Posts Tagged With: Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh

We arrive in Hanoi by train at 5am. Cab to the hotel, hotel lobby dark, hotel door locked. We bang on the door and wake up the staff sleeping on the lobby couch.

Our room won’t be ready until noon, so we drop our bags and head to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, as the sun rises.

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Ho Chi Minh is revered by the Vietnamese for unifying the country and fighting for the people against all invaders. He fought the Japanese, the French, the Americans and died just before his country was finally unified. Affectionately known as Bac (uncle) Ho, the Vietnamese make pilgrimages to pay their respects to his embalmed body laying in state.

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum

We arrive as the flag ceremony is underway. Soldiers march around and the flag is raised as the national anthem is played over loud speakers. We are the only westerners I see. A large group of Vietnamese have gathered for the ceremony, many dressed in their finest clothing. Some wear the colorful knit hats of the villages in the northern hills. Many of the men wear military uniforms from The American War (what Americans call The Vietnam War), with metals hanging from their breasts.

Vietnamese in their finest

Vietnamese in their finest

After the ceremony was over, people mill about waiting for the mausoleum to open. The villagers stare at us and I stare back at them, intrigued with the men in uniform.

The woman were fixated on Helen and her blonde hair. One of the woman finally got up the courage to approach us and gestures to see if she could have a picture with us. We nod yes, and it was on. All the women rush over to have their photos taken with us, beaming and laughing. They have Helen by the arm dragging her from group to group. To say Helen was not feeling well is an understatement; it had been a long train trip the night before, but she was a good sport about it, although a little overwhelmed.

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It wasn’t long before a man in uniform and helmet approaches me, smiling, with hand outstretched. We shake hands as his buddies snap photos. Soon a group of his fellow veterans come over and I put my arms around their shoulders as their families snap away, laughing the whole time. How interesting to have my photo taken with these veterans, 40 years after our countries’ brutal war, in front of Ho Chi Minh’s final resting spot.

My new friend

My new friend

In Ho Chi Minh’s will, he requested to be cremated and his ashes placed on mountains in south, central, and northern Vietnam as a symbol of his life-long dream to unify Vietnam. But his will was not honored after his death. The new government instead went with the Lenin/Mao approach; they embalmed him and put him on display for the masses in a massive Greek-styled mausoleum.

We line up for a hour, go through numerous security checkpoints before we finally enter the mausoleum. No one speaks a word as we shuffle round the glass enclosure in which Ho Chi Minh lays. A shroud covers his body with only his face visible; His skin and his wispy beard are an unnatural color.

Ho Chi Minh is a controversial figure in history. He was reviled by Americans but is adored by the Vietnamese. One man’s revolutionary is another man’s freedom fighter. One thing is for sure, this country has come a long way since those dark days.

The Vietnamese look forward, not backwards, and old foes are now friends.

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Categories: SE Asia - March 2016 | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Cu Chi tunnels

During the Vietnam war, the Vietcong built enormous underground tunnel systems to hide from American bombs and troops. Not only fighters, but entire villages moved underground. We visited the Cu Chi tunnels, 40 kilometers outside of Saigon.

We wandered along the paths, careful not to step off, due to unexploded ordnance, past B-52 bomb craters, trenches, and secret entrances. The hundreds of kilometers of tunnels were built with simple hand tools and ingenuity. They were multi-level including hospitals, family rooms, kitchens, all deep underground. The complex stretched all over the area including under a nearby US base, where the Vietcong stole their supplies.

Tunnel entrance

Tunnel entrance

We came to a small clearing, our guide brushed away some leaves to reveal a perfectly concealed entrance. I squeezed myself into the tiny entrance, my shoulders barely fitting, and awkwardly dropped the lid above me. I was in complete darkness. The space was enlarged from its original size, but it was still so small I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get out.

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We went underground into tunnels that had also been expanded 30% from the war years. The guide immediately took off and we had to scramble on all fours to keep up, banging heads and elbows. It was hot and claustrophobic; we only traveled a hundred meters and I couldn’t wait to get out. Brave GI’s called tunnel rats used to volunteer to venture into the tunnel alone to rout out the Vietcong. Unimaginable. Brave doesn’t even cover the heroism of these men.

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The ingenuity of the Vietcong was amazing. If the Americans used gas, they had deep rooms the gas couldn’t reach. If the Americans used water to flood them, they could divert it out into the Saigon River. When they brought sniffer dogs, the Vietcong spread stolen GI soap and spread it around secret entrances to confuse them. They even created wore their sandals backwards to hide their real tracks from the enemy and the various medieval traps they created were disturbing.

 

The Vietcong only came out after dark; the Americans owned the day; they owned the night. The hardship and sacrifices they made is something I cannot fathom. They were in it to win it, no matter what it took.

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When we came across a burned-out American tank, pock-marked with bullet holes, it really hits home. This was not a typical tourist attraction. Hundreds of both American and Vietnamese died on the ground you are walking on. They were shot, bombed, burned and buried alive under your feet. This is hallowed ground, a reminder of the hardship and brutality that both sides endured and still have to live with.

On the firing line with a AK-47

On the firing line with a AK-47

 

Categories: SE Asia - March 2016 | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

10 million scooters

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Saigon is the city of ten million scooters; everyone owns one. The streets flow thick with them, like water in a river. They buzz around, beeping their horns in warning. If the street gets too full, they just hop onto the sidewalk and dodge around pedestrians. Traffic laws are either non existent and not enforced, stopping for traffic lights appears entirely optional.

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Entire families ride on one scooter. Mom sits side-saddle with an infant on her lap, a toddler squished between her and Dad, who is driving, with the oldest kid standing in front, between the handle bars. And only the parents have helmets on. Most American parents would have a coronary watching them shoot into heavy traffic.

Crossing the street is a trick. The locals make it look easy, without hesitation or looking, they walk out crossing diagonally, without a care in the world. We often saw tourists paralyzed on the curb unable to cross.

We stand shoulder to shoulder, getting up the nerve to make that first step. There is no break in the stream of scooters, you just have to go for it. If you walk slowly and steady at a consistent speed, the scooters flow around you like water, a two-wheeled version of fluid dynamics. As crazy as it sounds, it’s best not to look at the traffic bearing down on you.

We survived the streets of Saigon and by the time we got to Hanoi we were crossing street like locals; eyes forward.

Categories: SE Asia - March 2016 | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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