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Encountering the Past
By Chris Millikan
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)

The airport shuttle creeps through massive afternoon congestion. Our personable guide grins, “Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest hub at thirteen million people!” And he quips, “My name’s tough to pronounce. So call me AK…but without the 47!” He tells us, “Here, family is of great importance. While in my hometown, you’re my Uniworld family!” For two days, AK acquaints us with his city’s striking past.

Settling into our splendid hotel room, we order room service, something we rarely do. Steaming bowls of traditional Pho and mouthwatering spring rolls with exotic dipping sauces conclude our travel day in sublime comfort.

Next morning in the elegant breakfast room, eastern specialties and western favourites energize us for touring. Our comfortable coach maneuvers smoothly amid thousands of motorbikes filling this growing city still fondly called Saigon. Sighting few crosswalks or traffic lights, we think negotiating streets on foot seems daunting. “Start out boldly,” AK advises. “Keep going! Stay together like sticky rice! Traffic flows around you.”

Gathering alongside one of two North Vietnamese army tanks displayed near the entrance to Independence Palace, AK explains, “In April, 1975, Saigon fell right here! Tanks like this one rolled into town, crashed through those wrought iron gates and approached the palace. A Viet Cong soldier ran inside and unfurled their flag on the 4th floor balcony.”

Replacing Norodom Palace, the French-built colonial government seat and still called Reunification Palace by many, Independence Palace was inaugurated in 1966. This residential workplace for two presidents has become a landmark museum. Original 1960’s furnishings decorate the interior. Reception, banquet and meeting rooms boast plush carpeting, red-upholstered couches and lacquer paintings depicting dynastic warfare. Strategic operations maps and rotary telephones in red, black and white remain in the ‘war room.’ The lovely open courtyard encloses a meditative garden and access to family quarters.

Shuttling onward, old Saigon’s architecture reflects over a century of French occupation. At Eiffel-designed Central Post Office, we mingle with hundreds of locals in its vaulted art deco hall. Outside on the plaza, AK points out the twin-towered cathedral just across the street,

“Notre Dame was built entirely of bricks brought from France. And over there, see that nondescript three-story building? When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the last American helicopter left from that rooftop.” Showing us copies of newspaper photos of the historic event, he impishly smiles, “Maybe you saw pictures like this at the time?”

At a Lacquer Workshop stop, artisans demonstrate traditional lacquer layering techniques. A large showroom sells their artwork on brilliantly coloured wall plaques, trays, knick-knacks and furniture. And in over 200 stalls over at the colonial-built Ben Thanh Market nearby, vendors sell everything imaginable. AK reminds us, “Remember. Prices in the market start high. Persistent bargaining reduces them by 30-50 percent! Haggling’s key to price cutting!”

A leisurely dinner cruise along the Saigon River concludes our day. From the upper deck of Saigon Princess, we admire glass high-rises flaunting neon rainbows all along the shoreline. Among many other brightly lit boats, one resembles a giant blue fish. And as we leave, musicians prompt our lively companions to belt out a few pop tunes.

Next morning, we explore Cu Chi Tunnels, a sobering open-air museum. Enveloped in heat and humidity, the surrounding jungle offers us welcome shade, without mosquitoes! Dirt pathways loop us past displays highlighting Viet Cong ingenuity. AK explains, “Vietnamese revolutionaries originally built this storied tunnel system to combat the French from 1948-1954. During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong expanded the networks to stretch over 150 miles to Cambodia’s border. This remarkable maze helped fighters dominate large rural regions outside Saigon.”

AK shows us cleverly camouflaged entryways hiding these complex tunnels from intruders. At bogus entries, traps rigged with murderous bamboo or metal spikes impaled trespassers. Alongside a recreated kitchen, he describes how vents had carried smoke and cooking odours far away. Living quarters, kitchens, hospitals, schools, even storage areas were commonly located three stories underground. In other sheltered exhibits, replicated life-sized ‘soldiers’ illustrate recycling unexploded bombs into explosives and converting rubber tires into sandals.

As fans cool us in a refreshment area, rapid gunfire reverberates nearby. AK smiles, “These days, enthusiasts pay one US dollar per bullet to target shoot.” Heading back, we pause at demonstration tunnels. Shipmates crawl over 20-metres through dark, narrow passages…and emerge grinning with relief!

Relishing delectable family-style lunches in a gracious colonial clubhouse, our animated conversations review Ho Chi Minh City’s spirit of resilience, resourcefulness and beauty.



• The Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong

• Park Hyatt Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City

PHOTOS By Chris Millikan:

1) Ho Chi Minh City: In 1975, Vietnamese tanks

2) Now a landmark museum, Independence Palace was the residential workplace of two Presidents.

3) Ho Chi Minh City’s art deco post office reflects over a century of French occupation

3a) Ho Chi Minh City’s Colonial Post Office boasts a renowned interior hall

4) Ho Chi Minh City’s Notre Dame Cathedral was built entirely with brick brought from France.

5) Boats on the Saigon River blaze with colour.

5a) Glass high rise buildings flaunt rainbow colours along the Saigon River.

6 At Cu Chi Tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City, entrances were cleverly camouflaged and hard to find.

6a) Bogus tunnel entryways were booby trapped with murderous spikes to deter trespassers.

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