The bus ride from Phnom Penh to Saigon was the worst I’ve ever taken. Feeling a little out of sorts to begin with, I took my place in the back of the bus, which was overstuffed with scruffy backpackers. Apparently, the Koreans at one point decided to design buses with no storage space, as I was crammed in the back seat, trapped by two dozen backpacks which lined the narrow aisle running down the vehicle. If having barely an inch to move wasn’t bad enough, I was in the middle seat, essentially sitting with my back to the massive diesel engine, which would heat my seat for the next several hours. The air conditioning, barely functional, failed to reach me, and so I sat, doubled over, dozing in and out of sleep, sweating my entire body weight into the nylon seat and fellow passengers. We stopped over for lunch at the border with Vietnam, where we had to walk several hundred meters under an unforgiving sun, from the Cambodian building, a shiny modern Khmer thing, to the impressively communist looking Vietnamese edifice to be processed.
By the time I got to Saigon, the headache I had started the day with had turned into some horrible migraine. For the next four days I would be mostly stuck in my hotel room, prisoner of some god-awful combination of dehydration, overheating and viral infection. When I found enough energy, I managed to walk a small radius around mini-hotel alley where I was staying. Most of the time, however, I had barely enough energy to walk a block, the pain behind my eyes making it hard to focus and concentrate. It was my first bad case of travel illness, and though it may sound like I’m over exaggerating, there were hours-long periods when I wished I’d had something as simple as terrible diarrhea. It was boring (how many cable movies can you half watch in a day?), frustrating (all I really wanted to do was walk around, and here I was wasting time) and lonely (I’d just spent the past week traveling with friendly folk, and here I was, moaning into a pillow in the middle of the night.) I eventually went to a clinic for some blood tests. I was already feeling better, but wanted to confirm it wasn’t Dengue or Malaria (it wasn’t, but was likely due to some other viral infection.)
After a very frustrating and painful start, I was more than ready to go exploring. Luckily, my new friends Scott and Zoe had decided to spend a couple of weeks in Vietnam before heading to Laos, so we spent a couple of days wandering the streets, taking photos. We visited the Reunification Palace, once known as the Presidential Palace, and the seat of the South Vietnamese Government. A giant postmodern concrete building, it has evidently been left exactly as it was in the mid-seventies, when the communists crashed the gates and took power. Well, they’ve since fixed the gate, but visiting the interior is something out of old spy movies: extravagantly decorated meeting rooms, a gambling hall, movie theater, bedrooms, all decked out in the finest decorations and furniture the seventies had to offer. Beneath it all, in the basement, one can walk the long, narrow hallways that connect the various offices and war rooms, underground reinforced bedrooms and perfectly preserved then-state-of-the-art communication equipment. It is actually really cool. Large maps of Saigon’s tunnels; strategic plans showing the whole of the country; old desks with multiple colored telephones, and, of course, big red buttons.
Next up was the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government), which features a great photo gallery from the Vietnam War in addition to loads of American warplanes and helicopters, guns, prisoner cell recreations and the like. All in all, it’s pretty much as you expect, a reminder of the horrors of war; not as poignant as the Holocaust museum in DC, but worth a visit. [My one complaint is not seeing Monsanto’s name mentioned in the gallery of Agent Orange victims. In case you didn’t know, agri-business giant Monsanto, today proponents of genetically-modified, “roundup-ready” crops, provided the US government with Agent Orange (along with Dow and other companies.) So, before they started suing hapless farmers, whose crops have inadvertently cross-pollinated with patented Monsanto corn from down the road, they were busy making defoliants that ravaged forests and caused a generation’s worth of birth defects. So, there. Fuck them.]
We wandered the streets of Saigon, eventually finding everything from alleyway noodles and vegetarian pho (yum) to entire streets devoted to manufacturing street vendor carts. What was striking about Saigon is the much better preserved (or reconstructed?) French-style buildings and cathedrals, sitting right next to communist-style plazas. Colonial-era buildings have been converted into government buildings, flanked by statues of Uncle Ho. Surprisingly, there is little disconnect between it all. It works. It’s a large city, in some places modern, others ancient and grand, and others yet grey and sprawling like any other metropolis.
I hit the tourist path some more and visited the nearby Cao Dai Great Temple, the largest temple of Cao Daism, a modern religion that merges Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, native spiritualism, Christianity and Islam. Trying to describe the site doesn’t do justice to its very colorful mix of symbolism, from the Eye of Providence (which you may recognize from such currency as the one dollar bill) to Buddhist imagery, Sun Yat Sen and Victor Hugo. Worshipers hold four prayer sessions per day, which tourists are allowed to watch. After fifteen minutes of watching and listening to their beguiling chants it felt like more of an intrusion, but thankfully our tour moved on to another major tourist attraction: the Cu Chi Tunnels.
The tunnels are part of the extensive underground network started by the Viet Cong in the forties, and later finished and used Viet Minh during the American/Vietnamese war. The tunnels allowed the Viet Minh to travel right under the Americans’ noses, and even exited in one place at a noodle shop frequented by US soldiers. The vast network let the Vietnamese not only hide from and ambush US forces, but were designed for extended residency to survive chemical attacks from above. Today, tourists can crawl through small sections of the tunnel, which have been widened but remain cramped. On the grounds are also examples of different gory traps and makeshift weapons employed by resourceful Viet Cong. Tourists can shoot AK47s, hide in underground holes and pretend to live in the humid jungle under constant threat, all of which I did with some glee, abandoning my general reservations about tourists traps. After being bed-ridden for a few days, this was pretty fun.
Coming from Cambodia one notices that nothing in Vietnam has been left to crumble idly. From urban construction projects in already dense cities to rice paddies and agricultural fields in rural areas, not an inch is left unused in Vietnam. The miles upon miles of unused (or underused) land in Cambodia are made laughable by sheer necessity here. With about six times the population in less than twice the space of Cambodia, the difference in development and efficiency is felt as soon as you cross the border. It makes me wonder what Vietnam looked like just twenty years ago, before the massive economic and infrastructure investments. I can’t help but wonder what Cambodia will be like twenty years from now.
After a week in Saigon I’d seen about half of what I had wished to see. However, feeling stressed for time, it was time to say goodbye to Scott and Zoe and the south and hit the road. My next stop, the mountain town of Dalat, near the Central Highlands.