Vietnam was under French colonial rule from the latter half of the 19th century. Following the end of the Second World War, internal conflicts resulted in the splitting of the country into north and south Vietnam and the French rule came to an end in 1954.
United States then got involved with the civil war to prevent the ‘Domino effect’ and the communist take over of South Vietnam. Thus the Vietnam war started in 1954 between the communist North and the non communist South parts of Vietnam aided by allies and it lasted almost 20 years. In 1973, United States signed a peace agreement with North Vietnam and withdrew their forces. The north and the south fractions however continued with the fighting. In 1975 the war ended when the South Vietnamese government collapsed and a unified communist government took over the country. Even though the war was over, it took more than ten years for the country to start prospering again.
Notre -Dame cathedral is closed to visitors. It doesn’t resemble its namesake in Paris, but is one of the many buildings in the city constructed in the style of French architecture. The building is in dire need of repair and so we are not even allowed to walk around it. Across the road from the cathedral stands the Saigon Central Post Office, a building that looks more like a major Railway Station than a post office. We walk in and find all the counters open and brisk business being conducted. The high ceiling is designed in the shape of arches, the ends of which separate each counters. The archway leads us to the portrait of Ho Chi Minh, the father of the nation and from whom the city now takes its name. There are conflicting information about who actually designed this ironwork. One theory is that Gustav Eiffel, who designed the Eiffel Tower designed the arches.
The US embassy, the roof from which the Americans evacuated when they retreated, is within eyeshot and Su Ann points out the building. It is now surrounded by buildings and only part of the roof, from which the iconic photograph of the evacuation was filmed, is visible.
A couple of hours coach journey takes us to the Củ Chi tunnels. The earliest form of the tunnels existed in 1948 even before the war started. When the Viet Cong fighters realised how useful they were, they expanded it. Occupying an area of 17 square kilometres and with a length of 120 kilometres of tunnels it covers a vast area. The tunnels were dug in this area as it was higher than the water level and the soil was clay and unlikely to collapse. Dug in three levels, the tunnels link to each other and there are areas in between which are wider to act as a meeting room, living quarters, hospital and kitchen. There are various points of entry in to the tunnels and they are all camouflaged. The tunnels are just wide enough at points to crawl through. To prevent the enemy from entering, the place was booby trapped. The area where we are visiting was the headquarters of the Viet Cong. It was also situated under a US Navy base which prevented it from being bombed.
There is a short video followed by a presentation of the layout of the tunnels. The video shows footage of films taken at the time. We walk around and Su Ann explains each exhibit. In between, the staff demonstrate how the men managed to get into and out of the tunnels through the narrow holes, how the booby traps worked, how they made slippers out of worn tyres and the ingenious ideas that were used to dodge the US army. The whole area is dotted with hidden camouflaged entrances, trenches, traps and termite mounds which successfully hid their air vents.
We get a chance to crawl through one tunnel. You can go for 20, 60 or 100 meters. We only have enough time to do the shortest one. This was also the easiest. The guide who went ahead of us had a torch and so we had some light to guide us through. We mostly had to crawl and jump down one ledge. Those doing the longer tunnels get a better taste of how the conditions in the tunnel were. We see people coming out of the 60 meter tunnel looking very sweaty. The tunnels used to be infested with bats, rats, snakes, centipedes and scorpions and the inaccessible parts are still infested with them.
The kitchen is used to cook food which the Liberation army ate. It also gives us an idea as to how they managed to prevent the smoke from escaping in one go and revealing their hiding spots. Visitors can treat themselves to the tapioca based meal. Our tickets do not include this. The souvenir shop also has a firing range where you can fire using the various firearms. The noise it makes adds to the dramatic effect of the place.
There are exhibits with models showing how the tunnels were dug, what the soldiers wore and how they made their ammunition. A crater left by a B52 bomb can also be seen. The area was extensively bombed and damaged towards the end of the war but the Viet Cong forces proved too difficult for the Americans to capture. The tunnels helped them survive and prolong the war.
The Americans also used Agent Orange, a toxic pesticide, to clear out the forests to deprive the farmers and fighters of clean water and food. This totally destroyed large areas of the forests and it took years for the regrowth. It also wreaked health problems on both those who handled it and those who came into contact with it.
After lunch we visit the museum where the ten rooms retell the story of the war and the devastation it caused. The Vietnam war was the only war where journalists were given full access to cover the story. This resulted in the Americans being bombarded daily with images and video footage of the war which helped to outrage the population and led them to wonder about the necessity of such a war. The protestations that followed is also considered to be one of the reasons why America lost the war, the only one they have ever lost.
Many photojournalists also became victims of the war. The photos they took, some of them found in the last roll of film they used are on show in one room. Most of the black and white photos are works of art, capturing the war scenes as it happened and the emotions of the victims, their families, the captured fighters and the military. One room shows the devastation of the war, especially the after effects of the Napalm bombings and the use of Agent Orange. Victims born with deformities can be seen manning the children’s playroom.
The one photo that sticks in my mind from the war is that of a nine year old girl running from the scene of a Napalm bombing towards the photographer. The photo, I think also left a lasting impression as she is just a few years younger than me. Nick Ut won the Pulitzer award for this picture. The photo is not in the collection. I spot a similar photo. Su Ann tells me where this photo was taken and that she has met the photographer. Phan Thi Kim Phuc is the girl in the photo. I look it up and read her account of the incident. The searing pain as the sticky napalm burnt her clothes and stuck to her skin burning it, resulting in third degree burns left her in agony following which she endured years of treatment, she is also the only known survivor following such extensive injuries from the bombing. The photographer helped her seek medical attention and they’ve kept in touch ever since.
Our last stop is the Independence Palace. It is almost closing time at the Palace and we are not allowed in. It is also pouring down with rain and so no one ventures out from the coach to take a photo. Su Ann tells us about the building and the army tank which can be seen through the gates. I take a photo from the comfort of my seat in the coach. It has been another long day. This evening we are having our farewell dinner in a restaurant in the city and tomorrow we have free time to explore Ho Chi Minh city till we leave in the evening to make our way back home.