Nothing looked familiar to me in Saigon. Nothing whatsoever. In fact, it felt so different that it was easy for the to transition to calling it by its currenr name, Ho Chi Minh City.
The traffic is the first thing that hits you. It’s a city of 7.5 million people and five million motor scooters – more than Hanoi. Our guide said “Traffic lights are just decoration.”
Saigon places reminders of the war squarely in the faces of visitors. Propaganda is pervasive and, at times, infuriating.
There is a bridge in Saigon named after a popular Viet Cong terrorist. And a street named after a guy who tried to assassinate McNamara. And then there’s the War Remnants Museum, filled with pretty vile anti-American photos, posters and a host of other vicious propaganda. Also damaged U.S. tanks and planes.
But I must remember that Vietnam suffered 100 years of occupation by China, followed by another 100 years of occupation by France, and then 20 years of war.
After 1975, the South Vietnamese were treated really, really badly. For example, our guide told us, there was a park in Saigon where many South Vietnamese high government officials were buried. In 1975 the government told the families to dig up the bodies and move them out to another cemetery. The people were too afraid to claim the bodies because they believed it was a ruse to capture the families of sympathizers. There has never been a cemetery for the South Vietnamese army or government officials.
By far the most interesting part of our journey in Ho Chi Minh City was a visit to the countryside and the Cu Chi Tunnels. Of course I had heard a great deal about the Cu Chi tunnels from our CBS News correspondents and my brother. They were a brilliant form of warfare on the part of the VC. Virtually impossible to detect.
There are about 150 miles of tunnels on three levels: 1-10 feet deep; 20 feet deep and 30 feet deep under the ground. The tunnels housed storage rooms, hospitals and sleeping quarters that accommodated rebel fighters for up to two weeks at a time. Even heavy bombing could not halt the movement of the VC through these tunnels.
I didn’t have it in me to climb down into a tunnel and crawl through, but Jerry did, and he emerged victorious:
It’s hard to be reminded of Robbie as a point man, having to watch out for devices like these as he led his fellow soldiers into the unknown jungle.
I guess I was a pretty poor sport during this visit to Cu Chi. I didn’t even want to shoot a gun. But Jerry did!
Before Jerry went to medical school, he was an artillery officer in the Army. While we are both extremely anti-gun, he got a kick out of firing on the Cu Chi target range.
I had hoped to recognize something familiar in Ho Chi Minh City but there was nothing of the old Saigon left. Even the Caravelle Hotel, where the CBS News Bureau was based, has been rendered unrecognizable as the city grew up around it.
Saigon in 1971 was chaotic, clouded with crime, riddled with prostitution and free-flowing drugs; to me it felt scary,uncertain,tenuous,transient.
Ho Chi Minh City in 2015 felt chaotic in a very contemporary way: too much traffic, too many people, too much fast food and just too fast paced.
Oh well. At least it brought me to a closer understanding of what Robbie went through, as well as an even greater respect for him and what he achieved in Vietnam. He was recognized for his heroism and his son Rob now has the medals to prove it.
And I have a far better understanding of the entire war and what made this war such a difficult (or impossible?) war for us to fight.
– Paula Rath