The Cu Chi Tunnels & Ruinification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

One of the best things about a city as sprawling as Ho Chi Minh City, and a country as vast as Vietnam, is that you can swing from ‘adventure tour’ to ‘relaxed museum visit’ in the blink of an eye. Case in point: Cu Chi and the Ruinification Palace.

The Cu Chi Tunnels

SOME HISTORY: during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong built a complex network of tunnels across both North and South Vietnam to avoid bombing by US forces. The tunnels under the Cu Chi district of Saigon were used as military headquarters as well as living facilities for locals, and now they’re available to tour. From above there’s some jungle, an obligatory gift shop and an inexplicable shooting range. The real fun comes when your guide moves some leaf litter, hauls a plank of wood from the ground and shows you… a foot-wide tunnel entrance.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
You’d think after South East Asian toilet facilities I wouldn’t be phased by a hole in the ground… but at least you’re not expected to live in the sewage system.

You can climb in, pull the hatch over your head, feel your way into the tunnel proper and then haul yourself out again. I had a sneaky feeling that despite being a similar size to Vietnamese people – or more similar than most Westerners – I would get stuck in the tunnel and die, so I abstained. For scale, a few six foot guys on our tour did get in, but barely.

Next we saw some of the absolutely genius, totally sneaky, every-naughty-child’s-dream-booby-trap booby traps.

Each trap is pretty simple: when stepped on, its spikes impale the victim through various body parts. If I remember my GCSE history, the stress and paranoia of living with the threat of these traps contributed heavily to the ridiculous levels of PTSD troops experienced. I got pretty stressed just looking at them, so hats off to the war veterans in that respect.

As people lived day-to-day in the tunnels, they came up with ingenious ways of hiding their presence, like cooking during the misty early mornings to mask smoke, or putting air vents in tree trunks to disguise them. They did get flooded out – literally – but generally speaking, the Viet Cong one-upped the West for years. Of course, the tunnels themselves helped.

Entrance to Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
During the war, tunnel entrances were so well hidden that even Viet Cong couldn’t always find them.

Before you go down into them, the guide warns that if you’re claustrophobic or suffer from high blood pressure, you should stay outside. Whatever, I thought, I‘m almost as small as the Viet Cong and I don’t think I’m that claustrophobic. Let’s go!

Turns out I’m a bit claustrophobic, and not that small.

I don’t have any photos from my brush with suffocation, because I was too busy humming songs to distract myself, checking my brother was still following me and trying not to think about suffocating. The tunnels are roughly the size of an air vent, made of stone, and frequently drop a level or move upwards so you have to haul yourself up or drop down a few feet. I’m five foot one, ish, and I nearly got stuck, so I have no idea how average-sized people managed it. I suspect that tourists over a certain size are bluntly told not to go, because they would genuinely get wedged and there’s just no way to get them out.

We survived, though, with grubby backpacks and a deep respect for the communities who spent years underground. Now, on to something more aesthetically pleasing than some rocks:

The Ruinification Palace

From the outside, the Ruinification Palace, also known as Independence Palace, is basically the 1960s encapsulated in a building. I don’t like that blocky, grey concrete style of architecture at all, probably because there’s a lot of it in Southend and as a child, with drizzle stuck to my neck and a grey sky next to grey buildings filled with grey people, I decided I would leave Southend for warmer lands as soon as possible. Happily, the interior reminded me of The Man from UNCLE and appealed greatly to my unachievable ambition to have a spotless, symmetrical bedroom.

SOME HISTORY: there’s been a palace of sorts on that site since the 19th century, during French occupation, and after a bomb attack in 1962 the building was completely redesigned. The president of South Vietnam lived and worked there until 1975 when Saigon fell to the North and tanks literally rolled through the gates. The president surrendered immediately and the palace has been left as it was then, from the meeting rooms to the underground war bunkers.

My favourite bit is that the top floor of the palace was originally designed as an open space for the president to meditate upon various issues in peace and quiet. He turned it into a party room with a dance floor and space for 100 guests.

I am not wholly unsurprised the South lost the war.

Tết in Saigon

We arrived in Vietnam from Phnom Penh just before Tết, the lunar new year (what everyone knows as Chinese new year), thinking it would be a New Year’s Eve celebration similar to home: fireworks, street parties, raucous festivities…

What actually happens is that most people go home for the holidays, clean their homes and shut up their businesses from anywhere between three days to a week. Not exactly Hogmanay… but also way more fun than getting wasted all evening and waking up on 1st January to some questionable Facebook mentions and a hangover the size of New South Wales. A few backpackers complained that the city was ‘dead’, but if 50,000 mopeds, 20 street vendors per road and several million locals spilling out of coffee shops and bars and restaurants all week is dead, I would like to see ‘alive’. Here’s what you can entertain yourself with in Saigon during new year:

Random Street Parades

I had breakfast on Bu Vien, the main backpackers’ street, on our first morning and watched a lion dancing parade roll past. Then I saw another the next day, and another the next… The city also closes off an entire street, Nguyen Hue, and fills it with flower decorations. Think the Mall on a celebration day meets an extravagant florist. Families walk through in their best clothes and take photos. As 2017 is the year of the rooster, it felt like a very fancy Easter egg hunt during the Chelsea Flower Show…

Nguyen Hue Walking Street during Tet Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Getting a clear photo was almost impossible because about 10 families at one time wanted the same photo in the same spot.
Nguyen Hue Walking Street during Tet Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
They remind me of the 2012 Olympic mascots…

Notre Dame Cathedral

No, not the French one. Christianity is less of a thing in South East Asia than Buddhism, but more of a thing than I thought it was. Vietnamese Notre Dame isn’t as spectacular as Paris’s, but it’s still a lovely, if disconcertingly European, building.

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
I’ve become so used to buddhas that it actually took me a minute to remember Mary’s name.
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon plus Diamond Plaza, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
We didn’t go in as there was Sunday service, but we did notice that the giant glass building right next to it looks like it would fit nicely in Vegas.

The Central Post Office

Saigon’s Central Post Office is near Notre Dame, and as someone who both sends and makes postcards it’s important that I visit as many post offices as I can while I’m out here (I do have other hobbies but none of them are as exhilarating). Saigon did not disappoint.

Saigon Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Can you imagine how good my Instagram would look if I shipped all my orders from here?!

Saigon. Just Saigon.

Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Is that a block of flats that became a block of cafes? Are they just really cute house fronts?
Ho Chi Minh City city centre, Vietnam
This is a main square at the city centre. There are a tonne of old buildings across the city, but development is EVERYWHERE.
Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
A tree on a roof next to a building on a roof.

Also seen: a squirrel chained to a tree, a truck full of pigs and monkeys, small roadside fires (people burn offerings), large roadside rubbish tips (Saigon is a dirty city – rubbish is just dropped in the street), people feeding pigeons, a couple eating dinner on a moped.

Then again, all of that is pretty normal for Vietnam whether it’s new year or not.

The Ho Chi Minh City War Remnants Museum

I was going to merge this post with another, because I’m terribly behind on sharing what we’ve been up to (I’m writing this from Hue, central Vietnam, which I think is our fourth place since leaving Saigon) but on reflection it deserves its own title.

Dedicated almost entirely to the Vietnam War, the War Remnants Museum isn’t quite as horrific as anything Cambodia has to offer, largely because you’re walking around a pleasantly air conditioned building with snacks available on every floor, but I still don’t recommend going if you dislike a) criticism of the American government, b) graphic photographs of the effects of chemical weapons or c) communism. The museum’s information plaques are verging on pro-Vietnamese propaganda, but once you’ve seen a few photographs, there’s not a lot of room to disagree.

SOME HISTORY: in 1955, communist North Vietnam, its South Vietnam-based allies the Viet Cong and various communist states, went to war against capitalist South Vietnam and its main ally, America, plus a bunch of other anti-communist countries. The North won and Vietnam was reunified as one country in 1975, but not before eight million people were killed and thousands worldwide protested against the US military’s heavy involvement (which as far as I can tell, benefited precisely no one except for chemical weapons companies).

The ground level of the museum is given over to war memorabilia like protest signs (I had no idea just how many people from so many countries marched to show their opposition to American policy… sound familiar?). Outside are a couple of helicopters and the remains of a prison block which I think was used by either the US, or the French during their occupation. Torture methods included confining prisoners to tiny cages and pulling out teeth, etc. So if you were depressed by my post on Tuol Sleng, don’t despair – gruesome torture is an international phenomenon!

Guillotine, Ho Chi Minh City War Remnants Museum, Vietnam
Yep, that’s a guillotine.

The next two floors are altogether grimmer. One gallery is dedicated to the work of war photographers, most of whom were Westerners and many of whom seem to have been killed before their work made it to print. I suppose the magazine spreads look a bit antiquated compared to the the live-Tweeting that’s been going on in Aleppo, but the images themselves are spectacular – and look way better in print than on a little screen.

War Remnants Museum Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
It is harder to take photographs of photographs than I thought it was.
War Remnant Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The gallery contains the work of 133 press photographers from all over the world, and took four years to collect.

The second gallery of doom is dedicated to the victims of napalm and Agent Orange. SOME HISTORY: organisations and individuals on both sides committed horrific war crimes (rape, torture, civilian massacres) but the USA arguably takes the biscuit with its liberal use of napalm (the burning one) and Agent Orange (the chemical defoliant one) against the Vietnamese people.

I only took a few photos and I won’t share them here because they are horrible. I had seen burn victims before, but napalm sort of peels the skin from the body until the person resembles a zombie’s self portrait. The photographs of the herbicide victims reminded me of a hall of mirrors. Victims still look like people, but only just. Effects of the toxins include about four types of cancer, cleft palate, Parkinsons, water on the brain, developmental disabilities and spina bifida. And that’s just a few names I got from a list. I didn’t know that the chemicals stay in the environment for years, and can worm their way into people’s genetics, so people are still being born with the effects of a warfare programme that ended in 1971. Victims – which include Vietnamese people but also war veterans and their families – have sued various chemical companies in the years since, but I’m not sure what’s actually come of it. If you want to see real-life victims, by the way, come to Vietnam in 2017! Once you notice the hunchback and the lady crawling on her hands because her legs don’t work and the Agent Orange victims’ charities, you don’t really stop noticing them.

Gallery at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City,Vietnam
Other exhibitions include photos of buildings and local people during the war.

I will leave this here because I want to have a shower and think about something that doesn’t depress me… JK Rowing roasting Piers Morgan on Twitter, maybe. It’s the little things in life…