Saigon Diaries

My trip to Ho-Chi-Minh was planned at a whim. I was close by in Singapore with a few days to spare and Ho-chi-Minh happened to be not only the cheapest and closest, but also the most interesting place that I could get to in the short time. And so one fine morning, I found myself in Saigon

Vietnam happens to be swaddled in history. From French occupation to American invasion, from partition to unification, from communism to democracy it has seen everything in a span of a couple of centuries. And Ho-Chi-Minh city, or Saigon, has always been in the eye of Vietnamese storm.

Owing to the French occupation, the city, especially the central district where I am staying, looks and feels much like a European town, what with wide avenues, imposing buildings, churches and cathedrals. But for the heat and humidity, I might as well have been in France.

My first stop is the famed Central Post Office located in the heart of the city. Designed by the master architect Gustav Eiffel himself, the Post Office is famous world over for its arched doors, tiled floors, french windows, wrought iron grills and ornate columns. The most interesting thing about the Post Office however is that it is still functional. The large hall in front is used for postal services and tourist information and ticketing centre; the larger hall behind houses offices and postal services. Another interesting feature of the Post Office is that tourists here can buy stamps and get free cards to go with them. I want to post a card to my family too but realize the counter has already shut. The tourist centre is open though and I promptly book myself for a couple of tours.

Right across the road, diagonally opposite the Post Office, stands the handsome red building of Notre Dame. The cathedral, built between 1863 and 1880 is marked by two 60-meter high towers and is famous for the idol of Virgin Mary that stands outside the cathedral. It is believed that the idol had wept real tears back in 2005. The incident was considered a miracle and had caused the whole city to stand still. It had taken significant effort for the authorities to get the town moving again.

If the church and the post office are the gifts of the French to Ho-Chi-Minh, the unification palace is American heritage in the heart of the city. It was here on the 30th of April 1975 that the official handover of the country had taken place, thus the name. Although open to public, the palace is still in use by the government. Flat, minimalist and modern, the palace, also called Din-Doc-Lap, is a stark contrast to the ornate buildings of the French. The contrast is perhaps not a coincidence, but design.

The French not only left behind churches and palaces for the Vietnamese, they also built them wide avenues and boulevards, like the wide tree lined avenue that stretches in front of the palace. The road is an exact replica of the Champs Elysees of Paris, who knows if the French had more time, they might also have build an Arch D Triomphe here.

Apart from the heritage of the French and Americans, another thing that is hard to miss in the city are the signs of war. Just like salt, they are sprinkled all over the city – in places and on people’s faces. But in some places these signs are so blatant that even a blind man can see them. The War Remnant Museum and Chu-Chi tunnels are two such examples.

The War Remnant Museum is well within the city and, as the name suggests, is a place to find everything related to the war. There are choppers and aircrafts, rifles and guns, bullets and magazines. There are also some pictures and exhibits. While the choppers and aircrafts are exciting, the pictures and exhibits are overwhelming and disturbing with death and devastation written all over them. I try hard to look but cannot see beyond one gallery and step out for fresh air only to never go back.

Chu-Chi tunnels, unlike the War Museum, are located outside the city. After the museum, I am not sure if I want to see anything else to do with war, but since I have already booked myself into the tour and have nothing better to do, I go along with a group of tourists anyway.

Located outside the city, the tunnels are just one part of the network of tunnels that Vietnam sits on. The Viet Cong men extensively used these tunnels during the war in 1960s. The tunnels are narrow and deep and it is impossible for a person of a normal size to get in. The only people who can make their way through the tunnels are the small built Vietnamese. That perhaps was by design. There are traps too – camouflaged by soil and dry leaves with punji sticks ready to pierce through your body should you happen to fall in any. But for the signage, it is easy to slip into one even today.

A guide dressed in military green uniform demonstrates how the Vietnamese got in and out of the tunnels. He also points towards a high anthill, which is apparently a ventilator for the tunnel and animatedly explains how the tunnels were a source of frustration for the Americans, for their bombs never reached here.

By the time we get done with the tunnels, I have forgotten all about the beautiful colonial Siagon of the 19th century, and can think of only death, destruction, weapons, warfare, propaganda and sabotage. To say I am suddenly disillusioned with the world will be an understatement.

But there is no disillusionment that music cannot heal. And when it comes to music nothing in Vietnam can get better than the Saigon Opera House that stands majestically in the city center. As I head back to the city after a long day, I prepare myself for a sensory feast of the AO Show at the Opera House. After all I had bought tickets to that too at the Post Office.

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