Doing the Ho Chi Minh Trail of Saigon

Saigon images

Spurred on by an old scrapbook clipping, Roderick Eime finds himself staring history in the face.

I turn fifty this year and I‘m betting the retiring baby-boomers who were my school teachers, bullying big brothers and pop idols wouldn’t score too well on a Ho Chi Minh quick quiz.

Even at 14, I was following the conflict in Vietnam very closely and when the newspapers trumpeted the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, I cut out the page and stuck it in my scrap book. If you do remember the front page images, one of two will invariably come to mind. One, the losers’, shows a Bell Huey helicopter loading frantic refugees while precariously perched on a rooftop. The other, the winners’, shows heroic tank 390 smashing down the gate of the Independence Palace, signalling the official capitulation of the city.

Except for our now geriatric fathers and long-gone grandfathers who may have witnessed similar events in the World Wars of the 20th century, such a sight is unimaginable for most of us today. Remember too that North Vietnam had been plugging away against fierce opposition for over 30 years to reach that point. No wonder it was a big day.

"And Ho Chi Minh?" I hear you ask, was the well-educated and worldly leader of the Vietnamese people, taking them from the days of cruel Japanese occupation during WWII, right through (almost) to the final victory. ‘Uncle Hồ’ died in 1969 from heart failure in Hanoi, but you can still visit him there in his mausoleum.

It wasn’t until 1995 that the US normalised relations with the one-party rule Socialist Republic of Vietnam and now the locals even feel compelled to gently remind visitors that their two countries were once at war. Vietnam, ever forward-looking and pragmatic, now welcomes French, US and Australian tourists like long lost cousins.

If you have a yearning for history there are a few key sites to check out in Saigon.

The Reunification Hall, formerly the Independence Palace, is now preserved in a permanent 1975 time warp, displaying trinkets, trophies and paraphernalia of the Big Day. Replica tanks sit on the lawn while inside, the map rooms, radio rooms and diplomatic chambers are all (more or less) the way they were on that day.

The Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum is housed inside the former palace of the Cochinchina Governor on Ly Tu Trong Street. You won’t miss it because the yard is full of military vehicles and a whopping SAM missile. Pay your 50c and go inside to see dioramas, documents, maps flags and relics of those final days. Signs say ‘No Photos’ but I regularly ignore these. Just don’t make a spectacle of yourself.

The War Remnants Museum is the big daddy with all the hardcore material including weapons, aircraft, vehicles and photography of the entire conflict from all perspectives. In case you were left with any doubt after your visit, the Vietnamese won the war and, in that time-honoured tradition, they get to write their history. It’s confronting and at times disturbing, but enlightening all the same.

For me as a cowardly voyeur of human conflict, it was nevertheless a significant moment to stand at the gates where the tanks had once crashed through and share a little belated victory.

Want to know more? See Lonely Planet’s Saigon Guide || Helen Wong has Ho Chi Minh City tours

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