Viet Nam 02-May-2005
Story by Shelly Pfeifer, photos by Troy Pfeifer
Who would have thought on April 30, 1975, the day Saigon fell, that Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) would be the new up and coming country to compete in the world economy. With the city busy with young families, executives being chauffeured to work, individuals opening new businesses everyday and farmers owning land, Ho Chi Minh City has shown that it has overcome the tragedy of the Viet Nam War. The city has healed its wounds and has been proving itself to be an exciting tourist destination for travelers from all over the world.
The Mekong Delta and Cuchi Tunnels are two locations synonymous with the Viet Nam War. Even though these were a few of the scariest places to be during the late 60’s and early 70’s, today they both are captivating places to visit.
The Mekong River, no longer patrolled by military boats, is now used by ferries to transport passengers and cars to the islands. Fish farms are in abundance and lining the banks of the river are dozens of fishing boats with men on board preparing for the next day of work.
A few of the stops to make on the river include Unicorn Island and Phoenix Island. On these islands, where only a few thousand people live, products are made from the local fruits, vegetables and plants. After stopping for a snack of tea and tropical fruits along the river bank, you can walk deeper into the island and discover the small workshops where the local people produce goods to sell. Anything that can be made from a coconut shell can be found here. Candy, purses, bowls, jewelry and wall art are made by the native people. Rice and tapioca are ground into fine powder to make rice paper and different varieties of water lily plants are dried then weaved to make mats.
The Cuchi Tunnels is the underground tunnel system created by the Vietnamese Army to hide from the enemy during the war. You can not visit the actual tunnels; they are no longer safe and spread out over too great a distance to make it a worthwhile tourist site. To show the ingenuity involved in the tunnels the government decided to make a model of the tunnels approximately 40km away from the original site.
At the Cuchi Tunnels, an onsite guide will demonstrate how they fit their small bodies into even smaller holes that led to the tunnels underground. If you have no fear of small, enclosed places, you can crawl through the system of tunnels yourself. You can choose to crawl a distance of 50m, 80m or 120m. This is not for claustrophobic people or anyone with heart problems for the tunnels are incredibly narrow and short. It can trick your mind that you are suffocating and can be overwhelming when you can’t turn around and the person in front of you has stopped moving forward.
A very easy and leisurely way to see the city up close and in person is to hire a cyclo. These are similar to the rickshaw, only the passenger sits in the front, while the bicyclist peddles you from behind. For about $5USD, your guide will take you for an hour ride through the busy avenues of Ho Chi Minh City. As cars, motorcycles and other bicycles whip by, you can take in the sights such as the Saigon River, City Hall, Reunification Palace, and Notre Dame Cathedral.
Just like any other growing city, restaurants and cafes have sprung up like wildflowers on every corner. You can find anything you want to eat from ice cream floats, pizza, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, steak, hamburgers, seafood, and of course, Vietnamese food. It is very inexpensive to eat so even the budget minded person can go to the most expensive restaurant and not break the bank. Roof top restaurants are a great way to enjoy your meal. It gives you a fascinating view of the city and a different perspective to observe the inner workings of the city.
About 10 years ago, the only kind of transportation most citizens could afford was a bicycle. But with the growing economy and rising family incomes, the main mode of transportation is motorcycles. Not like the big hogs that Americans are used to, but smaller cycles such as Vespas (only a cheaper version of the Vespa).
There are not many privately owned cars and buses are not widely used, so for the first time visitor, crossing the street can be a very challenging feat. The trick is to move slowly and steadily. The countless motorcycles coming your way will judge how fast you are moving and will swerve around you. The last thing you want to do is make a sudden bolt for the other side of the street. That will almost guarantee you a trip to the hospital. By your last day in the city, you will have mastered the task of street crossing.
For those that like to people watch, this is the city for it. The best place to do this is at a sidewalk café on the corner of a busy street. It is here that you can witness a family of 4 on a motorcycle for a nightly drive or the tourists who just arrived trying to figure out how to cross the street. Or how about the American college kids who rented their own motorcycles and are trying to navigate their way around the maze of streets?
Because tourism has only been around for ten years, the local people will find you as interesting as you find them. Don’t be shy to take their picture. They love it and will even want their picture to be taken with you. Also, don’t be surprised if little boys and girls follow you through the markets. They will be enthralled by the color of your hair, skin and eyes. They most likely have never seen anything like you and will think you are from another world.