My first impression of Saigon [called Ho Chi Minh City now] is that it has been stripped of much of the character that I expected to see from historic pictures and movies made on the subject. Old Saigon, with it’s characteristic French architecture has been replaced with stark buildings built in the late 1960s and 1970s. Most of the buildings that remained and were not bombed and destroyed in the Vietnam War, were torn down and replaced by the Communist Government.
 
Our private guide picked us up at the Hotel Nikko Saigon in the morning to begin our city tour. We visited the former Presidential Palace [now called the Reunification Palace by the Communist Government after the Vietnam War], which was the last residence of the South Vietnamese leadership before the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975. It was interesting to visit the place where the United States leadership, including former President Richard Nixon, visited the former South Vietnamese leadership during the Vietnam War and to see the bunker where the leadership hid and slept each night to keep safe from the bombing.
 
There are a few buildings that remain that are important from an architectural point of view, including the Old Saigon Post Office, which was built by the French and is a beautiful building. Our guide introduced us to an 83-year old Vietnamese gentleman who is the last of the old fashioned interpreters in the post office. He interprets mail coming from other countries for the locals. After the wars, many of the local people have relatives and friends that escaped overseas. He translates letters from loved ones into Vietnamese for the locals. There used to be a handful of these interpreters in the post office, but the others have retired or passed away.
 
The former US Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] building, renowned for the place where US helicopters landed to evacuate Saigon prior to the fall of the city to the North Vietnamese and the Communists, still stands. We asked to see it, as we had seen movies and read about the evacuation. The building is slated to be tour down and replaced by apartment buildings soon, so we were glad we got a chance to see it and to take pictures of it. It is not a remarkable building and it is difficult to imagine helicopters landing on the roof, as it is a very small space.
 
Local Lunch – The Lunch Lady
The highlight of the Saigon city tour was lunch! Our guide took us to one of the most famous street food stalls in Saigon, run by Nguyen Ti Thanh, AKA, The Lunch Lady, so named by Chef Anthony Bourdain. Nguyen and her sisters and other relatives run this spot like clockwork. She is known for her soup broths, while her sisters clean and chop the vegetables and meats that go into the soups. She makes something different every single day. On the day we were there, she made a chicken noodle soup with bok choy. As appetizers, she made fresh rolls with shrimp and pork, shrimp fried in tapioca flower and fried spring rolls with pork. We sat on the low plastic chairs and tables under a tent with the locals. The broth was smooth and rich, like nothing I have ever had before. Loved This Place!
 
Cu Chi Tunnels
After lunch, we drove about one hour northwest of Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a preserved 300-meter section of the tunnels that during the war times extended 200 kilometers long throughout the country. The tunnels took the locals over 10 years to dig and complete. There are stories of villagers that went down to dig in one direction and others who dug from the opposite direction until they reached each other. They had no light, and many people involved in the digging would have trouble adjusting to light when they came back up and lost their sight.
 
The tunnels were first built by local rebels to fight the French during their occupation, but were used extensively during the Vietnam War by the Viet Kong [the name given by the U.S to the Communist Rebels, largely village men, women and children, that fought with the North Vietnamese against the United States during the Vietnam War]. The Viet Kong families lived underground during the war. The tunnels were three levels, with kitchens, hospital stations, eating and meeting quarters and areas where snipers could view the enemy from below. The Viet Kong rigged the tunnels with primitive animal traps and bombs to prevent and harm the enemy if they were able to penetrate the tunnels.
 
The tunnels were very narrow and difficult for American troops to enter because they were made to fit the very trim and smaller Vietnamese. There were ventilation systems built throughout the tunnel system but even so, I cannot imagine how hot it was down there. Air, food and water were scarce. They built a well system in the tunnels but water was limited. The Viet Kong typically hid during the day and came out at night to farm by the moonlight, search for food or supplies and execute surprise attacks on the allies.
 
Tim went down into one of the entrances and then covered himself with the lid which is covered with leaves. We went down in the tunnels for about 100 meters. It was very claustrophobic and tight, and keep in mind, the tunnels have been expanded by 1/3 in size so that most visitors are able to go down and view what it must have been like to live there. Personally, I cannot imagine what it was like. Women had babies down there, cooked down there, lived down there and fought underground from sniper positions. I can imagine that under duress you do what you have to do.
We returned to Saigon, and this morning, we are off to the Mekong Delta. More on that tomorrow.