We talked to an old Thai couple over lunch, before heading to the Củ Chi Tunnels, Greater Ho Chi Minh City. You can’t really compare this city to Bangkok, the old man said. Give it some time. It is afterall, still a very young place, ya. Those words weren’t really processed as I chomped the stir-fried pork dishes and fried rice presented in front of me. And we continued talking about our respective itineraries for the days to come.
At the final hour before the plane landed at Changi, I picked up the guidebook again. This time, a thorough read on the authors’ interpretation of Vietnam’s history instead of checking the list of recommended pho spots that I'd given a miss. I began to understand the man’s words that day. In fact, it has brought a strange sense of intimacy, knowing the relation I have with the city. We were both children of the eighties.
Development, not any different between us, is a result of experiences. We grow through the trials and tribulations that confront us on a daily basis. But to compare my twenty over odd years to the rebuilding of the city formerly known as Saigon, it would be negligibly microscopic. The city, torn by wars and colonisations, was reformed through the Đổi mới economic policy in the eighties. It liberalised free-trade enterprising and had since achieved healthy, progressive growth, thanks to the influx of foreign investments and booming local, private businesses. Check the labels attached to your sportswear and electronic goods; you’ll probably see the made in Vietnam print.
After lunch and a ninety minutes bumpy bus ride, we reached the entrance to the tunnels. The tour guide, Typhoon (who resembled Bobby Chinn, in my opinion), briefed us on the impressive construction with pride. The two hundred kilometres underground network of high complexity was an important part of Viet Cong’s success in withdrawing America from the tragic war that sacrificed an unimaginable number of civilians and soldiers. The video presentation, recorded in the sixties, may come to a shock for many; with troops preparing for war with happy faces and the presentation of awards to honour the heroes who killed the highest number of enemies. In a broader sense, it was a symbol of patriotism among comrades, just like in other wars involving other nations. And Vietnam had definitely shown its love for motherland valiantly through its resistance towards the few colonies.
We were at the Ben Duoc underground tunnel complex, the headquarters of the Saigon – Gia Dinh Regional Party and had travelled about a hundred metres in the tunnels of almost complete darkness. Claustrophobia was the least of our worries, I can tell you that. A truly remarkable experience and made me wonder if it is darkness that we must endure before we can ever see the bright sky again. Haven’t we learnt enough from the dark history of our neighbouring countries to understand that we should make more sensible and peaceful judgements? We live in knowledgeable times, people. Embrace it.
I realise that I had randomized my itinerary which actually began with a visit to the Cao Đài Great Temple, four kilometres east of Tay Ninh. A colourful sanctuary which housed a religion that combines the elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam, embodied with local Vietnamese beliefs. The ultimate goal of a Cao Đài devotee is to be released from the cycles of reincarnation through the good deeds preached by the religion. Perhaps the most symbolic representation of Cao Đàism, the left eye acts as a guide and the reason for the choice of the left side is the closeness of it to the heart, as compared to the right eye. The list of saints recognized by the religion includes Victor Hugo and Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
We stayed on for the afternoon ceremony, which was filled with songs and prayers. This is a happy religion, said Typhoon. I guess in the world of religions, skepticism is an unavoidable curse and it is only through understanding and respect that we can live harmoniously as one. The new discovery, to me, was definitely an interesting one.
The full day tour of the Cao Đài temple and the Củ Chi Tunnels (excluding entrance fee) cost us a mere US$8.
Back in the city of Ho Chi Minh, it only took us a few hours to complete some of the nearby tourist attractions on foot. The Notre Dame Cathedral, the Reunification Palace, the main post office and my favourite, the Ben Tanh Market which is basically a roofed bazaar for everything tourist and local.
The pedestrian crossings were not as intimidating as some had put it. Perhaps the years in Kuala Lumpur had prepared me for the traffic here. Typhoon, in one of his tell-a-tales, told us the secret to a safe crossing. Look into their eyes and don’t run. Was his advice pragmatic enough? Well, yes. Almost. I’ll say common sense helps too.
We stayed at Dong Khoi. The more posh district, some said. When you have just a weekend in a new city, accessibility is your priority. Of course, if I am here again, it will be exploring the backpackers district of Pham Ngu Lao and perhaps, complete the Ho Chi Minh experience with a visit to the Mekong Delta.
Walking around the city, we noticed quite a number of construction sites in the midst of those famed old buildings with a French accent. Come lunchtime, one will notice the high number of workers, regardless of status and uniform, having a cup of coffee or a bowl of noodles on the five foot ways or some local cafes. As the evening draws near, restaurants and food stalls are bustling with groups of diners, savouring delicacies that are both local and international after a day at work. And that’s good news for the communist-capitalist city because at the end of the day, prosperity is a simple measurement of the wellness of the people, above everything else.
The final hour on the plane, the guidebook and the recollection of images of the streets had put the words of the man I talked to over lunch into perspective. Given time, I’m sure the new Saigon will emerge as one of the top cities in the region.
An inspirational one, at that.