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NVA Regulars, Saigon Post Office
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Motorbikes as far as the eye can see!
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Binh Tay Market, Cholon District
Masks for everyone!

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Making friends in a Bia Hoi joint
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Staff at our local Bia Hoi
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Drinks at the Majestic
(CW from left: David, Darrel and Jon)

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Terrified in the tunnels of Cu Chi.
Which way is Canada?

Vietnam 2006
Part 1: In and Around Saigon (11/17/2006 – 11/20/2006)

Just returned from a 11 day trip through southern Viet Nam. My trip is chronicled here in three parts, this being the first. For a visual tour of my trip, clock the flickr stream, or watch the YouTube videos (here, here and here [more to come…]).

I landed in Ho Chi Minh/Saigon on the morning of the 17th after a long flight pinned in the middle seat aboard an airbus from San Francisco. I was met at the airport by a driver who navigated the hectic city streets and delivered me safely to my hotel in the center of town. After a few minutes rest in my hotel room (quite nice for $25 a night!), and a quick shower and shave, Jon and Darrell met me and out we went into the streets of Saigon.

My first impression of Saigon was of a teaming, bustling metropolis. There are 3 million motorbikes in the city, and often times it seems there are all clustered around you, packed into every nook and cranny of every street and every sidewalk in view. This video, shot on the back of a Honda 150, hardly does the chaos justice.

Nearly all of the women and most of the men wear a mask or scarf to cover their nose and mouth. Some people claim this is a reaction to the Bird Flu scare, but after a minute or two on a motorbike, it’s quite clear that the smog and exhaust from all the bikes is the main motivation for wearing a mask. The women, ever conscious of keeping their skin pale and untanned, also wear hats, glasses and elbow length gloves, despite the humid 90 degree heat. This makes the scene all the more dramatic, as from my American eyes I see 3 million bank robbers wreaking havoc in the streets on their getaway bikes. It took merely a week for me to fully adopt the masked rider style. I fully intend on getting myself a scooter here in SF.

Evidently, the Vietnamese can carry anything and any number of people on their motorbikes. I saw several families of four, three men and a refrigerator, and huge stacks of hay all balanced on these tiny 150’s. You name it, they can carry it on their bike while navigated total chaos.

Most people who live in the city still call it Saigon, although they may refer to it by the official Ho Chi Minh in some circumstances. The city was renamed the day after the city fell to (or was liberated by, depending on your perspective) the North Vietnamese Army in 1975. Ho Chi Minh never saw the end of the war, so renaming Saigon, the center of the South Vietnamese government and locus of power for Americans, to the name of the North’s political and intellectual leader is a suitable homage and fitting use of propaganda. At any rate, I started calling the city Saigon once I learned that that was still in common use by the inhabitants of the city.

After walking around for a bit, the three of us stepped into a Bia Hoi (a locally brewed beer and social experience a like) for a beer. The patrons of our first Bia Hoi seemed as interested in us as we were in them. Within an hour, we had made friends with a table of older men, and each of us were assigned Vietnamese nicknames, the meanings of which are still a mystery.

In the first three days, we saw much of the ‘big draws’ in Saigon and the surrounding environs. We saw the big markets (Ben Thanh Market, Chinese Market, American Market and Russian Market), Cholon (chinatown), Reunification Palace, and the War Museum. We had drinks atop the famous Rex hotel, ate tons of Pho, and found our favorite Bia Hoi.

And then there were 4
On the evening day 3, our fourth traveling companion David arrived from Taipei. We shopped and stopped for a drink atop the Majestic overlooking the Saigon River, and spent the night telling stories, drinking beer and eating the local fare at our fav. Bia Hoi. The next morning we made our way up to Cu Chi to visit the famous Cu Chi Tunnels that the Viet Cong dug and used to avoid US bombs and kick some serious cracker ass. The photo of me in the tunnels doesn’t show you how cramped and dark those tunnels are. There is virtually no light (the picture is lit by flash), and even though this tunnel was enlarged for tourists, it is still so cramped that you can’t turn around. The Viet Cong lived there for years. They had children in there, cooked, slept, died, and underwent surgery. These tunnels snaked under US bases, roughly 300 miles in total, stretching all the way to the Cambodian border to the west and the Saigon river to the east. Imagining the psychological impact on US troops and tactical advantage afforded to the Viet Cong by the existance of these tunnels really punctuated why US soldiers returned so shell shocked from the war. I was really amazed by these tunnels and impressed by the tenacity, determination and industriousness of the Viet Cong.

We don’t hear much about the Viet Cong (and certainly nothing positive) in history class in the United States. In fact, the Vietnam War generally is glossed over in history class. We didn’t lose the ‘war,’ (when history books even acknowledge it as a war), we ‘withdrew.’ We weren’t fighting rural farmers on their own land half-way across the globe, we were fighting against the spread of Communism. All I really learned about Vietnam in school is that it resulted in a wall full of the names of dead soldiers and that somehow the mighty American military could not defeat bands of poorly armed guerrillas.

But what my trip to Vietnam and Cu Chi particularly taught me is that the American military never had a chance in Vietnam. If military planners had done any research at all, they would have understood that the Vietnamese, particularly the Vietminh/Viet Cong, were smarter and more determined than the American forces. And they had something the Americans never had — a compelling reason to keep fighting.

I was also really struck by the remarkable similarities between some elements of Vietnam and what is happening in Iraq now. If only our government had the institutional capacity to remember the lessons of Vietnam, perhaps Iraq would be going better now. That’s a refrain heard frequently these days, but the truth of it resonated for me the last couple of weeks. How can we expect to defeat fighters with better knowledge of the land, the people and the culture, who can melt into the population easily and who are driven by pride, survival and ideology to repel a foreign force? How can we expect to gain the confidence of a population when we rain bombs on them indiscriminately, kill their fathers, uncles and brothers, and insist on imposing our perspective on them? We can’t, plain and simple. We are as doomed in Iraq as we ever were in Vietnam.

Okay, enough of my political ranting. The trip to Cu Chi was eye opening, and the tunnels were downright terrifying. I loved every minute of Saigon and Cu Chi. I loved the warmth and disposition of the Vietnamese people, which I’ll talk about more in the third entry. In the next entry (#2), our travel posse is completed by Rebecca and Luke, we travel up the Mekong, visiting all kinds of cool factories along the way see how the rural folks rock it and ride some elephants. So check back in…