One of the greatest marvels of the Vietnam War rests 20 feet under forested land near the Cambodian border.
It’s the underground city of Cu Chi, a three-level network of former Vietcong command posts, living quarters, hospitals and kitchens connected by more than 125 miles of hand-dug tunnels.
From these ingeniously concealed tunnels, the Vietcong battled and frustrated the Americans, whose huge military base in Cu Chi sat above some of the tunnels. Today, the tunnels are a source of pride for the Vietnamese and one of the most popular spots with tourists venturing into Vietnam.
I learned most of this from a guide on the way to Cu Chi from Ho Chi Minh City. That’s the official name for what most people still call Saigon. It was an organized tour, my first and only during a one-week visit to Vietnam at the start of last year’s rainy season. I was curious to see how touristy the country had become since the Communist government started welcoming tourists and foreign investment about six years ago. On this morning in June, I found myself sitting in the back seat of an air-conditioned sedan with a British accountant and the English-speaking guide from the Saigon Tourist agency.
The tunnels offered few tourist accouterments. There was a video on Cu Chi’s history playing near the entrance, but neither the picture nor the sound was comprehensible. There was a souvenir stand selling cheap T-shirts and warm soft drinks. Several guards, dressed in military fatigues, smoked cigarettes and hid from the morning sun, which had already left me withered and wet. One of them took us over to a hole in the ground and escorted us down narrow packed-dirt steps into a claustrophobic entranceway to several tunnels leading off in different directions. We had to stoop to wriggle through the underground earthworks, which seemed sturdy but also dark, steamy and inhospitable.
“What did you think?” the guide asked us as we drove away.
“Great,” said the British tourist. “I’ve been here for two weeks and finally I’ve seen something from the war.”
As an American visiting Vietnam for the first time, I too expected to see more signs of the war and its aftermath. But as I wandered through cities, villages and countryside, I found few reminders of those dour, battle-scarred images transmitted from the battlefields of the 1960s into our living rooms, and later, our movie theaters.
I also didn’t find many tourists, despite the continuing relaxation of restrictions on tourism. If one strays only a few blocks from Saigon’s downtown cluster of hotels, a tourist is hard to find. Among the country’s more remote mountain lakes, pristine beaches, village markets and lush river deltas, a Western face is rarer still.
What I did find in Vietnam, apart from picturesque and often sublime natural beauty, was a host of pleasant surprises: colorful pagodas and temples; a rich culture and delicious cuisine; buoyant, warm and industrious people, and a country that is changing as fast as anyone can remember.
How much so, I wasn’t quite prepared for. On my first night in Saigon, I walked out of the Palace Hotel on Nguyen Hue Avenue and was befriended by a former Vietcong soldier whose finger had been blown off by an American bomb. I was taken home to meet his family, treated to dinner and toasted with expensive champagne. All of this occurred with only a few words of English between us.
“The war was many, many years ago,” said a Vietnamese businessman I met later in Saigon. “Now we just want peace and work and to be friends with everyone, especially the Americans.”
“So why were those children laughing and calling me names?” I asked him, referring to an experience I had one morning as I walked along Saigon River near the hotel district.
“Lien Xo! Lien Xo! “
He smiled. " Lien Xo means Russian. They thought you were Russian.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“What do you think?”
“They’re Communists,” he responded, revealing a prevailing antipathy toward the economic policies of the former Soviet Union and resentment among many Vietnamese that the Soviets did not supply more financial support after the war.
No place better reflects the capitalist energy and optimism of Vietnam today than Ho Chi Minh City, the gritty and sometimes glitzy former capital of South Vietnam that is for most Western visitors the gateway to the country.
To be sure, Vietnam was far more dynamic and warm than I had imagined. I had wanted to visit it for years, ever since the country reopened its borders to Westerners. I wanted to experience a country that’s tugged at the current American psyche like no other, to sample its breathtaking landscapes of jungle, delta and highlands--and to see it all before organized tourism started to take root.
It was a Sunday night when I arrived in Saigon, traveling alone, after a short flight from Hong Kong. For sheer bureaucratic snarl, the airport terminal looked as if it might have been the first day the borders were open. Arriving passengers jammed the small, steamy hall where everyone jostled, screamed and squirmed to get through a chaotic series of custom checks. No one seemed to move. Even though I had gotten my visa in advance, it was nearly three hours before I cleared customs, left the airport and headed by taxi to the Palace Hotel in downtown Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, has always been more cosmopolitan and capitalistic than reserved, bureaucratic and ideological Hanoi. But since doi moi --Vietnam’s version of perestroika --opened the Communist country of 65 million to foreigners and free enterprise in 1986, Saigon has been leading the country out of the ruins of a stagnant socialist economy. Saigon is a city in a rush.
From dawn to midnight the streets teem with traffic. Bicycles, motorcycles, oxen-drawn carts and dilapidated cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) hurry through the conFused mass. Some carry baskets of white ducks and blocks of ice to local markets, or silk-gloved women to downtown offices. Others lug televisions, stereos, cases of beer, industrial engines, crates of vegetables or sacks of rice.
The only figure standing still on many city streets is Ho Chi Minh himself. The painted, goateed image of the father of Vietnamese Communism peers from weather-beaten signs, nearly lost among bigger and brighter neon signs flourishing all around him: Sony. Panasonic. Konica. Visa. Honda.
At dawn one day, I strolled along the muddied bronze Saigon River and watched workers playing badminton and soccer and others doing calisthenics and martial arts near a ferry dock.
A few blocks away, elderly women in traditional conical hats stood at roadside stalls on Le Duan Boulevard selling pho (a Vietnamese breakfast soup of rice noodles and beef), French bread, vegetables, cooked meats and lottery tickets to young professionals neatly dressed in buttoned collars and sunglasses and smoking Western cigarettes.
Further along, I walked past the Neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral, from Vietnam’s French-colonial days, and into a tangle of streets lined with acacia and flame trees and grand ocher-colored French villas. Then I followed Tran Hung Dao Boulevard into the boisterous bustle of Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown, and ended the afternoon in the tranquil sanctuary of Xa Loi Pagoda on Ba Huyen Thanh Quan Street, a Buddhist pagoda filled with sweet incense and worshipers in bright robes.
At night, the streets belong to Saigon’s youth, who casually and seemingly harmlessly buzz around the city in their parents’ new motorcycles and motor-scooters, much the same way bored teen-agers cruised the main streets of America decades ago.
Along the way, the only signs of the war I saw were a personalized, repainted U.S. Army Jeep outside the Notre Dame Cathedral and a woman selling cheap “Apocalypse Now” T-shirts outside the Rex Hotel. That is, until I wandered into some of Saigon’s many museums.
The Reunification Hall on Nguyen Du Street conjured up the most images of the war for me. It’s the former Presidential Palace, once the overriding symbol of the South Vietnam government, whose wrought-iron gates Communist tanks stormed through on April 30, 1975.. Today it’s a vast, empty hall offering grand views of the neighborhood’s French-style villas and parks, guided tours of former basement command bunkers, and documentary movies.
Then there’s the War Crimes Museum, which an official Saigon tourist map describes as the city’s most popular museum, and warns that a visit “requires about two hours and a strong stomach.”
It’s housed, ironically, in a building once occupied by the U.S. Information Service, on Vo Van Tan Street northwest of the city center. The exhibits are shocking images of the horrors committed by the “imperialist U.S."--photographs of mutilated bodies, napalm victims, village massacres, smiling U.S. troops posing with victims’ heads, and bottles of fetuses grossly deformed by defoliants. Propaganda or not, these images made me sick, shameful and, for the first time, uncomfortably conscious of being an American in Vietnam.
Saigon’s museums and cluster of hotels around Dong Khoi Street were also the place you would most likely see another Western tourist. Since doi moi, tens of thousands of foreigners have poured into Vietnam each month. Most of them are Asian businessmen--primarily from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan--eager to set up joint ventures and take advantage of the country’s rich resources (oil, fishing, textiles and agriculture) before the United States lifts its trade embargo and they have to compete with American companies.
Givral, an inexpensive cafe on Dong Khoi, offered a good picture of Vietnam’s tourist trade. Fans blew cigarette and kitchen smoke across tables of Canadians reading Le Monde, German backpackers sipping from 2-year-old cans of Coke, a young Singaporean couple huddled over a city map and a table of rousing Russians eating fried fish and drinking cheap vodka.
Most, it seemed, were still curious about the war and its aftermath. Some wore “Lift the Embargo Now” T-shirts and exchanged information on war-related museums and other sites around the city. Others talked about nothing else, particularly to me and other Americans. One sweltering afternoon, when two French women mentioned a nearby shop owner who talked freely about being tortured in a re-education camp, a few tables of tourists followed them out the door.
As stimulating as I found Ho Chi Minh City, nothing attracted me more to Vietnam and its people than the time I spent driving through the countryside. Even after being driven more than 500 miles, primarily in the south, I remained mesmerized by the landscape, its beauty and its constant activity.
To be sure, traveling outside of Saigon requires a sense of adventure and a lot of patience. Vietnam’s potential as a tourist mecca may be high, but the industry today is far from a well-oiled machine. Bureaucratic obstacles, language and the need for travel permits are among the biggest barriers. Independent travel outside of the cities is discouraged, tacitly by the government and overtly by its uncertain trains and buses. But the good news is that travel off the beaten path is safe, surprisingly clean and relatively inexpensive.
I chose the independent path of least resistance. Acting on a recommendation from a Vietnamese friend at home, I hired my own Vietnamese guide who provided a car, secured my permits and drove me around the country for about 32 cents a mile and $10 a day, a fraction of the price of the state-run tour operators. My journey north of Saigon into the central highlands was the most surprising. The roads carried us from congested streets and busy village markets into a landscape that seemed more like the Alps. Mist and thin clouds moved across lush mountains and over cool rain forests. Streams, lakes and waterfalls abounded as the road wound up and down the mountains.
But my journey south, along the lush paddied lowlands of the Mekong Delta and into Vietnam’s heartland, was most memorable.
Rice was everywhere. On the roadside, women spread neat, golden brown swaths of the crop to dry in the sun. Behind them, in the swampy, verdant fields, lay the raised white graves of the workers’ ancestors.
Up and down the road, sacks of rice were carried by oxen-drawn carts, on bicycles and atop workers’ shoulders. Along muddy-brown streams and rivers, long boats carried hefty sacks of rice along with crates of fresh vegetables. Outside the processing and storage sheds, which were already overflowing with rice, mounds of the crop stood as high as 30 feet.
These are the signs of a record harvest in Vietnam’s premier rice-growing region and, as my guide told me over and over again, the signs of waste as well. Because without the adequate storage, transport and credit facilities that investment from the West could provide, much of the crop will not be able to be sold outside the country, and may be wasted.
Our journey ended with a flat tire at Vinh Long, a ferry town on the Mekong River. As the driver waited for its repair, I walked through town toward the river.
It was a sweltering afternoon, and the heat seemed to have drawn all the life from the village. Most of the people sat in the shade eating lunch or selling goods from roadside stands. There were stacks of French loaves for sale, along with fruit-flavored iced drinks and lottery tickets.
At the river, I watched long boats slide down the brown sweep of the Mekong and a few workers lugging boulders from the riverbank. My presence there seemed to puzzle them, and they stared.
I turned back. But before I got to the village, I was surrounded by a bunch of boys, curious and pointing.
” Lien Xo. Lien Xo ,” one said.
“No,” I said. “American.”
And they smiled warmly and giggled and drew closer, several of them boasting, “Hell-o, Hell-o. Where you from?” as they followed me back to the car.
Before I arrived in Vietnam, the last thing I would have imagined I’d do would be to proclaim I was an American, let alone in a remote village whose wartime sympathies, from the American standpoint, were mixed at best.
But as I neared the end of my stay in Vietnam, I saw it as just another example of how much this country had surprised me.
Getting there: Getting from LAX to Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) is a two-step process and, generally, the most hassle-free and economical way is to fly the same carrier all the way. Following that logic, U.S. travelers may connect through Bangkok (on Thai Airways), Singapore (Singapore Airlines), Taipei (China Airlines), Manila (Philippine Airlines), Jakarta (Garuda Indonesia) and Hong Kong (Cathay Pacific Airways). For travel through the end of May, advance-purchase, restricted, round-trip fares range widely, depending on the carrier--from about $1,100 on China Airlines to $1,600 or $1,700 on Singapore and Cathay Pacific.
Getting around: You’re probably best to explore the major cities on foot or aboard a cyclo , which can be hired with a driver for about $5 a day. Outside the cities, a driver/guide with car minimizes the logistical, language and government barriers. Expect to pay about $25 a day for a driver and English-speaking guide, and a per-mile charge. For the more adventurous, motorbikes are available in most tourist areas at reasonable rates.
Where to stay: In Ho Chi Minh City, a basic, clean double room will cost about $50 a night, cheaper for some budget rooms. The most Western and expensive hotel, the Saigon Floating Hotel, costs $175-$225 a night, but it’s disappointing and bland. The Rex Hotel and the Continental are the city’s classiest hotels. They cost about $80-$100 a night. Both are worth a visit for at least a drink at the bar.
Where to eat: Vietnamese food is cheap, delicious and plentiful in Saigon. You can eat for pennies from roadside stands, and for a couple of dollars in the city’s many Buddhist vegetarian restaurants and local cafes, such as Givral and Tinh Tam Trai. The best traditional food I tasted in Saigon was at Vy Restaurant.