An apt beginning to our Vietnam tour, Ho Chi Minh city represents the old French Colonial Vietnam and the center of the conflict that embroiled the United States in what would become a symbol of suffering for Vietnamese and Americans alike. Arriving on the heels on Cambodia, Vietnam was yet another representation of the ravages of the Cold War and the conflict between Communism and Capitalism. Principally different however, is the relative prosperity that Vietnam now enjoys – a case study in rebuilding and reunifying a nation. While our visit was very short in this great city, it would set the stage for the rest of our Vietnam trip.
Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is the most populous city in Vietnam with a population of thirteen million. Located in southeast Vietnam, and surrounding the Saigon River, the metropolitan area covers about 800 square miles. From 1887-1902 and 1945-1954, the city was the capital of French Indochina. It would later become the capital of western supported South Vietnam from 1955 until 1975 when the city fell to North Vietnam’s Communist forces. It was promptly renamed Ho Chi Minh city after the Communist revolutionary leader of North Vietnam. The city remains the financial center of the country and is the headquarters of many national and international corporations. It is the most visited city with 6.3 million foreign visitors annually.
The 20th century was tumultuous politically for Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam as a whole. After generations of French rule, World War II triggered a takeover by the Japanese and Axis controlled Vichy French. That control then reverted to the French with American support mainly to stop the spread of communism. However, by that point much of Northern Vietnam was effectively under the control of communist forces. By 1954, an international agreement partitioned Vietnam essentially in half along what was called the 17th parallel. The communist Viet Minh forces under Ho Chi Minh governed the northern half of the country and the American supported Saigon government continued to govern the south of the country and gained full independence from France. In time, the north would invade the south in order to unify the country under one communist regime. The resulting conflict became a proxy war between capitalist and communist forces in what we know today as the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call it the American War). The atrocities of this war are vast, and all sides endured untellable suffering. The scar of the war is still fresh, but the country is full of new generations who grew up in a unified, conflict-free country. The prosperity and upward trajectory of the nation is hard to miss. Also, it is hard to miss is the kindness, openness and unending hospitality of everyone we came into contact with. The 21st century holds a great deal of promise for Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh city is a big part of that future.
Upon arrival at our hotel, we met up with our tour group. Some familiar faces remained from Cambodia, but most of our travel companions were fresh faces. The city hums along with a bustle and energy not all too different from any of the major cities in Southeast Asia. Principally different however is the old French colonial architecture that dots the cityscape and at times brings your mind to the west. The city while foreign, carries an indescribable familiarity.
Our plan was to spend a day touring the river delta and move on the next day to Hoi An, so our time was very limited. After a short drive out of town, we embarked on small river boats in the Mekong River. We cruised along the muddy river for close to an hour, passing smiling farmers and fisherman working on the water or in the fields, many sporting a quintessential conical bamboo hat. The countryside was lush with a heavy humidity in the air. We stopped at a coconut factory for a short tour and lunch. The facility harvests coconuts for coconut oil, candy, cookies, and rope from coconut fibers. We learned how many of the goods were made and I was challenged to take a shot of alcohol made with a local snake venom. I obliged. After the tour we sat down to an elaborate lunch which included a variety of local dishes and a few amazing whole fried fish which Mandy really enjoyed and I had to refuse (thanks allergies). We were then invited to try an assortment of local fruits including Pomelo, Mangosteen, Star Apples, Lychee, and Jackfruit – all delicious. Full and tired, we returned to the city. That night we had a simple dinner of pho noodles and went to bed early. We were heading to Hoi An early the next morning.
Our time spent in Ho Chi Minh city was short but gave me us a good feel for the city. I plan on returning someday to take a much deeper dive into the food, history, culture, and main attractions. While it’s a regret that more time wasn’t spent there, I am grateful for having spent some time experiencing the city. // Jeff