We decided to take a four day trip to Vietnam and
cover primarily the Vietnam War related attractions in and around Ho Chi
Minh City, and then visit a less modern area of central Vietnam.
Our visit to the War Remnants Museum, the Cu Chi tunnels, and the
location of the Son My (My Lai) massacre were quite sobering, especially as all
information was provided from the Vietnamese (anti-American)
viewpoint. Our way-too-short visit to the amazing China Beach in
Danang made us want to stay there much longer.
Currency: Dong (vnd$14,500:US$1)
Language: Vietnamese, English
Population: 78M Vietnam, 7M Ho Chi Minh City,
# motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City: 3M
Internet connection speed: none (except
English speaking TV channels (in hotel): 8
(1 movie channel)
Religion: 80% Buddhist variants, 20% Catholic
Time difference:GMT +7:00 (11:00
hours ahead of Atlanta)
Driving lane: right side
Temperature: Ho Chi Minh City 97°F, Danang
When we finally got through the Vietnam immigration control, met our
local guide, and headed to our hotel for a brief rest, we immediately
knew that Ho Chi Minh City was a fairly modern but different city.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City has all the major buildings and typical modern
stores lining every downtown street, but with the big difference of very
few cars. In place of each car is a thousand mopeds and a hundred
bikes. Supposedly, there are 3 million mopeds in the city, with a
population of 7 million in the city and surrounding areas. On most
major roads we traveled in the city, one lane
each way was reserved for mopeds and one for cars, but the mopeds would not fit in
their own lane, so both were used by the mopeds. We often saw
mopeds with a family of four people squeezed onto them.
Interestingly, there are few stop lights and stop signs relative to the
number of intersections. We noticed that people enter the
intersection, typically after slightly slowing down, and then weave
their way through the crowded intersection. Our guide admitted that
their were many accidents, but most of them were minor because they
involved mopeds traveling at slow speeds.
Our Ho Chi Minh guide, Son, made it clear that his job was to please
us, no matter what. Although that is typically good, it meant that
he asked Dan every 10 minutes 'Mr. Dan, are you feeling well, now', and
talked a tremendous amount. As in Cambodia, most of what he
said we could not understand (see Cambodia Language Barrier).
Since we had arrived very early in the morning, we went to the hotel to
rest for a few minutes, and then walked around the corner to use an
internet cafe to confirm our hotel for our return to Bangkok. As we
had found in most of Asia, the internet cafes were extremely inexpensive
-- less than US$1 equivalent per hour.
Our first tourist site was the China Town area of Ho Chi Minh,
where we visited the Bin Thay market. We were not that
excited about seeing another market, worried that we would get harassed
by vendors. However, this market was a wholesale market, and not a
single vendor approached us. There were thousands of stalls, all
grouped by category of product, a maze through which wandered. We
then visited a pagoda in China Town, but given all the pagodas we had
seen, we did not stay long.
Vietnam War Remnants Museum
We visited the Vietnam War Remnants museum near the center of
town. In the outside area of the museum, we viewed many large
weapons leftover by America as we departed Saigon in 1973 including
tanks, bulldozers, heavy artillery, large bombs, and aircraft. We
then went into the five large rooms that held the major content of the
museum. Our guide warned us multiple times that many Americans do
not like to enter a couple of the rooms because of the graphic detail in
the pictures and displays. Of course, we disregarded that since we
had traveled so far to see the place. As we started walking
through the first room, our very attentive guide stood within one foot
of us, wanting to describe each picture, as we read the caption.
After 10 minutes of this, Dan had to nicely ask him to let us experience
the museum on our own!
It was clear to us as we looked at the pictures and read the captions
that this museum was put together by the victorious North Vietnamese
anti-American regime, as you would expect. The pictures were quite
graphic and disturbing, but we had seen many of them before in
books, and movies. However, the descriptions of the pictures were
very one sided, with references to GI's or Americans as 'aggressors' or
'murderers'. For example, there was a terrible picture of a GI in
a field carrying the upper torso and head of victim of a large
explosion, and the caption said something like 'the murderer GI is
laughing as he carries the remains of an innocent victim'. Looking
closely at the picture, the GI is clearly not laughing.
No one can argue that the Vietnam War was terrible, but seeing this
generally one-sided view was also very disturbing. In the napalm
section of the museum, they had deformed fetuses in glass jars as
examples of the lasting impact of napalm. In the prisoner portion
of the museum there was a life size 'tiger cage' where the South
Vietnamese kept prisoners between torture sessions. To be fair,
every item was not as one-sided as others, but in general that was our
That first, night we did not realize that our package included the
obligatory river obligatory river boat dinner cruise on Saigon
river. Fortunately the cruise was not crowded and only lasted only about an
hour. Even though the food was terrible, it was nice to see a
different part of the city and to see the river.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The next day we drove through the rice farming areas outside of Ho
Chi Minh City on our way to Cu Chi. We witnessed the manual rice
harvesting in several fields, and visited a shop where a woman was
expertly manually mass producing rice paper. The main reason
people visit Cu Chi is to see the network of tunnels dug and used by
the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
On arriving at the welcome center, we watched a very old scratchy
documentary (circa 1970) about the tunnels and how they were used.
The Viet Cong dug over 250km of tunnels in the area, mostly to evade
American/South Vietnamese forces as they moved between locations, and to
serve as an ambush vehicle against enemy forces in the area. The
tunnel network was incredibly advanced, as we could see from the model
in the front of the movie room (see picture at right). The tunnels were
three levels deep (8-30 feet below the ground), and had all kinds of
features to fight the enemy. They had trap doors and booby traps
in case the enemy entered the tunnels. Entrances to the tunnels and
portions of the tunnels were extremely small, purposefully too
small for the typical American male. They had ways to cut off
sections of the tunnel to trap chemicals or water poured into the
tunnel. They had many hidden entrance/exits so that they could
surprise the enemy, or disappear after an attack. They also had whole rooms
underground, for sleeping, meetings, medical care, and cooking.
The venting system for the kitchens were set up so that the smoke seeped
out of hidden leaf piles far from the tunnels -- they had a sample
kitchen working and it was almost impossible to see the smoke. And
the network had emergency escape routes on the lowest level hidden under
the river. Because of the high-Viet Cong concentration around
Cu Chi area, it was the site of some of the heaviest American bombing in
The pro-Viet Cong movie explained many of these features, and
also had live footage of the Viet Cong surprise attacking enemy
troops. It also showed the many villagers who used the tunnels
with the Viet Cong. They had a woman villager who received medals for her role in killing so many enemy troops. The
real life footage made it clear to us how difficult it was to tell the
difference between the Viet Cong and civilian villagers.
Some sections of the tunnel network are available for tourists
to enter. The first tunnel we entered had been enlarged almost a
foot to enable tourists to more comfortably get through it. Even
with the enlarged size, it was quite claustrophobic as we duck-walked
through the dark, damp, very hot, mosquito-filled tunnel. They
offered to let us out via escape routes along the way, but we went the
entire length (300 feet), down through all three levels. It was
hard to imagine being in the tunnels for weeks on end while bombs were
being dropped above.
We chose to enter another section that had not been enlarged, so that
we could see what it was really like during the war. We had to
actually crawl through some of the second tunnel up and down the
different levels. After the available 150 feet, we were happy to
get back above ground, as we were completely soaked with sweat and
As we walked through the woods around Cu Chi, on our way to the
tunnel entrances, we realized that they were trying to help us realize
what it was like during the war. They had booby traps set up so
that when your foot broke a string across a path, there would be a large
bang next to the path, simulating an explosion, showing how hard it was to
avoid the traps. Because there was another couple just ahead of
us, they hit all the traps, and we just saw it all second hand. Even so,
the effect was real -- the idea of being in the thick woods, with Viet
Cong popping up out of perfectly hidden tunnel exits, and booby traps
around every corner, was very scary. They had several real life
examples of the pits they dug in the area to injure and kill the American
troops. Each hole had some sort of spiked arrangement of metal or
bamboo, to impale the person who had happened upon the pit. Some
of them were barbed so that the victim could not get the contraption off
his legs, and he would have to be taken to the medical area with the
contraption, slowing him down and making vulnerable the assisting troops.
They offered an M16 shooting range, but given our sour mood at that
point, and since we had already shot large weapons in Cambodia (see Cambodia-Shooting),
we passed on it.
Back in HCMC, we visited some of the other recommended but less
interesting tourists sites, including the old post office, the Notre
Dame Cathedral, and Reunification
We did the required tourist activity in Ho Chi Minh
City, dinner on a very touristy river boat (only because it was part
of our package tour.)
A panoramic view of the crowded streets outside Binh Tay
market in the China Town area of Ho Chi Minh City.
There are 3 million mopeds in Ho Chi Minh City.
Most women riders cover their skin to avoid the sun and cover their
mouth/nose to protect against the pollution.
The moped serves as the family vehicle -- we saw
many cases of a family of four on a moped.
We visited the War Remnants Museum. Outside they
had weapons/vehicles left by the Americans as they left Saigon/Ho Chi Minh
We did not take any pictures inside the five large rooms
of the War Remnants Museum, mostly because many were incredibly gruesome and
we felt that it would be disrespectful. This is a recreation of the 'Tiger Cells' where
the South Vietnamese (and Americans) kept their prisoners. The
museum definitely represented the Vietnamese view of the war of American
We are in the woods at Cu Chi, outside Ho Chi Minh City,
where extensive fighting took place in South Vietnam. We walked
through the woods to view where fighting took place, and to experience the
Viet Cong tunnels.
The Viet Cong built an elaborate 250km maze of tunnels
in and around Cu Chi, to fight the American/South Vietnamese troops.
This model shows the multi-level tunnels (see text at left for more
We experienced the tunnels first hand. In this set
of tunnels, we 'crawled' 100m from one entry point to another. Note
that this particular section of tunnel had been dugout about 18 extra
inches to make it more tourist-friendly.
Although the tunnels were dugout to be more
tourist-friendly, walking the length of a football field, traveling down
over 30 feet underground, with tons of mosquitoes, was mentally and
physically challenging. We can't imagine doing it with bombs and
bullets exploding overhead.
This 50m span of tunnels had not been dug
out, so we got the real experience of how tiny they were.
The flash of the camera made the tunnels seem lit up,
but they were quite dark and damp, with a very small amount of light
provided by tiny lights sparsely placed on the pipe on the right wall of
The real entrances to the tunnels were well hidden and
kept very small, too small for the typical American soldier to
enter. Imagine walking as a soldier through these woods, and having an enemy
soldier pop out of this hole with a gun.
We saw many examples of the booby-traps placed all
through the woods to wound/kill the American soldiers. Hearing the
details and purpose of their specific design was depressing.
Quite sobering to think about facing an enemy who could
expertly disappear and re-appear anywhere using the tunnels, and at any
point you could fall into these booby traps.
We traveled to Danang in central Vietnam, to get a feel
of the non-big-city Vietnam. This panoramic shows the river that
flows through Danang.
While driving through the countryside in central
Vietnam, we saw many rice fields, some of which were being harvested
(which happens 3 times a year).
We visited the sight of the most famous 'civilian
massacre', Son My (know in America as My Lai), 120km from Danang. This is where American
soldiers killed 504 women and children in 1968.
At Son My, they had graves where many of the families
lived and were killed. This plaque sits beside the ditch into which 170
people were pushed and then shot.
After all the sobering Vietnam War touring, we stayed at
China Beach in Danang. China Beach is absolutely beautiful -- if
only we had done this part outside a packge, we would have stayed here a
The resort where we stayed is one of the nicest we have
visited. This perfect swimming pool provided a great view of the beach.
The only resort we saw on the entire beach was the one
at which we were staying. This is truly an unspoiled beach.
At the end of the day, parts of the beach turned from
deserted to a haven for the local families to play. Thousands of children
played in the sand and ocean, or played in one of the many beach soccer
Even though the sun set over the mainland, hidden by the
trees, the sunset time was beautiful on China Beach. Notice that even
during the peak local crowd time, much of the beach was still deserted.
A delicacy in Vietnam is snake wine. Many places
offered it, along with a description of the many afflictions it supposedly
cures. As much as we wanted to get a bottle (just for show), we
figured there was no way we could get it through US customs.
Very early the next morning, we flew to Danang
in central Vietnam. Danang is a much smaller town than Ho Chi Minh City,
but still one of the major cities in Vietnam. We had originally wanted to
visit the war-time Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in central Vietnam, but no one
seemed to know where it was or how to visit the area -- actually, some of that
was language barrier. Instead, we decide to visit the site of the Son My
massacre, 120 kilometers from Danang.
Massacre at Son My (My Lai)
local guide picked us up from the airport and we drove 2½ hours to Son My along
the main highway running through central Vietnam. The 1½ lane road was
extremely slow because two cars could barely fit going opposite directions, and
there was no point when there were not tons of mopeds or bikes, causing us to
crawl the majority of the way. When we arrived at the site of the
massacre, we watched a video that had several first hand accounts of the
massacre, much from the American viewpoint. In March 1968, American troops
ordered bombing on Son My, then entered the village and killed 504 people, most
of whom were women and children. The event was one of the most publicized
tragedies in the war. One of the main people in the video was the
American helicopter pilot who saw what was going on and tried to stop it, and
actually saved the only survivors of the village.
The grounds of the site had
tombstones for the families that had been killed in the area, listing the names
and ages of each family member. They also had a commemorative plaque at
the site of the ditch into which 170 villagers were pushed and shot.
On the way back from the village, our guide tried to engage us in
detailed conversation, but once again, even with lots of effort we could not
understand half of what he was saying (see Cambodia-Language
In Danang we stayed on China Beach, the spot where American troops went for
'R&R' during the war, and the subject of the short-lived TV show 'China
Beach'. We arrived at our hotel, the Furama Resort, in the late afternoon, and
immediately realized we were in a great place. The Furama is a five start
hotel with all the restaurants, lagoons, pools we would expect, but on one the
most beautiful beaches we have seen. The hotel had several open air and
enclosed restaurants, a huge pool and snooker room, a modern health club, a
media room with a 75 inch TV and hundreds of movies to choose from, and two
movie channels that continuously ran newer American movies. We tried to
skip our arranged dinner in town and stay in the hotel, but it was too hard to
negotiate that with our guide.
We stepped out of our room onto the beach near sunset, and walked for almost
an hour. At first, the beach was completely empty, but in minutes, it was
packed with local families, hanging out, playing in the water, or participating
in beach soccer games. Very unlike Juhu Beach in Bombay, India, this beach
was clean and trash-free. Many of the children waved at us, said 'hello',
and then broke out in wild happy laughter when we responded.
We did not see a single other hotel on the entire length of beach except for
the one in which we were staying. It was like a remote beach, but near a
major town. Across one side of the horizon we could see the mountains that
made up part of the bay. The water was clear and a perfect temperature,
not too warm or too cold.
Our next day in Danang was a 'free day', where we did not have anything
specific arranged. We had thought about going to Hoi An, a popular 'old
style' city 15 minutes from Danang, but instead we decided to enjoy the
resort. We checked out novels from the hotel library and and sat by the
beach side pool, reading and relaxing. We had an outstanding day, and so
much wished we could stay there for a week. We wrestled with the idea of
trying to stay longer, but we knew that it would be very difficult to
communicate to our guide, the hotel, and our travel agent. We highly
recommend China Beach and the Furama Resort!
On our way back from Danang to Ho Chi Minh, returning to Bangkok, we
had the feared technology failure we had hoped to avoid, but knew was
inevitable. On the flight leaving Danang, Dan worked on the laptop, and then
shut it down to land in Pleiku, a tiny town north of Ho Chi Minh City. When we
took off again, he went to turn it on, and nothing happened. Since there
had been no jarring of the laptop, and we had not passed through any additional
xray machines, we hoped it was just a battery problem, but knew it was something
worse. Dan had backed it up on departure to Cambodia, but if we could not
retain the hard drive, we would miss all the pictures from Cambodia and Vietnam,
and the thousands of words they represented! See Thailand--Laptop
Repair for completion of this story.
We few from Phnon Penh, Cambodia as part of our Vietnam/Cambodia package
deal, so please see Cambodia
-- Getting There for details.
|New World Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City
New World website
|Nice five star hotel conveniently located
near the center of town.
|Furama Resort, China Beach/Danang
|Outstanding five star resort on beautiful China
Beach. China Beach is awesome and the resort is the best! Wish
we could have stayed longer.
|Royal Exclusive Tours
Discovery travel site
|Very good discounter for hotels and trips. Ms. Lek
helped set up our Cambodia, Vietnam, and Northern Thailand trips. Found
some other slightly cheaper hotel sources, but none we could meet
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