As a kid the first time I had heard about Vietnam was when I saw a movie on how American soldiers had fought a ‘brave and moral’ war at Vietnam. Though physically and technologically superior, they couldn’t defeat the peasants for more than 10 years. Later on, I read so many articles and stories on the war that Vietnam as a country always intrigued me. There was always this desire to visit the country and compare my ‘so called imagination of Vietnam’ to what in reality it is. So last weekend I took a trip to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City or HCM (as it’s now known)…
The day before I was to leave for Saigon I converted 100 SGD (Singapore Dollar) to Vietnamese currency and I got in return 1.4 Million VND (Vietnamese Dong). I had become a millionaire in an instant. Holding couple of 500,000 notes made it a unique experience. But the feeling was nothing compared to the experience I would later have in Vietnam. Four days in this beautiful country was really revealing. The best part of the experience had been the people there. I haven’t met more hospitable and friendly people anywhere in my travels till now. I was even invited by the youth hostel owner to have dinner at home on April 30th, which happened to be their reunification or Independence Day. I found people to be really sweet and friendly. Their hospitality made me decide to come back here again very soon.
Saigon as a city is the centre of the economic growth for Vietnam. So you can see a lot of immigrants there. The city houses about 9 million people and most of them are immigrants from southern parts of Vietnam migrating for work and better prospects. A motorbike is the most common means of transport for them and there are about 3.5 Million of them in the city. Most often than not buying a motorbike is a huge investment for the people there (the cheapest one being about $1000), but still you can see thousands of them on the street every second zipping by and chocking the roads. One can see that most of the so called economic growth is happening in the city and the countryside is still mostly underdeveloped. Agriculture is the occupation of most people in Vietnam, but slowly quite a few people are trying to migrate to the cities.
Majority of people, as expected, are unhappy with the way things are run there. Complaints range from lack of education, poverty, corruption to lack of employment opportunities. I met this gentleman who happens to be a marketing agent and apparently earns 7.5 Million VND but can barely survive in the city. The next generation is highly dissatisfied as most want to go abroad for work but their lack of fluency in English language is a big hindrance. So you can see loads of English teaching institutes trying to make the dreams of these youngsters come true. But they have a long way to go. I took part in one of the communication seminars held at the hostel I was staying and the eagerness with which they were listening to me was just too much to bear. All they wanted to was talk and converse as much as possible in those couple of hours to get a hang of Oral English. And at the end of it I had this sinking feeling of not being able to help them in the way I perhaps could have. So I again conducted another session the next day. But it was still disheartening because in the end many will definitely find it difficult to go to the next stage in their career/education, but I hope this perseverance of theirs will help the future generations. Also all this interest, hopefully will soon translate into the changes required in their education system.
I also found the people staying in the hostel there to be more friendly than others and made quite a few friends (maybe because of the general prevailing friendly atmosphere in Vietnam..:)). It was quite interesting to learn about their lives and how they had spent the last few months traveling. Some had taken a career break while others were managing to survive by working at a new country every few months that they traveled to…Hope we keep in touch.
Coming back to the city - the Ho Chi Minh City in itself had been at the centre of Vietnam War, mainly because the Americans had made it their base fighting the guerrilla fighters few kilometers from there. It was also housing the President of Southern Vietnam that the Americans were supporting (apparently more of a puppet). So, one can easily see the significance of this city in the war and the best place to get the complete history of the war and its effects is the ‘War Memorial Museum’. Though almost completely one sided and mainly bashes the US, it gives quite a picture of the war and is definitely worth a visit. One can also visit the Independence/Reunification Palace and take the English tour to give you another leap into the history books. One can see the multi-level war bunkers and the Presidents war rooms even now.
The best tour though would be the Cu Chi Tunnels about 60Km from HCM City. A tour to this place is a must to understand the life of the guerrilla fighters. The way they used to live in those three level tunnels is mindboggling. The way these tunnels were dug, the designs behind them, the strategy of war etc is something no book/article can explain better than the experience of being there. A 100meter of that Tunnel took me 15 minutes to navigate and I was completely drenched in sweat at the end of it. The experience gave me cramps for 2 days. I wonder how they used to do it every night (day time they used to stay put inside the tunnels as there was continuous American bombardment of bombs). The whole journey through the tunnels gives you a good experience of what life would have been to those people at that time and makes you think of all the things that had happened there in the area just 35 years back.
One of the unforgettable experiences for me at the tunnels was me firing an AK47 for the first time. It was really something. The force of the bullet and its corresponding counter reaction on the gun makes you almost fall back the first time. Holding it correctly on your shoulders really helps you balance. But still I kept wondering how those malnourished and under-weight people managed to use these weapons against the marching Americans.
A Vietnam trip isn’t complete without going to the countryside. Visiting the Mekong Delta gives one somewhat a realistic picture of the real Vietnam (or the majority of it). A bus ride and then a boat ride from HCM city will take you there. From traditional honey and toffee making to canal rides and folk music, each one was more exciting than the other.
At the end of four days at Vietnam all I could think of was when I would be back to this country. It didn’t help that my experience of teaching English to some of them left more of a hole or void than the satisfaction of helping them out. Will definitely want to meet these sweet people again very soon and maybe stay for longer to give something in return for their hospitality.
Some snaps can be found here...