification of the country, one can only assume for fear of the repercussions from the government.
We wanted to visit the Mekong Delta whilst in Vietnam, but time was fast running out and we had read that unless you stay overnight, the day bus trips are a bit of a disappointment and a tourist trap. So instead we decided to go on a day bike tour of the Mekong delta with Sinhbalo adventure travel – our trip was to Cai Be on a small group tour (8 people). We left in the morning and were driven to our starting point from where we cycled through villages and alongside fruit orchards, our guide stopping intermittently to give us various facts. We arrived at the river and boarded a boat to journey through the floating market. Most trading had stopped, but we could still see how people live and the boats laden with various goods. After cruising through the market we went to another island to start cycling again. We had an absolutely beautiful bike ride through different communities and along narrow river paths and over bridges, which for a novice cyclist like me was a little dicey! En route we had a few stops to try some local fruits, visit a coconut candy factory and a puffed rice factory and got to learn how they are made and have some tasters! Our lunch stop was right on the river in a stilt building and was a simple but delicious meal. Our bike ride continued until we reached the boat to take us back to Cai Be and from there we transferred back to Saigon. It was a fantastic day out, and a way of avoiding the tourist crowds around the Mekong – I would definitely recommend this trip.
Our final days in Saigon were spent exploring the sites of the city; the Saigon opera house, the Central post office, Ho Chi Minh square, Notre dame square,Nguyen Hue street and the amazing cafe apartment block (a must visit – each flat has been turned into a small shop/cafe). We visited numerous markets, ate our way around the city and visited the Bitexco financial tower viewing deck on our last night. We had a great last couple of days in Saigon and has some amazing food in this city!