Part 1 of a whirlwind two week tour of three SE Asian countries was a brief, two day adventure in and around Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.  This customized tour was organized through a fantastic tour operator: Exotissimo, based out of Thailand and an expert travel agency for SE Asia destinations.  At first, I wondered why an Asian travel company would have an Italian name, and I had my suspicions because the quote I got was so reasonable.  It had to be a con, right?  I was wrong!  Every part of this trip was perfect - hotels, private guides, private drivers, food, sightseeing, flexibility in the tour itnerary, customer service, etc.  Everything could not have gone smoother!  The guides were very knowledgeable - one pursuing a masters in tourism (Vietnam), one had a graduate degree in art history (Thailand), and one was a former Buddhist monk (Cambodia) - and tremendously accommodating to my travel style.

I digress...back to Vietnam! 

I think it's important for Americans to visit Vietnam now, especially people in my generation, in order to appreciate the choices that our parents had to face in the 1960s with regards to the war in Vietnam, as well as the long-term impact of the war has had on the country and its people.  To be honest, I've read several books on the war, and I still do not claim to fully comprehend the political motivations behind the decision to send our military to the region, nor the complications that prevented us from leaving earlier.  What I do recognize is that the 1960s were a different time, and I concede that I probably will never get all the answers I desire due to the sensitivity to the subject felt on both sides.

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is now a densely populated city where mopeds and bicycle tuk tuks seem to be the preferred mode of transportation.  I saw a family of four one morning on a tiny little moped, taking the kids to school.  Crazy!

My guide on our tuk tuk rides
 After the long flight from the US, it was important to stay awake in order to combat the inevitable jetlag.  My guide was waiting for me at the airport to drive me into the city.  First stop was a popular HCMC Chinese market, Cholon, where we wandered the stalls for a bit looking for souvenirs.

Next, we toured around the city by car to view some of the french colonial architecture and historical sites associated with the war and the fall of Saigon in April 1975.

Old Post Office
City Hall
Rex Hotel - home for many war correspondents during the war
Hotel Continental - another preferred hotel by reporters
Reunification Palace, formerly Independence Palace
Gates of Reunification Palace
North Vietnamese T-94 Tank Crashing Through Gates of Independence Palace in 1975
 Our final stops included a visit to the War Remnants Museum, originally called the "House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government (of South Vietnam)" and later renamed to the Museum of American War Crimes or Museum of American Atrocities.  Needless to say, the displays were not the easiest to view as an American.  The last stop on the city tour was to Thien Hau Pagoda, a Chinese meditation temple.

After a long, jetlag induced sleep, my guide picked me up in the morning to head out to explore more of the Tay Ninh Province.  Specifically, I had requested a trip to experience the Cu Chi tunnels.  These tunnels are miles of underground tunnels and rooms that provided shelter for the villagers of Cu Chi, and became the base for the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive.  American soldiers hated these tunnels because the entries were very small and hidden, providing an advantage to the VC when attacking patrols by surprise.  Just look at my tour guide at Cu Chi coming out of one entry hole!

During the tour, we had the opportunity to "walk" through about 30 yards of the tunnel system, and it was a very slow process!  Most of the time the height of the tunnel would be no more than 3 feet, and at times I would have to turn to the side to get through.  The sad thing is that, since the reopening of Vietnam for general tourism, the operators of the Cu Chi site have widened the tunnels to accommodate the larger size of the average tourist, especially from America.

After Cu Chi and stop for lunch, we arrived at a fantastic site: a large Cao Dai temple.  If Disney were to be a religion, this is the kind of temple I would imagine people would build to worship Mickey Mouse! 

 Cao Dai is a derivative of Buddhist teachings that also makes reference to the Hindu idea of opposite forces: one entity splitting itself to create a God and a Goddess, or a yin and a yang, in order to maintain balance.  

On our return to Ho Chi Minh City, we stopped at a lacquer handicraft factory that employs artisans who are all suffering from various Agent Orange related handicaps.  Fantastic lacquer pieces, and I, of course, bought all my Vietnam souvenirs there!  That evening, after my quick two day stay was over, I said goodbye to my guide and driver at the airport to continue the journey in Cambodia!