Saturday, February 14, 2015

Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City)

Once docked we set out to see what we could accomplish. First on the agenda was to take a dress of Sarah’s to a tailor and have a replica made. Next stop was for haircuts. We then explored the massive Ben Than market where the boys picked out soccer jerseys, Sarah got some funky pants, Marie did an about face when she saw a rat, and we all got some new fruit to try—red rambutans (hairy fruit). We then meandered through the city in route to a water puppet show. We passed a sports complex with soccer and basketball practices going on. Ringing the complex were sports stores—one of which included a BYU basketball for sale. Then while eating rambutans in a park we watched a few games of foot badminton. It was entertaining enough that we went back to one of the sports stores and bought special shuttle cocks. We figured kicking the shuttle cocks back and forth would be good coordination practice for soccer. The 50 minute water puppet show was lots of fun. It fulfilled a requirement for Sarah’s world performance class. We all had pho (noodle soup) and spring rolls for dinner. Not a bad first day in Saigon.

 planting rice

 dance of the fairies

 The talented puppeteers.

 Rush hour traffic.

 Decorations for Tet (Vietnamese New Year's)

Thursday the 12th we went on a SAS field lab out to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. This was the first stop of a very sobering day. The tunnels were built by the Viet Cong as a hiding place from where they could then launch raids and attacks on nearby US military installations. Will was chosen to demonstrate how to use small camouflaged openings to enter the four level warrens. Once he disappeared behind the guide, he then peered out through gun holes in a camouflaged bunker and then emerged from another tiny hole. Joel and Sarah and the 20 students in our group all then had a chance for a photo op. The reforested area (agent orange defoliated all of the trees during the war) was pocked with large craters. We got to all crouch through two sections of tunnels, visit some of the bunkers used for hospitals, cooking, meetings etc. Most troublesome were the recreated models of booby traps used to stop the American and South Vietnamese soldiers. I visited a different section of the tunnels 11 years ago. At that time I remember thinking that had I been a few years older I (because of my size) could have been one of the tunnel rats sent in to ferret out the Viet Cong or I could have been one of the soldiers killed in a burned out US Army tank that still stands above the tunnels. Our guide--who lost an aunt who was killed by the French early on and then three uncles--some fighting for the south and some for the north--did a great job of explaining the war and the tunnels. He even used maps and images on his i-pad. 

It was an entertaining drive to and from Cu Chi watching the crazy traffic of Ho Chi Min City and then passing through rice paddies, rubber plantations and small villages.

 Don't text and drive!

 Rubber trees above the Cu Chi tunnels

 Bomb crater

Coming out the other side.

 In front of the undergorund bunker with holes to shoot from. Will could look out and see our feet.

 sandals made from old tires

Booby traps

 School field trip.

On the way back I discussed with the students about how I grew up during the Vietnam War being taught that is was a war to contain the spread of communism. Since then I have come to realize that it was much more than that. For the Vietnamese it was first and foremost a war for independence. Had the West granted Ho Chi Minh’s request for self-determination at the end of WWI or the end of WWII, there would have never been a Vietnam War. Instead Ho Chi Minh turned to China and Russia for backing which is why I grew up being taught that he was just a clone of Lenin, Stalin and Mao. When asked if Ho Chi Minh was a communist or nationalist, our guide replied that he was first and foremost a nationalist. I shared a few quotes from Robert McNamara’s autobiography (US secretary of Defense during the war) in which he explains 1) “We misjudged then--as we have since--the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions.” 2) “We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.” 3) “Our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics in the area and the personalities and habits of their leaders.” (The lessons of war: Mr. McNamara’s View, Christian Science Monitor, April 28, 1995)

Back in HCMC we enjoyed a delicious lunch. The kids all ate the calamari in the soup and also fried. The rice cooked in lotus leafs and curry was also very good. My favorite was the tempura morning glory and shrimp.

Our final stop was the War Remnants Museum. The museum uses images—mostly from photo journalists on both sides of the conflict—to show the horrors of the war. We started out in the agent orange (a defoliant) room, which was a bit too graphic for most of us. It was disturbing enough to Will that twice he came to me once we were in other exhibits asking me for money to go back and put in a box to help victims of agent orange. Then today when an agent orange victim approached us on the street selling trinkets, it was Will who suggested we buy a souvenir magnet from him. Will also told us he prayed tonight for the victims of agent orange. I took photos of many of the photos to use in future lectures. I have included a few here that touched me this visit.

Hauling supplies from the north to the south along the Ho Chin Minh Trail.

Photos by Larry Burrows for Life Magazine showing James Farley out on a helicopter mission where several of his comrades were shot and then back in base where he breaks down in tears.

Such fear in their faces as she and her children flee bombings.

Mother and children a year later

  Such suffering all the way around.

Back at the ship we enjoyed a refreshing swim (our first on board) with some of the other faculty kids. The pool deck is usually full of scantily clad sun-bathing students, but most of them were off exploring so it was great to have the pool to ourselves.

Day three was more laid back. We explored the local market, trying a few more new tropical fruits. Then took a cab (Marie really liked the small sized Toyota van used here for taxis) across town to the Giac Lam Buddhist temple. We then had a delicious lunch at Pho 2000 (good enough for Bill Clinton to eat at). The long central park was full of red and yellow flowers and flowering trees for sale--to be used as Tet (Vietnamese New Year’s) decorations. We found a travel agent and booked a Mekong Delta tour for Monday. Enjoyed a McDonald’s ice cream cone—and some free wifi so the boys could play a game or two on their i-pod. We hit Ben Than market again for more shirts for the kids. Had chilled coconut water to drink. Picked up Sarah’s new dress—very nice—she wore it home. Quick visit to the French built post office (with wonderful French era maps) and Catholic church and then caught the shuttle bus back to the ship for swimming, dinner, visiting and blog writing.

 Ho Chi Minh amidst the Buddhas ?!

 I am hoping this is a Spratley Island poster to use in my geography classes.

 Dragon fruit decorations for Tet.

Four foot tall chrysanthemums.

 Bin Than market and the crazy traffic in the traffic circle


  1. Nice photos. Looks like a fun city to explore.

  2. Foot badminton looks really challenging. Thanks for the history lesson on the war.