It was a hulking monster, the dark grey of a brooding storm, 45 tons of heavy steel, it’s hard unsmiling face festooned with a big white star. A war machine, angular, menacing, fearsome. It was an American tank, on display in front of Saigon’s War Remnants Museum.
The war remnants museum
As J and I posed for a self portrait in front of the tank, a figure ran up to photobomb the photo. It was long-lost M. We had planned to meet him and A later in the day, but here they were, a chance encounter in the city of Saigon. We took the time to visit the museum. It was graphic and unapologetic, and showed images of war casualties, weapons and machinery from the Vietnam War. But here, in Vietnam, it was the American War, and the museum definitely portrayed the USA in a damning light.
The dog meat restaurant
To celebrate their arrival, a few cold ones in the neon-lit, motorbike-choked, hostel-filled district 1 was in order. A simple challenge was the catalyst for our extensive Saigon pub crawl; to find the cheapest beer in town. We shared dishes of exotic meat for dinner, including frog, and boar. After a few hours drinking, with inhibitions lowered, road crossings careless, and utterly lost in back streets, we came across an unusual restaurant.
It didn’t immediately click that the restaurant’s sign had a picture of a friendly labrador until we sat down and studied the menu. Steamed dog meat, grilled dog thigh, dog sausage. Not only did it serve dog, it served only dog. After discussions of domestication and companionship, nobody was game to order a bowl of dog.
A visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels
In the morning, we put the hangovers aside to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, the sprawling, claustrophobic network of underground tunnels used by Viet Cong during the American war. As the fierce ground war ravaged Cu Chi, a parallel war of innovation was being waged.
The American B-52s bombed; the VC tunneled. Americans entered the tunnels; the VC set booby traps. The Americans used German shepherds to sniff out enemies; the VC disguised themselves by bathing with American soap. The booby traps were positively sinister, pits of bamboo stakes and swinging spiked jaws, designed to maim and trap.
The firing range at Cu Chi
I felt the firing range at Cu Chi was more than just a tourist draw. To me, it put the power of rifle and of machine gun into perspective. M, A, J and myself shared 20 rounds of an AK-47. The rifle was cold, hard and mechanical. It was Spartan and crude, like a workshop tool. The air smelt of gunpowder.
The sharp, echoing CRACK from the muzzle rattled the nerves. I saw the appeal of the power of the gun, as I aimed and fired my bullets at the targets, landing with a sandy PUFF in the dirt mound beside the target. Imagine if something like a gun fell into the wrong hands.
A trip to My Tho
Our last night with M and A was in the Mekong Delta town of My Tho, and shared similarities with our first night in Saigon. The Tiger beers and Saigon lagers flowed at 50 cents a bottle, as did the beef, chicken and frog cuisine. My Tho’s major draw was the Mekong Delta tour, which we had done earlier in the day, exploring evocatively named Unicorn Island, Phoenix Island and Turtle Island by boat, canoe and bicycle.
The Mekong is a lifeline that begins in China, and runs through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, ending at the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. It is slow moving, caramel brown, and feels alive with boats, villages and greenery. As a result, very few westerners remained in My Tho, and so we drank with locals. We entertained a waitress (to the point that she fell to the ground laughing) by trying to speak Vietnamese with her, asking her where to find snake wine with a funny cartoon when communication broke down.
A nearby table of guys upped the ante by waving us over, pouring banana wine and shouting beers. The time came where we all felt enough banana wine was enough, and began the stagger back to the hotel. The next day J and I bid farewell to M and A, as we went further into the Mekong Delta. A great surprise to meet up with some friends and hear news, a slice of home, which was beginning to feel like another world.