Hinh takes me for chicken pho at a roadside noodle shack, and we talk about life in modern-day Ho Chi Minh. He is one of the thousands of cyclo drivers plying the city's chaotic thoroughfares, etching a living by ferrying tourists, locals, and cargoes of poultry by day, sleeping in his battered chariot by night. He tells me he was a former soldier in the South Vietnamese Army. When Saigon fell in '75 he was sent to a government "re-education" camp, where he logged trees and was force-fed Marxist doctrine until he pledged, "Communists number one, America number ten." Hinh goes on to quip that he may not have believed the sentiment, but "freedom came before words." True or not, I'll never know, but today tens of thousands of ex-South Vietnamese Army soldiers are now barred from working in any jobs save the most menial.
Pham Ngu Lao Street is Ho Chi Minh's central travel planning hub, with several cafés lining the street where you can book air, bus, and train tickets to Nha Trang and points north, overland tours into Cambodia and to Angkor Wat, and day trips out of the city. Kim Café or Sinh Café are two of the most popular outfitters, both good places to make arrangements as well as swap notes with fellow travelers over a beer or French-press coffee.
Before heading north to Nha Trang and then Hoi An, I join two of the most popular day trips on the slate: a full-day outing to the Mekong Delta and another combining the infamous Cu Chi tunnels with a trip to the eclectic temple of Vietnam's Cao Dai sect (a meld of beliefs including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism). And while it's true these tours are patently over-touristy, they do offer a great way to catch a glimpse of Vietnam's southern rice bowl. Recent history comes vividly to life at Cu Chi, a warren of underground tunnels, complete with kitchens, hospitals, and schools, which served as the frontline for the Viet Cong's clandestine war against the baffled U.S. forces.
Visitors are given the chance to crawl several hundred feet through a specially enlarged tunnel, and the levity of being stuck ten feet underground in this sweaty, claustrophobic space with your face pressed close to the backside of a fellow "tunnel rat" is quickly checked when you remember that an entire army lived, fought, and died in these same—even narrower—chambers. Wherever one goes in Vietnam, the scars of war are readily apparent—banana groves flourishing in the indent of fertile bomb craters, desolate patches of land denuded by chemical defoliants, ancient temples pockmarked with the spray of helicopter gunfire. Yet despite all this, Vietnam is a country where the turbulence of the past seems to have given rise to the enthusiastic hope of a better future. It's a cauldron of warm smiles and great energy, a land that affords the most generous of Southeast Asian welcomes.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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