We didn’t actually ride the whole “reunification express,” but we did ride a bit of it, and we also did journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) as we set out to do from the beginning. The train line was built after the “American War” to reunify the country, when Saigon was renamed to HCMC and the country was made whole again.
We landed in Saigon from our Da Nang flight for the final leg of our journey, and really it was a bit of a rude awakening. I thought Hanoi prepared me, but it was nothing like Saigon, with its broad streets filled to the brim with motorbikes (they even drove on sidewalks). The noise and the humidity was overwhelming. Thankfully, our very cute Airbnb was on a quiet alleyway.
But this was it – the end of our journey – and Saigon, more than most, was a reminder of the Vietnam War and our country’s role in it. We visited the War Remnants museum, with its American tanks and aircraft on display as spoils of war. It was surreal, to see them there. We would see several more throughout the city as we explored. The museum did quite a good job in painting the general horrors of the war, from both sides.
I didn’t mention this previously, but in between Phong Nha and Hue, we also stopped by the Vinh Moc tunnels where an entire village of people had to go underground to live and sleep and even have babies (dozens of kids were born underground) to escape the bombing campaigns of the U.S. We stopped at the Ben Hai bridge, where the DMZ once stood with its guard tower. At night, people from each side would paint the line just a little closer to the other side to gain a few extra feet of territory.
It’s sad to end this adventure with a post about the war, but it looms large over my consciousness, and it wove its ways throughout our trip. From the underground bunkers of the Imperial Citadel in Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, from the bombing campaigns that levelled temples in Mỹ Sơn and reverberated across the mountains of Phong Nha and drove people to live underground in Vinh Moc, from crossing the bridge of the Ben Hai River and seeing the car of Thích Quảng Đức who set himself on fire in protest, from finally setting foot in Saigon where the chickens came home to roost, the original American embassy now demolished. So much of what I knew about Vietnam came from this war, from the movies and the way it was talked about growing up.
I learned how Vietnam’s history is one of being conquered – by the Chinese first, then the French and the Japanese, and finally the Americans, in a sense. But it’s also one of liberation – freeing itself from each greater power. Vietnam itself is also a colonizer, conquering the Champa people and pushing them into a small minority and expanding the kingdom all of the way to the Mekong Delta. Life is complex.
Despite all of this sorrow and loss and tragedy, our experience in Vietnam was remarkable. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to come to Vietnam. For its beauty, its food, its culture, and interesting history. It was the adventure of a lifetime, and I still can’t believe that it happened.