How Vietnam's dark, difficult history meets its safe, sensational present

May 30, 2018

After midnight, Bui Vien, the famous backpacker street of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), is a swirling vortex of neon signs, throbbing bars, and Vietnamese locals and Western tourists reclining in plastic chairs. Amid this thriving party scene, I drop 35,000 dong ($2) on a light Bia Saigon Lager to drink while strolling down the street in 20 degree Celsius weather. More than 90% of the vehicles on the road are motorbikes, so you have to watch your step.

However, on balance, Vietnam is as safe as it’s ever been for visitors: 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, a ferocious onslaught by the North Vietnamese army that would undermine American confidence in the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese perspective on the Vietnam War is vividly portrayed at both the Independence Palace and War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. I visited both.

The Independence Palace is just a few blocks from the large bronze statue of Ho Chi Minh (“Uncle Ho,” as the Communist revolutionary leader is popularly known) in front of the city hall. In this parklike setting with fountains and red banners, then-President Nguyen Van Thieu held frantic, unsuccessful meetings to solve the military impasse before fleeing to exile in April 1975.

On the palace rooftop, I marvelled at the Huey helicopter that waited to spirit Thieu away. Then, I wandered through subterranean corridors into the presidential bunker and the command centre, laden with maps of military operations, vintage rotary telephones and teletypes. The President’s Mercedes is also displayed, as a symbol of his regime’s decadence.

In the gift shop, I was grimly amused to find that visitors can buy kids' t-shirts printed with cartoon Viet Cong soldiers, or teddy bears in red silk garments and peasant hats (photographing these souvenirs is not permitted).

The nearby War Remnants Museum spotlights French, South Vietnamese and American atrocities over the decades. From a 4.5-metre-tall guillotine with a 50-kg blade to brutal tiger cages with barbed wire, it’s a chilling collection of inhumanity. Amidst all manner of captured U.S. weaponry, I spotted Nick Ut’s iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the nine-year-old “Napalm Girl” running away during a 1972 bombing campaign. The presentation is somber and sobering.

Given this dark history, it’s amazing to see how far this city of 8.6 million has come in the last 50 years. There are few better vantage points than the Bitexco Financial Tower, a 262.5-metre skyscraper and Vietnam’s tallest building when it debuted in 2010. A beer is pricier at the 51st-floor bar than on Bui Vien, but I bought one anyway, and sipped it while marvelling through floor-to-ceiling windows at the city's grand panorama. I can see the curving Saigon River, the blue-grey Sheraton Towers and the French colonial-style Opera House. This city has bounced back big time.

But to understand Vietnamese culture, it’s also vital to investigate the Mekong Delta, just west of Ho Chi Minh City. Covering more than 40,000 square kilometres and home to 20 million people, the region gets two metres of rainfall a year and yields a massive bounty of rice, pineapple, watermelons, and other crops. Water hyacinths grow along the Mekong in remarkable abundance; the English expression “dirt cheap” translates in Vietnamese to “cheap as water hyacinths.”

On the Mekong, temperatures typically peak in April and May, at a sweltering — and humid — 35 degrees Celsius in April and May. It feels cooler when you’re on a boat, as I was, coasting past palm trees, cows grazing in fields, and humble, low corrugated-iron buildings with thatched roofs.

The Mekong River originates in the Tibetan mountains more than 4,000 kilometres away, bringing nutrients and minerals from China, Burma,Thailand and Cambodia, so I only got a small taste. And while the floating market at Cai Be — a colourful agglomeration of boats brimming with textiles and fruit — is eye-catching, the “wet market” (on land) up river in Sa Dec is what really impacted me.

Fresh food — including Mangrove crabs and snakehead fish — is sold in crates and barrels. If you’re thirsty, there’s coconut milk or, for the more adventurous, snake wine. A loudspeaker squawks Communist slogans across the market, and you'll also find Power Rangers, Spiderman and Hello Kitty knockoff daypacks for sale there.

A little girl in a pink cap, carrying a bag of candy, turned her head and smiled brightly as I return to the boat — with perfect timing: fat, warm drops of rain begin to fall as soon as I settled in. I felt both stunned and delighted by the contrasting sensations of modern Vietnam. I can’t wait to discover more.

Getting there

Want to get a taste of modern Vietnam? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Vietnam here.

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