On arrival in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) airport, we were met by a representative from the visa company who helped us obtain our expedited visas. It was time consuming, expensive and we lost one of our day’s stay in Vietnam, but we made it. The ride from the airport to the hotel was harrowing. The density of cars, motorcycles and mopeds all competing for space regardless of the traffic lanes was intense. There seems to be few traffic rules or police enforcement of the few rules that exist. I would not want to drive in this city. Despite the chaos and congestion, we were told there weren’t many accidents.
Our hotel, www.alagonhotels.com was nice with all the amenities one would want. Included in our hotel package was a free massage at the spa as well as daily high tea in the late afternoon. After we enjoyed our massage and had a quick dinner, we went to Sax N Art jazz club and connected with Tran Manh Tuan the owner of the club. I heard about him from a friend and introduced myself to him as we entered the club. Tran has a remarkable story. Born and raised in Hanoi, his family went to the rural village to escape the US bombs of the city. He learned the clarinet but was drawn to saxophone. At an early age, he lost one of his eyes and as an adult has had a kidney transplant. He attended Berklee College of Music in the mid-90s and has a great affection for the US where he had received medical treatment and he loves Boston where he honed his musical skills.
Upon returning to his homeland, Tran founded a jazz club, formed a big band and became involved in teaching saxophone and creative music. Although his club does not make a profit, he supports it by playing more lucrative studio and tv gigs and by touring. The night we visited, the quartet opened the music set and played some of Tran’s compositions that beautifully combined elements of Vietnamese folk music with creative aspects of the jazz language. I was honored to sit in during the 2nd set and had a ball playing with the band.
The next day we took a tour of the Củ Chi tunnels. This was a profound and very emotional experience, particularly for Frances, since two of her brothers, Tim Bailey and Jim Bailey, served in the Army in Vietnam. Tim was on the front lines, serving in the 1st Battalion (Airmobile) 5th Cavalry Division. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Heroism on June 30, 1970. Upon Tim’s return after his time served, he would not speak of his time in Vietnam. Unfortunately, Tim passed away in 2003 and the Bailey family feels it is safe to say that his death was caused by agent orange. While touring the tunnels, we were witness to how the Vietnamese built an underground city completely hidden by the forest and were able to out-smart their enemy. They had tunnels, lodging, kitchen, infirmary, dining and many other underground rooms. They were clever in their design to situate the most critical areas below ground level impacted by bombs. They strategically uses these tunnels to hide from the French and later the United States soldiers . There were many exhibits of the torture mechanisms that were designed to maim or kill American soldiers. It was gruesome and heart wrenching to see these and think about those we know and love who served in Vietnam and in general, what we humans do to each other. Later that afternoon, we went to the War Remnants Museum that displayed the Vietnamese version of war atrocities. Of course this was single-sided from the Vietnamese point of view, and was very unsettling to see photographic evidence of Agent Orange and other displays of the horrors of war citing what the US did to the Vietnamese.
We didn’t wander too far from the hotel other than the trips mentioned above. Honestly, after the tunnels and museum, Frances was a puddle. There was a part of her that couldn’t leave a minute too soon. In spite of that emotional load, we did walk to the market and had more massages at the hotel, details which are best left for conversation. Interesting to say the least. I also took a swim in the hotel’s rooftop pool. Truth be told we only had one full day to explore Vietnam.
When one visits a country that your country had formally been at war with, you’re not sure of how welcome you would be. We couldn’t have felt more welcome when we were greeted upon our arrival. We found no animosity and I was surprised that although Vietnam was a communist country, free trade seems to thrive there. Our tour guide was friendly, but also gleeful when she spoke of how smart the Viet Cong were in combating their enemy and supportive of the current government.