May 11, 2011

Having finished all of our classes and tiring of studying over lecture slides, Nick and I decided to go check out Saigon over the weekend.

In order to save money (initially my flight was cheaper, but apparently I got the last ticket with the good rate), Nick got the flight behind mine. We discussed it, and decided to meet at the corner of a particular road and a market. Clearly marked in the maps we had in Lonely Planet (A book that makes suggestions for places to go and stay while abroad).

I get there, and there I am, clearly not from around those parts, with no decent map, except the one in Lonely Planet, and I had resolved not to use that one because I didn’t want to be taken advantage of as the obviously ignorant tourist.

So I went to a hotel, bought a map, got sorta kinda oriented, ran into a guy trying to sell me a tour, who, in all his enthusiastic gestures at proving himself not to be a crook, decided it might be beneficial to help me along my way. So now I really was oriented.

I visited another hotel and then went to the one in Lonely Planet and, sure enough, as the book had said, it was in fact the best deal.

All this time though, I was like, “what have I done?” I finally got to the aforementioned market corner and was like, hum, I’ve definitely had better ideas.”

It would have been one thing to have been by myself, but trying to find someone with no phone amid a city with the most traffic I have ever seen seemed daunting.

But Nick has good sense, so I went and got a bottle of water, a bag of chips, and sat in the center of the street corner we talked about, a sore thumb in the center of Saigon, and sure enough he showed up in 20 minutes or so and easily spotted me.

Upon his arrival, the first thing he said was, “well, we’ve had better ideas”. I died laughing. I knew it’d work out, but it was definitely a relief.

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was unlike any I’ve seen thus far. Basically it never stops. The only way to cross the street is to walk into on-coming traffic at a constant speed, with no drastic moves, and allow traffic to flow around you as you walk. An interesting experience indeed.

We managed to squeeze most of the sights in and around Saigon into two days. We saw a Cathedral, went to the Independence (Reunification) Palace, where South Vietnam surrendered after the gates were overrun by tanks shortly after the American withdrawal.

From there, we went to the War Remnants Museum. Of course, one has to keep in mind that everything there is slanted toward the communists, but that certainly doesn’t negate the tragedies present in the photos along the Museum’s walls.

Agent Orange in particular was a horrendous attempt to cleanse the dense Vietnamese forest hiding Viet Cong. Even as I walked the street, I caught a glimpse of what must be the remains of the awful chemical. There was a midget whose check and back looked like it had grown over a horizontal rod. Put two cones together and put skin over the top of them, and you would have this guy’s chest and back.

One of the more interesting aspects of our trip was our tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi was a strategic location north of Saigon, therefor was a central location of conflict.

The Cu Chi guerrillas were locals who sympathized with the North. In order to evade the US and S. Vietnam, they dug tunnels no larger than two feet across and one feet high. They would crawl for miles in these, often shooting the opposition before jumping into a hidden entrance.

At the end of the tour we saw a 1967 video showing and honoring those awarded as “American Killer Heroes.” There was even a young girl of about 12, who, in the video, had an innocent smile as her peer congratulated her for opposing the Americans.

Imagine the thought of the young American soldier as he approached an innocent looking girl, not so unlike his sister, only to realize she was armed and posed just as great a threat as the VC soldiers.

No matter who won that fight, both would be left unable to live as they were meant to. Yet this video encouraged further action of that kind.

Despite the macabre atmosphere, our tour guide made the trip hysterical. He was always in a rush to show us something, and then get us to the next location as quickly as possible.

This was particularly funny considering there were three French guys who always seemed to lag behind. In fact, they even got left in the tunnels, while the rest of us went for a Cu Chi style snack of tapioca and tea.

Upon their sitting down at the table, the guide quickly said,”Come, come, next place, next place.” It is hard to represent the accents here, but it was very amusing as the French guys called out, “Chill out man, chill out, we’re in no rush.”

As we returned to the Saigon the guide who had introduced himself as Slim Jim, because he “ate very little, and smoked like a chimney”, informed us how we better get our stuff off the bus, because while he was on the wagon now, he would soon be off, and no one would hear from him until tomorrow’s tour.

Well, I’m going to go listen to Charlie Daniels and try and get some studying done for these exams I have on tomorrow. Oh boy!

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