Ho Chi Minh City

‘The Truth About the Vietnam War’ – Mr Binh, Saigon

Feeling like we’d seen everything that Ho Chi Minh City had to offer, we decided to spend our final day in Vietnam at the Cu Chi Tunnels. For those who don’t know, the Cu Chi Tunnels span 250km and were used by Viet Cong’s main base of operations during the Tet Offensive in 1968. The original tunnels were only 80cm high and 30cm wide… Too narrow for most Westerners. The Americans never defeated the Viet Cong at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

We booked a tour through our hostel and didn’t realise what day it was or it’s significance with the tour. We were actually visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels on ‘Liberation Day’ aka the end of the Vietnamese War and the fall of Saigon. We were met by our guide Mr Binh (Bean) who told us that today was a very, very sad day for him. He told us that he wasn’t Vietnamese but American, and had fought with the American army during the Vietnam War. His father was Filipino but had lived in Vietnam before emigrating to the US before the Vietnam War. Mr Binh then returned to Vietnam with the American army to fight the Viet Cong and the Communist Northern Vietnamese. He told us that after Saigon was captured by the Northern Vietnamese and Communism established as the majority, he was forced to spend 5 years in a ‘Reunification Camp’ to rid him of his anti-Communist beliefs.

After being in Northern Vietnam and visiting the War Remnants Museum yesterday, it was really interesting to hear another perspective of the war. When we got on the bus to the tunnels he asked us if we wanted to know the ‘truth’ about the Vietnam War. He said everything in the War Remnants Museum and Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi was Communist propaganda and utter ‘bullshit’, and that today he’d tell us the truth. Today was a very sad day for him because it was Liberation Day, the day that the Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese troops captured Saigon, and the day that marked he end of the Vietnam War. He told us that on this day 39 years ago he took a gun to his head and nearly killed himself because Saigon’s fall meant the establishment of communism as the popularity.

It was interesting to hear his story because he said initially he wasn’t against Communism, but after his fiancĂ©e and the love of his life was brutally murdered by the Viet Cong for no apparent reason, he wanted justice. Mr Binh went on to say that though Ho Chi Minh is the city’s official name, to him it would always be ‘Saigon’. Always. (After the Vietnam War Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City).

The Cu Chi tunnels were very interesting and it was in part due to Mr Binh’s commentary as he’d actually fought here against the Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese. We started the tour at one of the tunnel’s entrances to show us just how small they were. They were not more than 30 cm wide and Mr Binh told us that the tunnels were too big for the ‘big fat American soldiers’. He also told us how a young woman with a rather large bottom got stuck trying to get into the tunnels yesterday. He had plenty of stories about how the Viet Cong were able to spot Americans soldiers hiding behind trees because they were so big boned.

One of the tunnel's entrances

One of the tunnel’s entrances

Mr Binh then showed us various traps used by the Viet Cong to hinder the American war effort. He explained that the tunnels underneath were on three levels and to maintain air supply the Viet Cong had made vents and tried to disguise them. The Americans quickly caught on and would send a German Shepherd to find the vents by trying to get it to smell ‘fish sauce’ as Mr Binh explained Vietnamese food is’very stinky stinky’. The Viet Cong though had another trick up its sleeve and built this booby trap below with sharp bamboo sticks. They’d put the ‘stinky fish sauce’ under the trap door and the German shepherd would fall to a nasty death. Mr Binh told us that many American army dogs died this way.

Booby Trap

Booby Trap

We then went into the tunnels to get a taste of what they were like and they were very, very narrow. For once being petite served its purpose. A lot of taller Westerners found it very claustrophobic, and one girl even had a panic attack half way through the tunnel we went in. The tunnel rarely went in a straight line and Mr Binh explained this was done by the Viet Cong to confuse and scare any American soldiers that might have made it into the tunnel.

Inside the tunnel!

Inside the tunnel!

The tunnels were really interesting but we could constantly hear the sound of gunfire. There was a shooting range at the end of the tour and you could shoot an AK-47, M16 and others. I was perplexed how Mr Binh who’d fought here and witnessed many people die here could return here on a daily basis. The constant sound of gun fire must be a constant reminder of the horrors of the Vietnam War. The sound of shots being fired gave the tunnels a very eerie atmosphere and I felt like I’d been transported through time.

As for Mr Binh, he said he was currently writing his second book which was due to be published next year by Bloomsbury in the US. He said his book would be entitled ‘An American eagle flies down to hell’. Although Mr Binh was a real character and full of war tales, it was hard to know just how much of his story was true. He told us that he’d already published a book about his life and told us it was called ‘Three Moons of Vietnam’ but I couldn’t find it online or in the bookshop he told us about…

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Ho Chi Minh City

After a couple of weeks in Vietnam, our trip came to a close in Ho Chi Minh City. We arrived in the city at around 9 am and after a quick shower we went out to see HCMC’s attractions. I wanted to start with a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral to see how it compared with Paris, but for some reason the cathedral was closed and wouldn’t be open until the evening. We weren’t impressed and whilst trying to decide what we were going to do next we stumbled upon HCMC’s post office. It was quite an interesting building architecturally, but at the end of the day it was just a post office… Nothing more, nothing less.

The Post Office!

The Post Office!

Inside the Post Office

Inside the Post Office

Telephone cabines

Telephone cabines

We then decided to have a coffee break until the War Remnants Museum and Independence Palace opened (all the museums seem to close for a 2 hour lunch break) and I’m ashamed to admit we actually went into a Dunkin’ Donuts. We hadn’t seen many fast food or coffee chains so far in our South East Asia trip and Kyle was desperate to have a strawberry frosted doughnut (Missing home much?). We got chatting to a young Vietnamese guy on the table next to us and he actually turned out to be the owner of the Dunkin’ Donuts’ brand in Vietnam. He asked us what on earth we were doing in HCMC and we explained that we were backpacking around SEA and that HCMC was our last stop in Vietnam. He told us we should have made Hoi An our last stop because there’s nothing really to do or see in HCMC. He actually said one of the most interesting things to see in HCMC was probably the post office next door (!). He told us that both the War Remnants Museum and Independence Palace were a waste of time. We were unsure whether he was being sarcastic or not, so we went on our way to the War Remnants Museum.

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I was interested in visiting the War Remnants Museum to learn a bit more about the Vietnam War. I thought it would be an educational museum like London’s Imperial War Museum… how wrong I was. The outside exhibits of the War Remnants Museum consisted of US tanks, planes and artillery. There were many Vietnamese people proudly posing and taking pictures with the US tanks. We then went inside and it was the most confusing museum I’ve ever been to. There was no clear layout or commentary, the museum was basically a collection of photographs of dead children and rotting corpses accompanied by captions such as ‘Children killed by US soldiers’. There was absolutely no explanation of the war – the museum was just pure anti-American propaganda. If you had no knowledge of the Vietnam War and you went to this museum, you wouldn’t know that Southern Vietnam was actually anti-Communist and were fighting with the Americans against the Communist Northern Vietnamese.

The most horrific part of the museum was the ‘Agent Orange’ exhibit which consisted of a collection of photographs of deformed children and victims of Agent Orange. There was even a display of two dead foetuses in a jar with deformities as a result of the Agent Orange campaign. It was incredibly sad to see these pictures and I felt quite numb afterwards. Although the museum was sad, I was annoyed with the total lack of commentary in the museum. You forget that Vietnam is still a Communist country so the government of course is only going to show one side of the story.

Also, in the gift shop they sold fake dog tags bearing the names of U.S. soldiers who’d lost their lives in the Vietnam War!

We then went along to ‘Independence Palace’, which was the home and workplace of Southern Vietnam’s president during the Vietnam War. It was only really interesting from a historical point of view because it was on this site that the Vietnam War came to an end.