When I was a boy, back before Desert Storm, Desert Shield and basically any other U.S. involvement with wars in the desert, the war most often depicted in movies and on television was the conflict in Vietnam. As a result, I grew up seeing and hearing more about a backwater country in Southeast Asia far more than an average Long Island kid ordinarily would. Among my favorite songs growing up was Billy Joel’s (another Long Island kid) haunting ballad Goodnight Saigon. Sure the references went right over my head, but it – along with other classic rock tributes – served to create a mystique in my young mind. Sadly, I’m not a young boy anymore, but it was still subconsciously satisfying to see this mainstay of 80’s pop culture references firsthand just last year.
Upon landing it felt like I was in a scene right out of the war, as throngs of Vietnamese swarmed the arrivals gate like it was the last chopper out of Saigon. I’d say that the scene was surreal, but with the million percent humidity I’d more accurately describe it as ‘sticky’.
Since my party was due to meet up with our cruise ship docked in nearby Phuy Muy, I thought I’d make the most out of the full day at our disposal in this, the largest and most congested of Vietnamese cities. So I booked us a city tour to catch the highlights and – more importantly – avoid navigating the choking traffic and general chaos on the city’s roads.
The War Remnants Museum
Though the war ended decades ago, its effects still reverberate today. Fortunately, today the social climate is far more welcoming toward visiting Americans, and even though the Vietnam conflict is not considered to be a chapter of great pride in American history, the majority of visitors to this tasteful museum were Yanks who slogged it halfway around the globe to see it firsthand.
Inside the building, there are displays showcasing a vast gamut of American military memorabilia such as uniforms, weapons, ordinance and personal effects. There are also photo galleries documenting the horrendous toll American bombing had on the local civilian populous. Due to the graphic nature of the images, those with a low trauma threshold might do well to skip this portion.
The conflict was presented from the point of view of the victors (isn’t it always?) and instead of gloating and portraying the atrocities in a way to foment rancor, it focused mainly on the idea of self-determination. Regardless of anyone’s personal views on the causes and issues the war was fought over, no one can leave without shaking their heads at the senseless carnage wreaked mostly upon innocent civilians.
For those interested in more serious ‘hardware’, surrounding the grounds are various tanks, aircraft and other military vehicles that were left behind, which can make for some interesting photographic backdrops.
Other Buildings of Interest
Saigon (technically Ho Chi Mihn City) isn’t exactly dripping with famous monuments, but on a city tour you’ll likely be brought in front of the Reunification Palace for a photo op and to the Central Post Office. It is here at the latter that you’ll see a strong example of French architecture, hinting to its past under French colonial rule. It’s not exactly a not-to-miss destination, but is an interesting place to stretch your legs and take in the atmosphere. You can also buy a few sticky doughnuts from vendors carrying them around in a giant conical heap atop their heads, if only to just say that you did (they’re tasty without being too sweet).
Lunch: Your Highlight…Trust Me
Included in our tour was lunch in a literal back-alley restaurant called Cyclo Resto. Here we were able to sample some fantastic Vietnamese cuisine family style, including some delicious Vietnamese egg coffee. While the landscape and culture in Vietnam is both fascinating and appealing, I think you’ll agree with me that the food is what launches a visit here to the top of a traveler’s list.
After some extremely sticky shopping in the close quarters of a tourist flea market, it was time to make our way out of the city and out in to the Mekong Delta to catch our ship. While Vietnam is an amazing tourist destination, I can honestly say that Saigon does not belong on a list of top sights. But if you have a day to kill and want to see a city that has been immortalized in both film and song, take the time to say “Good morning Vietnam” and the inevitable “Goodnight, Saigon”.
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