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We woke in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. I had read many of the locals still prefer Saigon, and after spending a day with a guide it does seem true. Saigon has been the city’s name since the 1600s, deep roots to try to pull up, which made me want to look up the history of the city’s name. I learned the region was once under Khmer rule (as much the whole region once was), and legend tells that the region of South Vietnam was given to the Vietnamese as a dowry. But also to stop the constant invasions from the Vietnamese. ព្រៃនគរ as it is in Khmer, or Prey Nôkôr, later became Sài Gòn in the 1600s and westernized by the French to Saigon in the 19th century. This leg of the trip is where Shell,

ព្រៃនគរ as it is in Khmer, or Prey Nôkôr, later became Sài Gòn in the 1600s and westernized by the French to Saigon in the 19th century. This leg of the trip is where Shell, Kalysa and I meet up with our friends Minh and Paul who have also just arrived in Vietnam for a six-week backpacking adventure of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. I’m not sure you can fully understand my envy.

We wandered about in the morning in search of a proper tour company and some breakfast. We found a nice French cafe and promptly downed a bunch of Vietnamese coffees along with some French pastries, sandwiches, and other baked goods. We found a tour company that we had thought would also be able to book us flights to one of Vietnam’s islands like Phú Quốc or Côn Đảo, despite our dates being targeted for a holiday weekend. We did not really find luck with the flights, but we did go ahead and get a tour for the day to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This holiday weekend turned out to be National Day, celebrating their independence from France in 1945 after the end of the second World War. We also walked by City Hall.

The Cu Chi Tunnels take their name from an area northwest of Saigon with a history that is largely agrarian. The area had been resistant to American and other outside forces and was subsequently subject to bombs and napalm that rid their land of any viable subsistence. The people at Cu Chi went underground.

They built a rather impressive system of tunnels and traps to combat their enemy. Multiple levels of tunnels going deep below the earth to protect them from bombs and gas. Sections could be sealed off independently of one another should one be gassed. The people could cook, eat, sleep, and otherwise fully live below ground in the tunnels. The smoke from cooking would be led out another system that would disperse it around, then out through hidden places.

These places might be fake termite hills, holes hidden under leaves – the leaves changed out daily, and other crafty means. The smells would often be masked by the use of the soaps American troops were issued. This way the American dogs only found a familiar scent while hunting the enemy. They were also known for building traps, which many of us probably remember from the news or history class. Bamboo spiked pits hidden beneath trap platforms, other iterations of that same idea, and also ambush sites that were very well hidden and used the tunnels as a means of movement and protection.

On the way to the tunnels, our guide spoke on the history of Vietnam most the way. His insights and perspectives were fascinating to me. He grew up in Saigon and was young during the war. His knowledge of their history, our history and involvement there, and how many of the pieces that made it happen all fit together were quite well informed. He knew the geopolitical games that were at play, the years of history leading into it, and even broke out a quip on how the situation in Syria was reminding him of much the same playbook. (Note that news on that was really hot at this time).

The way he spoke of the history it made me think he was a bit sympathetic to the Western cause, or perhaps was more resentful of the North – hard to know. I have no real way of confirming this since it is hard to converse on such deep subjects with no relationship. However, later on after we were leaving he and I were speaking and he was asking me questions. One question was whether the American Army is a volunteer army. I confirmed but commented that it wasn’t during our Vietnam Conflict. I also commented on some reasons why people join, and there can be a lot more to it than simply ‘love of country’. We went back and forth a bit on that, then he told me that just a couple days prior a very good friend of his left, back to go to where he now calls home. Many years earlier this friend of his left Vietnam and moved to Texas. He joined the Army and served for the United States. He has now started his own business, which occasionally takes him back to Vietnam. My tour guide seemed to be quite proud of this friend of his, cheering him on almost. After years of turmoil in South Vietnam, this guy made it out to the big land of opportunity. I’ll say that it felt good to me to hear this story, but I still think he had more fun telling it. I tell this to provide some perspective on how some South Vietnamese feel. I had read about this sentiment still flourishing in the south, but with such a short stay how was I to have access to such feelings? Somehow they found me. I can’t speak any further or deeper to his feelings on this, and I only hope that my record is accurate. He was a really nice fellow and made for a great tour. His knowledge and perspective were welcome and fresh. At the end of the tour, we had some tapioca. You know, just bite the root. He made sure to let us know that as a child growing up in Saigon this was his breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, for years. We were also eating it fresh.

We went back and forth a bit on that, then he told me that just a couple days prior a very good friend of his left, back to go to where he now calls home. Many years earlier this friend of his left Vietnam and moved to Texas. He joined the Army and served for the United States. He has now started his own business, which occasionally takes him back to Vietnam. My tour guide seemed to be quite proud of this friend of his, cheering him on almost. After years of turmoil in South Vietnam, this guy made it out to the big land of opportunity. I’ll say that it felt good to me to hear this story, but I still think he had more fun telling it. I tell this to provide some perspective on how some South Vietnamese feel. I had read about this sentiment still flourishing in the south, but with such a short stay how was I to have access to such feelings? Somehow they found me. I can’t speak any further or deeper to his feelings on this, and I only hope that my record is accurate. He was a really nice fellow and made for a great tour. His knowledge and perspective were welcome and fresh. At the end of the tour, we had some tapioca. You know, just bite the root. He made sure to let us know that as a child growing up in Saigon this was his breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, for years. We were also eating it fresh.

I can’t speak any further or deeper to his feelings on this, and I only hope that my record is accurate. He was a really nice fellow and made for a great tour. His knowledge and perspective were welcome and fresh. At the end of the tour, we had some tapioca. You know, just bite the root. He made sure to let us know that as a child growing up in Saigon this was his breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, for years. We were also eating it fresh. His was hard and old. Food supplies in and out of the city were scarce.

The tunnels themselves were tiny, and we were being taken through the part of the system that had been heightened and widened for tourists. I will not lie to you and talk as though I’m in good shape. I sit for my job and my commute, which takes up 13-15 hours of each day. It doesn’t leave much time to make sure I can scuddle my ass across the ground for 50 meters. (My inseam is longer than the height of the tunnel). My quads took it hard. I felt it for days afterward. I know I’m approximately size giant in comparison for who the tunnels were built for, but that doesn’t change the fact that these people were scooting through these things with some sort of swiftness. It was eye-opening, to say the least.

The people at Cu Chi were celebrated war heroes by the regime in the north. We were shown propaganda films as part of the official tour. Our guide seemed to have skipped out on having to watch. These films were full of footage of Cu Chi and the people before the war. There was one female from Cu Chi who had a number of kills, skilled with a rifle and small enough to move very quickly, she was attributed with doing the country a great service against the great enemy. I realize some of this may be hard to consume for some of my readers, but this is what we saw. There will be a couple more snippets to come that will be tougher. War has sides that I think most Americans choose to forget. We wage war across the globe like a

I realize some of this may be hard to consume for some of my readers, but this is what we saw. There will be a couple more snippets to come that will be tougher. War has sides that I think most Americans choose to forget. We wage war across the globe like a full-time job and spin it to be of benevolent causes. I think most miss out on what is actually going on since we are so lucky to have not seen war on our turf for generations, and our news does not show much of what really takes place. Personally, I don’t find this to be civilized in nature, I think if we are waging war then the people responsible for it should be seeing its destruction. Not crumbling buildings from afar, but gruesome images of what is happening on the ground. I say this

Personally, I don’t find this to be civilized in nature, I think if we are waging war then the people responsible for it should be seeing its destruction. Not crumbling buildings from afar, but gruesome images of what is happening on the ground. I say this having never participated, I’m merely an interested student, but have also found that those who have participated are usually those most opposed to it.

Paul in the busted out American tank

This was probably my favorite touristy thing we did in Saigon. Touristy isn’t the right word, something more along the lines of official sites and historical interests. I still think this is largely due to our great tour guide. He made it, and I enjoyed his commentary, banter, and insight. It gave great color to what I knew of our history with Vietnam, and also much color to the opinions and feelings of today. It would have been equally enthralling to have had such an experience in the north to contrast.

I have a couple pictures of our tour guide, but I wish not to publish them. Not that I think I should truly be concerned or that what is written here is anything more than my own interpretation, but Vietnam has been jailing dissenting bloggers and writers. This guy was awesome and real, not dissenting. I hope he gets to continue doing what he does and he gets to continue seeing his Vietnamese-Texan friend. Being real with us is exactly what I want out of these trips, and in some places on our Earth that is all it takes to get in trouble. The Internet is easy to scrape, so it wouldn’t be hard to pull keywords off of here and trip a watchful alarm.

They wore sandals made of used tires

After Cu Chi we were taken back to Saigon and we sorted out further travel plans. We booked flights to Da Nang with plans to get to Hoi An. Which turned out to be a good decision. Paul had somehow already burned an image of the map of Saigon in his head and we followed his lead. The best way to get to know a city, according to Henry Rollins, is to grab a bottle of water and start walking. We had a couple good walks through Saigon.

This one took us past Tân Định Catholic Church and Notre-Dame Saigon Basilica. We made our way to a great restaurant and took a load off. It was such a cute place with kitchen staff visible in the back cutting up fresh vegetables and chatting with each other. There was a small courtyard of sorts with a Koi pond and lots of colors. Some employees would step out there to do some of their work. The staff was very friendly and we ordered a large assortment of flavors. Vietnamese food is among my favorite the world has to offer that I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. I have to thank Minh for getting me hooked on it in New York, but now that I’ve had it in Vietnam it’s even higher on my list. We ordered some Saigon Red beer, enjoyed ourselves for a couple hours and let our mouths indulge.

Notre-Dame Saigon Notre-Dame Saigon

We later headed back to District 1 where we were staying. A couple of us got a massage, and then cleaned ourselves up back at the hotel hoping to take in a little nightlife. District 1 seems never to be lacking in buzz. The streets are chiming with life and movement. We walked out of the hotel and were coaxed to sit down in some chairs basically in the street. My feet were not resting on the sidewalk, but instead, the street gutter. Motorbikes, taxis, solicitors, food carts all whirring by us the whole time. It became rather entertaining and we stayed a while. I took a few videos of the mess in front of me, I didn’t take the time to edit it but I still think it does a decent job of showing you maybe 50 degrees of my field of vision while we sipped on beers in the hot sticky night.

The night was made complete with a rooftop view.

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