Our time in Vietnam started with four nights in Ho Chi Minh City, which is also commonly known by its former name of Saigon. The vast city is the largest in Vietnam, with a population of over 8 million people.
After leaving the airport by taxi, we were immediately introduced to Vietnam’s infamous roads. It was almost mesmerising to watch as an endless row of scooters weaved in and out of the traffic around us, travelling in every direction possible, while still managing not to collide. Although entertaining, it was relief when we eventually arrived safely at our hotel.
For a rather sobering start to our time in Vietnam, we visited the War Remnants Museum which is located within District 3 of the city. Formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes, it provides a brutal account of the effects of the Vietnam War on the country’s population. After viewing the various US armoured vehicles and weapons that surround the building, we made our way inside where the rest of the exhibits are spread over three floors.
While the museum does of course give a very one-sided view of the conflict, it provides an important account of the atrocities committed by US forces. This includes the infamous My Lai Massacre, where hundreds of unarmed civilians were killed. Another harrowing exhibit detailed the effects of the Agent Orange herbicide, which continues to cause severe health problems in Vietnam, including deformities in the offspring of those affected.
One of most interesting exhibits was dedicated to the photographers who risked, and ultimately lost their lives, while documenting the war, with media coverage an important factor in eventually turning US public opinion against the war.
Our next stop was at the huge Ben Thanh indoor market, which is one of the city’s oldest landmarks. It was stiflingly hot inside, and at every turn there were eager traders trying their best to sell us a range of ‘designer’ goods and souvenirs. We were given an early reminder of the importance of bartering in Vietnam, managing to reduce the price of a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses by over six times just by walking away.
We continued to the Saigon Skydeck, which is located on the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower. The landmark tower was designed to resemble the shape of Vietnam’s national flower, the Lotus, with the 52nd floor helipad representing a blossoming bud.
It was another welcome addition to the ever-growing list of skyscraper observatories that we have visited on this trip, with excellent views across the city. Most impressive was the view along the Saigon River towards Landmark 81, which at 461m is the tallest building in Vietnam.
We stopped for some dinner at the nearby Pho Bo Vien, and enjoying our first taste of Pho, the noodle soup that is one of the country’s staple dishes. As with many of the restaurants in Ho Chi Minh, this involved sitting at the small plastic chairs and tables that spill out onto the pavement.
We finished the night with some drinks on Bui Ven street, which is at the heart of the city’s lively backpacker district. After finding a table one row back from the street, we ordered some cold drinks and sat and watched the chaos around us, with an incredible mix of scooters, cars, buses, and street hawkers trying to navigate through the crowds of revellers.
We started the following day with some breakfast from the trendy, colonial style Old Compass Cafe. While I enjoyed a delicious Banh Mi Opla (fried egg sandwich), Rachael took the opportunity to enjoy her favourite smashed avocado on toast that she had been missing so much.
After filling up on food and coffee, we decided to wander through the colonial heart of the city, which is home to some great examples of French architecture. Most striking of these was the Notre Dame cathedral, which dates back to 1880, and is currently undergoing significant restoration work.
Opposite the cathedral is the Saigon Central Post Office, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. Although the post office is still operational, it felt like stepping back in time as we made our way into the huge arched roof building.
We continued to the Saigon Opera House, which although not quite as impressive as Sydney’s, is another perfectly preserved example of French influence on the city. This part of Ho Chi Minh was a world away from the backpacker district where we had spent the previous night, with luxury hotels and boutique stores around every corner.
After making our way to the pedestrianised Walking Street boulevard, we came across one of the city’s more unusual sights. The Cafe Apartment is a previously unremarkable apartment block, that has been converted into a social hub filled with of wide range of trendy cafes and restaurants.
We returned to the backpacker district for some drinks at The View rooftop bar, which is located on the 9th floor of the Duc Vuong Hotel. The sheltered rooftop is covered with fairy lights and lanterns, and provides great views across the city. We sat and watched as the daylight faded and the surrounding buildings gradually began to light up around us.
The next day we had arranged a half-day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels complex, which is one of the most popular day trips from the city. The huge network of tunnels, bunkers and trenches were key to the guerrilla warfare tactics used by the Viet Cong, allowing them to evade US forces. It was the site of huge battles during the war, with over half a million tons of explosives dropped on the area.
Despite being located just 60km from the city, the seemingly endless traffic meant the journey to the tunnels took nearly two hours. As we eventually arrived at the complex, our guide gave us some more detailed information about the area’s history, before taking us through to the tunnels.
Our tour took us to several different length tunnels, starting with an easy 5m tunnel that was originally used to reach a water well. We continued to the well-hidden and extremely narrow entrance to a shooting bunker. This was more challenging to squeeze into, and involved stretching our arms above our head before slowly wriggling down into the tunnel. We were amazed to discover that the tunnels have actually been widened to accommodate tourists, and were originally even smaller. It was hard to imagine the Viet Cong soldiers travelling through such small spaces while carrying weapons and other supplies.
The largest tunnel that we entered was 50m long, with a large command bunker at its centre. As we made our way out of the bunker we had to slide on our bottom to a lower level before eventually climbing out of the narrow hatch. It was a fascinating experience but definitely not one for those with a fear of enclosed spaces.
We were then given a demonstration of the innovative boobytraps used by the Viet Cong to prevent US troops from discovering or entering into the tunnels. Some of these were especially brutal and it was no surprise to discover that they were a significant cause of US casualties. For a mid morning snack were given some tapioca, which was key in feeding the Viet Cong troops during the war. This was almost entirely tasteless, although dipping it into a mix of crushed sugar, salt and peanut made it slightly more bearable.
The tour finished with a visit to a nearby shooting range, which provides tourists with the opportunity to fire Vietnam War era weapons. This didn’t interest us, but we watched as several of our group fired at targets with an AK-47 rifle. The sound was deafening from just one of the weapons, and it is unimaginable what it must have been like for those on the battlefield. Once the bullets had ran out, we climbed back aboard our bus, ready for the long journey back to Ho Chi Minh City.