One City – Two Names
Our last stop on our tour of Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as Saigon. The city, which was the capitol of South Vietnam, was named Saigon till it fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam on April 30, 1975. This marked the end of the Vietnam War. During the reunification of North and South Vietnam the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the North Vietnamese communist leader. Interestingly, you can tell if someone (and their family) is from Saigon or the south based on how they refer to the city. Locals still refer to the city as Saigon, however, in any official capacity (governmental, political, legal, etc.) it is referred to as Ho Chi MInh City. Tre, who was our guide/translator, usually referred to the city as Saigon. In general, most people I spoke with referred to the city as Saigon rather than Ho Chi MInh City. Although the name of the city was changed, interestingly, the Saigon River was not subject to a name change. The Saigon River flows through Ho Chi Minh City and is the main source of drinking water and also contains a major port critical to Ho Chi Minh City and all of South Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City is a completely different city compared to Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh City is clearly the commercial hub of Vietnam with far more influence from the west whereas Ha Noi is the political and economic hub of vietnam. From fashion and electronics to fast food, in many ways Ho Chi Minh City is not that different from a large city in the US. The city has more of a modern sky line and architecture making it far more similar to New York than to Ha Noi. Ho Chi Minh City is not completely out of place compared to the rest of Vietnam. The traffic and infrastructure (such as the telecommunication and power lines) are very similar to Ha Noi, though, you do see significantly more cars in the south than the north. You still have the small street vendors and shops as you do in Ha Noi. In fact, I would say the vendors are more aggressive in Ho Chi Minh City compared to anywhere else we traveled. Our entire group will never forget the little 7 year old girl selling fans in the market (yes, 7 years old!). She wouldn’t take no for answer and at times was quite crude. She and I actually had an interesting exchange where she referred to me as “lucky budha” (referring to my beer belly) and politely told me I was full of it when I said I wasn’t hot and didn’t need a fan (Ok, she said “Bulls#$t, I see you sweating!”).
All in all, between the two cities I would say Ho Chi Minh City is the easier place to visit as you don’t have quite the culture shock, however, you do have to be more careful of pickpockets and aggressive vendors in Ho Chi Minh City compared to Ha Noi. Personally, I really don’t have a preference between the two. Both were interesting and fascinating for different reasons and I would go back to either city in a heartbeat.
Side Trip to the Mekong Delta, Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple
On our second day in Ho Chi Minh City our group split up with Reed taking several students on a boat trip through the canals of the Mekong Delta and I took the rest to visit the Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. Cao Dai (also known as Caodaism) is a popular religion in the south focused in Tay Nihn. Established in the 1920’s Caodaism incorporates aspects of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Catholicism. The Great Temple, otherwise known as the Holy See, is breathtaking (inside and out). Overall the temple is very colorful, every architectural feature has symbolic meaning. Near the very front of the temple is the Divine Eye and a very complex alter. Guests are welcome inside and are allowed to view ceremonies and services, however, there are some very specific rules. First, guests are only allowed on the outer portions of the temple. There is a specific hierarchy and symbolism with regard to your position in the temple to the Divine Eye. To move towards the center of the temple and/or up the steps towards the Divine Eye involves breaking the hierarchy and assuming a place where one doesn’t belong. During a service traditional worshippers are dressed in flowing white robes and assemble in a very orderly fashion. Men assemble and sit on the right and women on the left. Men with the rank of priest, bishop or cardinal wear brightly colored robes and are allowed access to parts of the temple where others are restricted. The color of the robe matches their spiritual affiliation. Yellow represents Buddhism, blue represents Taoism and red symbolizes Confucianism. Again, the temple and the service was a sight to behold. If you have a chance to visit Tay Nihn, I highly recommend visiting the Great Temple.
A portion of the noon service at the Great Temple
After our morning visit to Tay Nihn we headed north to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. Located in the Cu Chi district which is in the north west portion of Ho Chi Minh City the Cu Chi tunnels are a very elaborate network of underground tunnels. Originally built during occupation by the French these tunnels were expanded and served a critical role in the Viet Cong’s campaign against the US and the South Vietnamese. Simply put, the Viet Cong would live in these tunnels and use them to move guerrillas around Vietnam. During the day, they would live, eat and sleep in the tunnels and come out at night to farm, conduct business and fight the enemy. The tunnels were very small and were just the right size for the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese were extremely smart in how they built the tunnels and how they used them. Digging would often happen during the day and at night buckets of soil would be brought out and dumped in bomb craters making it difficult to know where they were digging. A complex network of air holes and vents made it difficult to follow them. Even if we did find an entrance or tunnel, the network was so complex the Viet Cong could seal off a portion of the tunnel if it was damaged or contained poison gas. Although Americans could fit in some of the tunnels, the Viet Cong would create bottle necks where the tunnels became tight making it difficult for the enemy to advance should they find the tunnel. I should add, finding the tunnels were extremely difficult. The entrances were well hidden and the region was littered with traps containing wooden or metal spikes. This type of guerrilla warfare was extremely difficult to fight and one can see how this was a very difficult and costly war. Now a tourist attraction where one can squeeze into a small secret entrance or even move through a small portion of the tunnel network, this area still serves as a haunting reminder of our past.
Julian demonstrates how to enter and exit the Cu Chi tunnels.