Friday, March 1, 2019


Our flight from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City (earlier known as Saigon), was delayed by an hour - we were all the more anguished as we could have easily finished our packed lunch before our security check, if we had had the least suspicion that the food packet would be confiscated and dumped in the trash bin. The two bananas however made through - small mercies....

The flight lasted just 50 minutes.

As we already had our visa for Vietnam, we thought we'd be able to clear fast but the long queue at Immigration took us an hour.
As we came out of the airport, we were struck by a doubt - "Have we landed in Mumbai?" It was the familiar scene outside 'Arrivals' that sowed it in our minds!

We boarded our coach and were happy to be handed over a snack box of sandwiches, chips and juice. Very thoughtful of Veena World - we needed it, as we had been robbed of our lunch by the security check officials at Siem Reap airport. Harping on it again and again, ain't I? Well, can't help it!

We first drove to War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. A ticket costs 15,000 VND (just 70 cents). It is open from 7.30 am to 5 pm daily. The last admission to the museum is 4.30 pm, but we were very much on time, so we had enough time to go around the three levels of exhibits.

It was known as the Museum of American War Crimes until 1993. Perhaps the original name is more apt, as many exhibits in the museum are pointers to anti-American propaganda.
The War Remnants Museum is currently one of the most popular museums in Vietnam, attracting approximately half a million visitors every year. According to the museum's own estimates, about two-thirds of these are foreigners. An analysis of the entries in  the museum's visitors' book revealed that most of the visitors used to be Europeans and North Americans before 2005, but its audience became much more varied thereafter. The impression books also revealed mixed responses to the museum. Some praised Vietnam, while some Americans harshly criticized the museum for its "propaganda" and "glorification of [their] victory".

US helicopters, 
fighter planes, 
Patton tanks were lined up outside ...

There were a number of pieces of unexploded ordnance stored in the corner of the yard, with their charges and/or fuses removed as well as artillery and armor,
and US weapons of Vietnam War.

The sprawling three-floor museum comprises a series of themed rooms.

On level 1, we saw old photographs depicting the Vietnamese struggle to get independence. 

Exhibits are accompanied by a short text in Vietnamese, English, and Japanese, covering the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliant sprays, the use of napalm and phosphorus bombs, and war atrocities.

A room exhibited photographs, propaganda, news clippings, and signboards showing the wrongdoings of the U.S. government in the 1960's and 1970's.

Another room depicted exhibits showing the mistreatment of civilians during the war.

So many photographers had lost their lives during the Vietnam War.

Many of the photographs on display tugged at our hearts. 

The famous photo of 'Napalm girl' has bagged awards and 

was ranked 41 among the 100 most influential photos of the 20th century. 

The exhibits did graphically portray the horrors of war. The War Remnants Museum is worth a visit, irrespective of your opinion on U.S. involvement in Vietnam. 

The atmosphere inside the museum is hushed and somber, as visitors move around seriously watching graphic displays, photographs, unexploded ordinance, and other artifacts displaying the horrors faced by both sides. 
So many killed, so many injured! 
The deadly nature of war, its atrocities, and destruction!

Its after-effects! 
So many maimed, so many born with genetic deformities!
War only results in generations of suffering and disbelief. 

The exhibits do graphically portray the horrors of war. After going around the museum, our hearts were heavy. The question uppermost in every mind was, 'Are we really humans?' Some of the graphic displays must be really disturbing to young children. 

The silver lining was the hope for world peace and

the exhibition of artwork by young children around the world showing their ideas about war and peace.

At the end of our tour of the museum, we had ice cream treat from our tour company, which cooled our minds - to an extent.

We then started for our next destination.
As we drove through Ho Chi Minh City, we noticed the endless stream of scooters and motor bikes and .... helmets.

We reached Notre Dame Cathedral in the heart of the city. After the French conquest of Saigon, the Roman Catholic Church had established a community and religious services for French colonialists. There had been a Vietnamese pagoda, which had been abandoned during the war, which was made into a church in the 1860's.

Later a bigger church was completed in 1880, with building materials imported from France. In 1959, Bishop Joseph Pham Van Thien, in charge of Saigon parish, attended the Marian Congress held in Vatican and ordered 
a statue of Our Lady of Peace made with granite in Rome. It was the same bishop who wrote the prayers "Notre-Dame bless the peace to Vietnam".
The cathedral was then-on called Notre-Dame Cathedral. It was later conferred the status of a basilica. From this time, this cathedral was called Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica.

There is an interesting story associated with the statue of 'Our Lady of Peace'. During October 2005, the statue was reported to have shed tears, attracting thousands of people and forcing authorities to stop traffic around the Cathedral. The reported 'tear' flowed down the right cheek of the face of the statue but there has been no confirmation.

Ho Chi Minh City Post Office / Saigon Central Post Office is situated close to the cathedral.
The building which was constructed when Vietnam was part of French Indochina in the late 19th century reflects Gothic, Renaissance and French influences. 
It was constructed between 1886-1891  and is particularly well laid out and well equipped for the different services. It is now a tourist attraction.
This monument, built by Gustave Eiffel, the architect of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, has a beautiful artistic facade.

It was time for dinner, so we proceeded to Shanti Indian Cuisine Restaurant 

for a sumptuous buffet. 

As we were waiting for our coach after dinner, a lady hawker stationed outside, got stools / chairs for us senior citizens, which was really touching. She knew we were not going to buy any of her stuff, still .... That provided us a glimpse of her selflessness and culture. Unfortunately she is not there in the frame.

As we were driving to our hotel, we enjoyed the illuminations and decorations for the Chinese New Year.
We reached our hotel - Aristo Hotel and 
checked in our rooms.
There was a surprise - a complimentary plate of Rambutan fruit (tasting like litchi).

Next morning, as usual we had a hearty breakfast in our hotel before starting for the day's sight-seeing. Everywhere we had plenty of mangoes, pineapple, dragon fruit, papaya as well as boiled corn, in addition to the usual breakfast fare.

It was 26 Jan - India's Republic Day; tricolor badges were distributed to all of us by our Tour Manager. 
A couple from our group were dressed for the occasion.

We started on our 2 hour drive to Cu Chi Tunnels, during which we could observe several interesting city scenes.
Before embarking on the tour of the tunnels, our group sang our national anthem to celebrate our Republic Day in Vietnam.
Cu Chi tunnels comprise of an immense network of connecting tunnels located in the Cu Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of Vietnam. They were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during the war, and means of communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches, and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. They were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their efforts to resist and counter American forces.

The 121 km long complex of tunnels at Cu Chi has been preserved by the government of Vietnam, and converted into a war memorial park with two different tunnel display sites Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc. The tunnels are a popular tourist attraction today.

Throughout the Vietnam war, the tunnels in and around Cu Chi proved to be a source of frustration for the U.S. military in Saigon. The Viet Cong had been so well entrenched in the area by 1965 that they were in the unique position of locally being able to control where and when battles would take place. The tunnels helped to covertly move supplies, house troops,  and allowed North Vietnamese fighters in their area of South Vietnam to not only survive but also help prolong the war, resulting in the increase in American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972, and the final defeat of South Vietnam in 1975.

American soldiers used the term "Black Echo" to describe the conditions within the tunnels. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult - to say the least.

It was interesting to see the demo of how the soldiers would get into the tunnels - they knew where the camouflaged openings were located. They'd clear the leaves, open the lid, get in, cover the lid with leaves, lift it above their head and place it over the opening.

Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with all sorts of creepy creatures - ants, venomous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Those living there were infested with sickness, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds.

Soldiers had to spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to hunt for supplies, tend their crops, or engage the enemy in battle. At times, during occasions of heavy bombing or American war activities, they would be forced to remain underground for days on end. 

The tunnels of Cu Chi did not go unnoticed by U.S. officials, who recognized the advantages of the Viet Cong due to the tunnels, and launched several campaigns to search out and destroy the tunnel system. Among the most important of these were Operation Crimp (Jan 1966)and Operation Cedar Falls (1967).

The operation did not bring about the desired success; for instance, on occasions when troops found a tunnel, they would often underestimate its size. The two main dealings with a tunnel opening were to flush the entrance with gas, water or hot tar to force the Viet Cong soldiers into the open, or to toss a few grenades down the hole and "crimp" off the opening. This approach was ineffective due to the design of the tunnels and the strategic use of trap doors and air filtration systems.

Rarely would anyone be sent in to search the tunnels, as it was so hazardous. One could unsuspectingly fall into a trap. 
We saw Fish Trap, Sticking Trap, Rolling, Folding Chair Trap, Clipping Armpit Trap and See-saw Trap. The tunnels were often rigged with explosive booby traps or punji stick pits.

It was interesting to go down to the dining bunker - 
we could get an idea of how they cooked and dined.
The exterior was also impressive - 
there were inconspicuous holes to act as chimneys to the kitchen!

There were holes on mounds to serve as ventilation.

We could see water flowing through bamboo 'pipes'.

The walk was 'cool' as the place was shady with trees,
bamboo and bushes all around.

Even vegetables and 

jack fruit-laden trees! 

There was a tunnel into which tourists could crawl through - to have a taste of the experience of the Viet Cong soldiers.

Yay! I did it!

There were tanks which you could climb on to and explore.

Another interesting hands-on experience was the shooting range, where visitors can fire a number of assault rifles, such as the M 16 rifle or AK-47, as well as a light machine gun like the M 60.

We rested for a few minutes and refreshed ourselves with our snacks. 

There was a shelter nearby where a Vietnamese woman was preparing 'rice paper', steaming them and drying them in the sun. Somewhat similar to the rice papads we prepare in the summer and store.

Moving around the tunnels was a totally novel experience. But we could imagine the hazards of the war even as the troops and others hid themselves in the suffocating tunnels.
After a round of the souvenir shop, 

we went to Natraj restaurant for 
Indian lunch. 

Then we visited Thien Hau Pagoda, which is a Chinese -style temple of the Chinese sea goddess Mazu. Thien Hau is the Vietnamese transcription of the Chinese name Tianhou ("Empress of Heaven"), an epithet of the Chinese Sea Goddess. In Vietnam, she is also sometimes known as the "Lady of the Sea". 

The temple was first erected in  1760 by the Cantonese community in the city. Major repairs or expansions took place in 1800, 1842, 1882, 1890, and 1916.
The interior of the temple is actually a partially covered courtyard, at the end of which is the altar to Mazu. The altar to Mazu is dominated by the three statues of the goddess. The faces are bronze in color, and the clothes and crowns are multi-colored.
The exposed portions of the courtyard contain incense burners, and open the view to the remarkable porcelain figurines that decorate the roof. 

The offering of conical, spiral incense is popular here.

Our next halt was at the majestic Independence Palace, also known as Reunification Palace, built on the site of the former Norodom Palace. It was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It is a beautiful landmark of Ho Chi Minh City. But the gates were closed. Unfortunately we couldn't go inside as there was some government engagement and it was closed for the weekend. We could just click pictures through the gate. Bad luck!

The silver streak was ....... yes, more time for shopping!
We drove to New Ben Thanh market, and entered from Gate 4. It is an important landmark of Ho Chi Minh City, popular with tourists seeking local handicrafts, textiles, and souvenirs, as well as local cuisine. The market developed from informal markets created by early 17th century street vendors gathering together near the Saigon river. Ben Thanh market was formally established by the French colonial powers in 1859 but it was destroyed by fire in 1870 and rebuilt to become Saigon's largest market. In 1912 the market was shifted to a new building and called the New Ben Thanh Market, which was renovated in 1985.

There were numerous shops, big and small selling typical Vietnamese products. We were allotted more than an hour for shopping. A few items in my shopping list needed to be ticked off. So I was literally running around in circles with hubby in tow, to bag good deals on Vietnamese silk, stoles, scarves, T shirts, tuk tuk, Non La (Vietnamese conical hats), and other little souvenirs. Everyone accepted USD, so it was convenient. As we had been instructed, we had to use our bargaining skills to the utmost, which we did.

On another side, shops sold all varieties of fruits.

Shopping there was one satisfying experience - the Vietnamese are good at trading. Once a customer approaches them, they won't let the person off without completing the transaction.

Dinner was at Tandoor restaurant.

After dinner,
there was cake-cutting in celebration of the successful tour. 

As we were waiting to board our coach, a T shirt vendor approached us - selling four T shirts for Rs. 1000. You are not going to believe this but all his stock got sold off in minutes.

Looking at some of the disappointed faces, our Tour Manager assured them that the vendor would appear at our hotel - there was still time that night as well as next morning. Sure enough, the vendor landed at our hotel with more stock of T shirts and made quick business - no one was left disappointed!

Next morning we started for the airport at 7 to catch our flight to Bangkok. 

We thanked our local guide for our wonderful time in Ho Chi Minh City, completed all formalities and got our boarding passes. The compulsive shoppers in our group were more than happy as they could each check in two bags.

After being airborne for an hour and a half, we landed in Suvarnabhoomi airport, Bangkok. We had a lay-over of some 7 hours. 

Our tour company Veena World was courteous enough to provide us lunch at the airport.  Our Tour Manager Bhushan asked us to assemble at Burger King at 1 pm.

We enjoyed a giant burger and coke and then strolled around the sprawling airport,
'just looking around the shops' and 

clicking pictures at exotic spots that abound in the airport. That way it is like Singapore's Changi airport, where you can spend hours without getting bored.
Pic courtesy - Ashwin Panchal
We even walked all the way towards the entrance of the airport to capture the 'samudra manthan' statue.

Our flight took off from Bangkok around 7 pm. After 4 1/2 hours, we landed in Mumbai. 

We thanked Bhushan Gupte, for his caring services during the memorable tour, and bid goodbye to him and to 
our wonderful tour-mates, with promises to keep in touch. 

In another four hours, we were back home in Pune after yet another satisfying tour.

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