Saigon’s War Remnants Museum, dollar-dollar-DONG-yall, and a crawl through the Viet Cong’s clever tunnel system

Hello again and surprise surprise.  After no blog access in Phong Nha National Park we have arrived in Vietnam’s capital and I have access again.  Out of all the places I thought I would not have access Hanoi would be at the top of the list.  Maybe my hotel’s ISP has just slipped through web. Either way, I will be able to upload a post tonight and tomorrow night before we head off for a 3 day, 2 night Halong Bay excursion.

Last I wrote we had just finished our first day in Vietnam.  On our second day in Vietnam we went to the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants museum.  You can read the long history of the Palace here if you like.

I will just note that it was a nice looking palace – plain and simple – a stark contrast to the huge gaudy things I saw in Europe.

The War Remnants Museum was a much more memorable experience.  Not surprisingly, Vietnam has a very different view of U.S. War (what we call the Vietnam war) than the U.S. and the things I saw and learned in the Museum were very different than anything I ever saw in one of my textbooks back at home.  Outside the museum there are hundreds U.S. artifacts of war on display – planes, helicopters, tanks, cannons, turrets, bullets, missiles, the whole lot.

Next to each vehicle or weapon on display a sign was posted to provide statistics on how much that type of vehicle or weapon was used in the war and more specifically, how much destruction each artifact had caused to the Vietnamese people.  These were not uplifting statistics.

The museum has also recreated a smaller version of a U.S. prison that was used to house Viet Cong prisoners.  I snapped one pic of the “tiger cages” where prisoners were made to sit in uncomfortable positions for hours.  I was starting to feel pretty bad at this point…

I won’t post any of the pictures I saw inside the museum itself.  To be honest I’m not even sure why I took them – one viewing was enough.  Suffice it to say the museum does an excellent job of displaying the atrocities committed by the U.S. during the Vietnam conflict.  Atrocities that had long lasting effects, even to this day – there was an entire room dedicated to showing innocent Vietnamese civilians and their birth-defected children affected by Agent Orange, a chemical agent that I learned is one of the most toxic poisons available.

I’m no Ricky Americanzi – “love it or leave it!” – and of course I will always support our troops who are serving our country and simply carrying out orders, but I’ve never felt so ashamed for being associated with a country that caused things to happen that I saw in this museum.  I felt sharply sick to my stomach while walking through the Agent Orange room.  Of course, the informational captions and descriptions in the museum are overtly (and sometimes preposterously) slanted but they do make their point – the U.S.’s military presence in Vietnam was a bad idea that backfired.  And I have to agree.

On our way back from the museum we passed through a park.  There were badminton courts all over, much like you’d see tennis courts in parks in the U.S.  All the courts were full – they love that game over here – can’t get enough of it.  You even seeing them playing without a net in the streets just to keep a fun volley alive.

On a cab ride later that evening my total came to 40,000 Dong (roughly $2).  Because it was so dark in the cab I handed the cabbie a 20,000 and then I accidentally grabbed and handed him two 100,000 Dong bills to pay my bill.  By the time I had realized what had happened the cabbie was speeding away – lucky day for him.  Vietnam’s currency is the Dong and its absurd how much of it one needs to carry around to do anything – I usually carry at least a mil – that’s right, I’m a millionaire!  Don’t be that impressed though, a million dong is only $50.

The smallest bill (1,000 Dong) has three zeros on it, the 10K has four zeros and the 100K bill has six.  Having all these zeros on these bills makes it easy to mistake a 100K bill for a 10K bill in a dark cab, a mistake I hope not to make again.  But seriously, whats up with all these unnecessary zeros Vietnam? They only serve to clutter the notes and every transaction.  Add that to the fact that there are nine different denominations (1,2, 5, 10, 20, 50 ,100 , 200 and 500K) and you have what I consider to be SE Asia’s most confusing and hard-to-keep-track-of currency.

In a clockwise direction from the bottom, a 500K bill, a 100K bill, a 50K bill, a 20K bill, a 10K bill and a 5K bill. See how it might be easy to mistake a 100K for a 10K in a dark cab?

I miss Cambodia where the U.S. dollar is the most-used currency, despite the Riel being the “official” currency.

The next day Mr. Ben Broussard left us for a few days and Ben and I went to the Cu Chi tunnels.  These tunnels were used by the Viet Cong to control the rural Cu Chi district near Saigon during the 1960s.  In Cu Chi alone there were more than 200km of tunnels but on a larger scale the Viet Cong’s tunnels stretched all the way from Saigon to Cambodia and wound for thousands of kilometers.

Fighting the Viet Cong was like fighting ghosts.  As Forrest Gump pointed out, “we was always taking long walks, and we was always looking for a guy named ‘Charlie.’ . . . Never did find that Charlie.”  An enemy that can dive into a tunnel or slip into a village and put on a tattered robe to look like a farmer is not an easy target.

Where’d Charlie go?

Because the United States’ vain attempts to target the tunnel system resulted in massive casualties the U.S. turned to bombing and napalming the areas where they believed the Viet Cong to be hiding.   Cu Chi was just one of these areas and during the war the U.S. bombed the crap out of it.  But the Viet Cong were patient – while bombs would rain down for days the Viet Cong would sit quietly and safely in the dark tunnels.  The tunnels even had built-in living rooms and makeshift sleeping areas, though they were hardly comfortable.  I found it surprising that many Viet Cong babies were born in the tunnels themselves and spent their first several years of life underground – hows that for a young childhood?  To breathe the Viet Cong installed camouflaged above-ground air holes in anthills and trees.

The air holes were critical – the air in the tunnels is thick and stifling.  The tunnels were not made to be big or comfortable.  They were made to hide and transport the Viet Cong, who are much smaller than us Americans.  As you can see, as our tour group crawled through the tunnels the five foot, six inch guy in front of me was bent over and eventually on his hands and knees.

I stand at about 5’11’ and was having an even worse time.  As uncomfortable as it was the tunnels that I crawled through were made to be 30% bigger than the actual tunnels used by the Viet Cong.  I can’t even imagine trying to get through original tunnels, let alone going through with a weapon and full military fatigue.  Don’t let Ben’s expression fool you – he lasted about 20 meters through the tunnels before bailing.

Visitors have the option of going up to 120 meters through the tunnel system – I lasted about 60 meters before claustrophobia overtook me – the hot wet air had become unbreathable.  Getting back to the surface and breathing fresh air again was glorious…until our guide led us to the traps.  The Viet Cong killed thousands of U.S. soldiers by setting up booby-traps all over the jungle, including this rolling trap.

Our guide casually demonstrated the lethal nature of all the camouflaged traps.  Click here to see what stepping on one might have been like.  Not a pleasant way to go.   After spending a day in the tunnels and witnessing the impaling power of the traps deployed by the Viet Cong I have to remind myself to be thankful that my dad was not selected in the draft and pray that we never have one again.

Our last night in Saigon it got rainy and the intersection near our guesthouse flooded but that didn’t stop most passerby and motos from fording it. I myself like to stay dry and chose to avoid the intersection and walk a few extra blocks around it.

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3 thoughts on “Saigon’s War Remnants Museum, dollar-dollar-DONG-yall, and a crawl through the Viet Cong’s clever tunnel system

  1. As they say, “War is Hell”; feel fortunate that your father was not drafted and sent over there to fight “Charlie”. Dad

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