Okay, by popular demand, I (Whitney) am writing my first full-length contribution to the wander blog. But where to begin? I’ve been procrastinating this task since we left Hoi An, so I guess I should start in Saigon. Without further ado…
After the comfortable routine of a week in sleepy, beachy Hoi An, our return to the city came with comingled shock and relief. On the one hand, we were back to being mere human speed bumps in the insane demolition derby-style, teeming streets of urban Vietnam. On the other hand: shampoo, salads, and western medicine!
We established our need for this last luxury when, on our second day in Saigon, Mac’s ear, which had been persistently slightly itchy and irritating over the previous few days, graduated to full-blown swollen, excruciating pain. We thought about going to the hospital immediately, but we were already scheduled to head outside the city for a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, which we’d been told were unmissable. Since we’d paid a whopping $4 each for our tour, we made the responsible, adult decision to postpone medical care in favor of sightseeing. Sorry parents.
The tunnels were actually fascinating and well worth the visit. Our tour guide was a certifiably insane Saigon native who had fought with the Americans in the war and therefore had a fascinating and mostly underrepresented perspective on the war. He told us that he was sharing his thoughts with us candidly because he knew that he was “going to be assassinated within the next year by either the Vietnamese government or the CIA, and he had already written a book about his experiences and sent it to London to be published upon his death, so he was at peace.” The book is called “The Eagle Flies Down From the Hill” for those who will eagerly anticipate its release.
As with our experience at Hoa Lo prison, we found it both unsettling and mesmerizing to watch the early post-war propaganda videos about the impact of the war on the Cu Chi area. The walk through the jungle and the examples of the primitive and brutal traps set by the Vietcong gave us our first real sense of how terrifying and ugly the Vietnam was for all involved on the ground.
Our guide described in vivid detail the experience of those on the American side, trekking through the dense jungle in heavy combat gear, trying to spot and avoid the barbaric traps and pitfalls, dying of tropical disease and combat, and afraid to fall asleep because of the threat of slaughter by mysterious assailants. Our guide editorialized less on the Vietcong experience, but those tunnels spoke for themselves. Looking down and lowering ourselves in and out of the tiny openings was bad enough, but our visit concluded with a long crawl through one of the tunnels that had been expanded to make them a better fit for westerners. It was harrowing down there. Despite the expansion, Mac and I still only made it about 50 meters before escaping to the surface for desperate gulps of fresh air and major stretching.
It was a great experience that gave us a much clearer sense of what war looked like here. And then, on the way home, Mac’s ear took a real turn.
Mac almost never complains about anything, so I knew that when he told me that we couldn’t do another thing before going to the doctor to get his ear checked out, I knew he was serious. It was red and swollen and painful to the touch. We found a great Western clinic and a British doctor who examined the ear and immediately prescribed Mac a double course of antibiotics—drops and pills. “So,” I asked the doctor casually, “it’s definitely infected?” The doctor replied, cool as a cucumber “Oh yes, absolutely, this is one of the worst ear infections I’ve ever seen. I’m this close to putting him on IV antibiotics and keeping him here overnight. If his face swells up like a balloon, bring him back immediately.”
So with those reassuring last words ringing in our ears, we made our way home to our hotel and settled in for some good, old-fashioned convalescence. Thank goodness Vietnam is the land of great soup!
The next day, with Mac already starting to feel better, we made our way to the War Remnants Museum. And wow—it was powerful. I don’t think either of us was fully prepared for what we saw there. At the Cu Chi Tunnels, we had heard about the experience of both sides, with an emphasis on the brutal tactics of guerilla warfare employed by the Vietcong. But spiked trapdoors in the jungle looked like child’s play compared to the brutal chemical warfare of the American side. Though clearly a government-operated and heavily propaganda-d museum, it was hard to argue with the photographs. I don’t think I’d ever seen photos of what napalm really does. Or seen the long-lasting effects of Agent Orange and the land mines that continue to explode, more than 30 years later. We left the museum feeling sad and overwhelmed, though we were glad that we had visited.
We had big plans for the evening though, having booked a foodie tour. But that's for the next post!