Discovering Indochina–Cu Chi Tunnels and Saigon

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Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam, with a population of about 7 million people. When the North Vietnamese took over the city, after the withdrawal of the USA and subsequent defeat for the South Vietnamese, they renamed it “Ho Chi Minh City,” called “HCMC.” This is what it is called in all official documents and communication. To most people it is still Saigon.

Saigon has an ancient history, but not nearly as old as that of Hanoi. Ancient mention was made of Prey-Nokor, a city in the Indianized Kingdom of Funan. This mention was by the Han Chinese, about 200 CE. Subsequently it was the major seaport of the Khmer Empire (now Cambodia) from 802 CE to the 17th century, and then it was annexed by Vietnam and renamed Saigon. This makes it about 2000 years old.

We stayed in Saigon for three nights but really did no touring within the city. Rather, we went to the Mekong Delta on our first day, and today we’re going to the Cu Chi Tunnels, north of town. If we had another day, there certainly are places to see in Saigon, like Ho Chi Minh City Museum, Museum of Vietnamese History, the War Remnants Museum, the Museum of Southern Women, the Museum of Fine Art, the Nha Rong Memorial House, and the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Popular also is the intersection of Pham Ngũ Lão and De Tham streets, referred to as the “backpacker district” of Saigon. This area is frequented by locals and tourists who flock to the area markets (both open air and indoors) to buy cheap clothes (some of which are counterfeit), DVDs (also counterfeit?), souvenirs, and war memorabilia. The many bars and cafes in this district are conveniently located near Saigon’s city center. In the Vietnamese language, this area is called “khu Tay ba lo” (“Backpacker’s area”). We didn’t see this area.

One thing that Saigon is famous for is its traffic. As we left our hotel this morning, this is what the street in front of the hotel looked like. This is typical of Saigon with many motorbikes, and just a few other vehicles.

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Natives are used to the traffic. Here a man sits at a table reading, oblivious to the roar of traffic just a few feet away.

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A quiet side street. Notice the many electrical phone and cable wires strung along the street.

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Here is a light pole with its many wires. As bad as this is, I have seen much worse (like in India).

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It is almost Valentine’s day. Flower shops are going all out. They really like flowers in Vietnam, so flower shops and stands always do a good business.

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Look at the traffic that is stopped for the traffic light! (At least they stop!)

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Then the light changes. And everybody starts moving. A traffic cop is watching.

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Tall skinny city buildings; storefront on the street, housing above.

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Saigon continues to grow. Cranes used in constructing new buildings are often seen.

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Across the street, filled with motorbikes, are ads for motorbikes, above a shop selling motorbikes.

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Here is a residence, tall, with balconies at each level and a big covered patio at the top level.

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A hotel with the tall skinny aspect ratio.

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More residences.

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This place has a rooftop garden.

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The morning commute.

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This is a rich person’s house. I think this not only due to the decorative design, but also because it is on a ‘double-wide’ lot.

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A big Confucian temple.

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A shop where you can take care of the future. Birthdays are not celebrated in Vietnam, but funerals are, and ancestors’ death days are. You want to take good care of your ancestors.

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A flower vendor has set up a stand on the street side.

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Another store to take care of your ancestor’s future.

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Best with the ancestors is to have their grave at your house. This way the ancestors are always with you. I think you can only do this if they died at this location.

From Sacred Texts.com:

From the day of death, there will be a lighted candle on the ancestor altar with attempts to keep a flame there constantly; in addition food is placed there for the spirit of the dead individual. Mourning for members of the immediate family supposedly lasts for three years with yearly ceremonies on the anniversary of their deaths. When a father dies, his daughter may not marry for three years due to mourning customs. Most Orientals regard the death anniversary more important than birth dates, for who knows at birth what an individual will achieve or become.

While there are differences of opinion, it seems that death among the ethnic Vietnamese is believed to be part of the return to eternity. A reincarnation in some form will be decided by the sum and value of the life of the deceased as well as by the prayers said to one’s spirit. On death anniversary celebrations, the first day of the year, lunar festival holidays, and all important family events such as birth and marriage, worship at family ancestor altars is performed.

To the average family of ethnic Vietnamese the presence of the spirits of their ancestors is vivid and is as much a part of reality as are the living. No offense by word, deed or thought should be given; rather honor must be rendered so that one’s own moral and social standing is improved. One authority has pointed out that to the Vietnamese “a country is composed as much of the dead who laid its foundations as the living who perpetuate it.”

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A small roadside market, selling fresh fruit and meat. The meat is cut, and is set out on a tabletop, no refrigeration. They obviously expect for it to be sold today.

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A graveyard (for those who are unable to bury their ancestors at home). Note the marble graves, just like those sold in the shops.

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Here is a small house. This photo shows clearly the long skinny houses built on small lots.

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This balloon vendor sets up at the side of the street. You can see the green helium tanks on both sides of his motorbike.

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A “pole orchard.” These straight-growing trees will be harvested, and the central  shafts of the trees stripped and sold as wooden poles, used in building construction and so many other ways.

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A war memorial in front of a military graveyard.

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A fancy place, with a gold painted gate opener.

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A small country home.

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We must be getting close to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Weapon firing is one of their activities, and this place appeals to people interested in military weapons. (Not to me.)

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We have arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnels.  We go through an underground hall to enter.

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Though I had heard of tunnel warfare as a key element within the Vietnam tactics against the US, I really did not know much about it. This will be a place to learn more.

The Cu Chi Tunnels are a huge network of underground tunnels in the Cu Chi district 70 km northwest of Saigon, and part of a larger tunnel network underlying much of Vietnam. It became legendary in the war for facilitating the local guerrillas in their fight against the American troops. At first, there was no direct order to build the tunnels. However, many Vietnamese patriots, the Viet Minh, worked secretly in the region at first against the French occupiers, and were hidden by local families. Many Viet Minh were caught in French sweep operations (before the US war). Starting in 1948 the locals dug secret shelters as hiding places for the Viet Minh in the hard red ground around their houses. This was the very early part of the tunnels. Still, the French found out about these underground shelters and many more fighters were captured hiding in them. Gradually the Vietnamese learned to dig tunnels from one shelter to another, making the Cu Chi complex. Finally, in 1965, the tunnel complex was completed for the Viet Cong to hide from air and ground sweeps by the Americans. The tunneling was so extensive that at its peak, the Cu Chi Tunnel system stretched all the way from Saigon to the Cambodian border.

Coming up out of the entrance tunnel.

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Looking around, there is a forest over most of the area. There are structures above ground, but these are for the modern exhibit, and were not a part of the setup during the war.

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A man waits for us to show us something. It gives me a bit of a start, seeing the man in military uniform here.

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He is going to show us one of the hidden entrances to the tunnels. With Quan’s help, he clears off leaves in just the right place.

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There is a small wooden hatch cover that he lifts up, then climbs into the hole. When he is in he puts the cover back on. You cannot see it unless you are right over it.

With these kinds of tunnel exits, they could suddenly come right out of nowhere to attack. Usually there were three tunnel exits placed near each other so they could create a cross fire.

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One of our group climbs in and lowers the hatch door.

During the war these doors were covered with sponge rubber and wax, so that it would feel like natural ground when walking across it. The sides of the trap door were beveled downward at an angle so it could take considerable pressure, even from vehicles driving over it.

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Another tries it. He is a bigger man, so does not fit in very well. I know I would just get stuck if I tried it.

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One of the ladies on the tour tries it.

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The entrance is a little too obvious. In real life there must have been someone who came along and brushed leaves over the entrance.

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A way to enter the tunnels.

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On our path, you can see what the forest must have been like. Until, in January of 1966, “Operation Crimp” began with US B-52 bombers each dropping 30-ton loads of high explosive onto the region of Củ Chi, effectively turning the once lush jungle into a pockmarked moonscape. This was done as a campaign with 8000 ground troops, trying to neutralize the tunnels. It had little effect. Similar, but larger, attempts were made over the next few years, still with little effect. This continued until the heavy “carpet-bombing” form B 52 bombers in 1969. After this it was a cratered area, almost denuded of trees and all life. But still the Vietnamese in the tunnels survived to fight.

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One kind of handmade trap that was used.

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It would have been better camouflaged, but you can see what it was like. A soldier stepped on it, the door swung open and the soldier was impaled on the bamboo spikes. This was the infamous “pongee trap.”

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When soil was dug to create the tunnels, it had to be disposed of in a way hat did not attract attention.

One way was to build these artificial termite mounds. The hole in the bottom is not a snake hole, but rather is a breathing hole, to let fresh air into the tunnels.

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For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with mosquitos, ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, guerrillas would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness, especially malaria, was rampant among the people living in the tunnels. This was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. A captured Viet Cong report suggests that at any given time half of a VC unit had malaria and that “one-hundred percent had intestinal parasites of significance.”

Here is another entrance into the tunnels. This one has steps.

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We use paths to walk from place to place. Of course, during the war, these paths did not exist. No signs aboveground revealed what lay below. The tunnels were so secret and well hidden that during the war a US military base was built in Cu Chi, right over them. It took the US troops a long time to figure out why their soldiers were being silently killed as they slept.

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We came to an above ground exhibit, showing VC troops.

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Here they are in camouflaged uniforms, under tents so as to not be seen from the air. These uniforms are not like any I saw in photos during the war, which were black pajamas instead.

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They also have on display a US tank, destroyed by a VC mine.

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The guys in our group climb on it to play.

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The next exhibit was gruesome.

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These simple traps were made to wound, not kill, someone who fell into them.

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There were a number of different kinds shown. Many were made so that the wounded soldier could not just be removed, the trap had to be dismantled to get him out.

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These traps made me feel very sad, thinking about the US troops that fell into them. The soldiers that were here were mostly draftees, who did not join this war by choice. They were basically trying to survive until their tour of duty was over. These were not bad people, but they suffered and died. I don’t think the VC were bad people either, they were just fighting for their homeland. It was their country after all, not America’s.

Painting showing the traps in use.

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Underground there was an exhibit that showed more weapons that were hand made. The real factories were several stories underground, hot, with poor air.

A man is shown making gunpowder.

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These guys were working on a bomb. I think they are taking apart a US bomb that did not explode.

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On the table are small bombs, grenades, that the VC used.

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For some, a big treat here is the ability to fire weapons of war.

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This case shows some of the weapons. You can fire an M 1, M 16, AK 47, or an M 60 machine gun. You buy the bullets, at a few dollars each, and take them to the range, put them into a weapon and fire away. Most of the guys in our group did this. I was not interested. I had to qualify with a rifle when I was in basic training for the US Air Force. That was enough war gun shooting for me.

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At the building where the bullets were sold, there was other tourist merchandise.

How about a car made from soda or beer cans?

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You can get your Ho Chi Minh souvenir plate, too.

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Next we went to an exhibit that showed VC digging tunnels.

They would excavate two deep “wells,” then dig between them to make the tunnel. This worker above ground pulled the dirt up, one bucket at a time. This work would have been done at night. During the day they stayed in the tunnels, safe from detection. Their only problem during the day was bad air, the heat, limited water, and all the creatures, like scorpions, ants and poisonous centipedes that loved the tunnels, too.

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The tunnels were mostly excavated by hand with 2 people rotating digging and 2 to 3 people who removed the diggings. The team could remove about 1 cubic meter per person per day, depending on the digger’s health, age, the climate and the soil.

This next photo looks down a well, to the lower member of the dirt removal team.

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Uniforms and clothes were in the exhibit, too, like these black PJs, more typically worn by the VC soldiers.

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Soldiers had to have shoes, too. A man showed how these shoes were made.

They start with used automobile tires.

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Using a sharp knife, sandal soles are cut from the tire. Add a few wraps, and, voila, new shoes.

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The last part of the tour was what we all had been waiting for, the trip through the tunnels.

We had nice stairs going down.

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In this area the tunnels have been enlarged so that Westerners can get through; they have been widened and made higher.

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Even though, it is still quite a squeeze for some. I turned around and went back. Carol went in, and took this and the next two photos.

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Though lights had been added for the tourist, it was still pretty dark inside.

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By the time you view the stairway, you are happy to see it. There are short and longer tunnels to crawl through. Some people even go through sections that are not reworked for Westerners. I have read of reports of claustrophobia, insect attacks and injuries in these other tunnels, though.

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If the tunnels are not enough, maybe you can find some razor wire above ground to get through.

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We got to see a model of a kitchen and eating area. There was a fire in the kitchen.

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Pretty far away from the kitchen, buffered by tunnel areas designed to absorb and diffuse smoke, was a hidden exhaust. Wisps of smoke escaped here. This was not enough to be seen from the air, but if there were ground troops here, it would be seen, and the tunnel network discovered. I am sure that when US troops were in the area, no cooking would be done; no food would be given to the VC troops.

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An exhibit shows bombs used during the war. All of the big ones were from the US. The small ones, shown at the bottom, were VC bombs.

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The last stop on the tour was to watch a film about the victorious Vietnamese effort against the USA. It seemed heavy on the propaganda to me. The Vietnamese see this effort as heroic, and it is easy to see why. Their army, poorly equipped, somehow defeated the largest military force on the planet.

Above the TV is a picture of ‘Uncle Ho.’

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We watched maybe 20 minutes of black and white TV.

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Much of the audience, I think, was Vietnamese.

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Throughout the course of the war, the tunnels in and around Củ Chi proved to be a source of frustration for the U.S. military in Saigon. The Viet Cong had been so well entrenched in the area by 1965 that they were in the unique position of locally being able to control where and when battles would take place. By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels of Củ Chi allowed guerrilla fighters in their area of South Vietnam to survive, help prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972.

This exhibit pictured below shows something of the tunnels, with different levels that go down about four stories. There are connecting tunnels, included innumerable trap doors, living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories, field hospitals, command centers and kitchens. The tunnels made possible communication and coordination between the VC-controlled enclaves, isolated from each other by South Vietnamese and American land and air operations. They also allowed the VC to mount surprise attacks, and to quickly escape.

In the district of Cu Chi alone there were more than 250 km of tunnels.

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This map shows the area of the Cu Chi Tunnels, to the northwest of Saigon. Sustained attacks with bombs, napalm, and Agent Orange turned Cu Chi’s 420 sq km into what the some have called “the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare.” And still the VC survived. The cost was great though. Of the 15,000 VC troops in these tunnels, only 6,000 survived.

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My heart goes out to all those involved in this war. They were all someone’s son, brother, father, friend. The death and destruction that they suffered, and the people of Vietnam, caught in crossfire or by US bombing, is hard to imagine, and for many, difficult to live with. As an American of that generation, who just by luck missed this war, I grieve for them, and for my own friends who were damaged beyond belief in this war.

A tribute of sorts, given to the VC by US General Westmoreland:

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This is from a paperby two officers of the 326th Engineer Battalion (SAPPER EAGLES), of the US Army’s 101th Airborne Division, about the conflict in Vietnam.

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Driving back to Saigon, we passed another grave yard, and got out to look.

There are old style graves, as well as the newer ones. Here is a section of simple old graves.

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New marble mausoleums are mixed in with the older ones.

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This is from 1966.

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A pair of new graves. I wonder if they are a man and his wife?

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Just a simple headstone from 1978. I must have made the family sad that this was all they could do for their ancestor.

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The last stop of this bus trip was to a factory that made inlaid lacquer objects, that was staffed by handicapped people. This is one effort made to give them good jobs.

Our guide for the factory shows a piece of inlay that has been cut from a shell.

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It is sawed out using this simple hand saw.

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First the image is drawn onto the shell.

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Smaller images are drawn onto pieces of shell. This is a key detail. Someone has designed all the final pieces, and defined all the small elements that make up the design. It is from these diagrams that the craftsperson works.

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Painstaking assembly work is done. This woman is working with egg shells.

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She is inlaying shell pieces that have been cut per the design diagram.

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then the piece is given to another team of workers who painstakingly paint each piece.

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Here is a piece, half painted.

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This dragon shows the intricate inlay work that is done. Look closely. Each scale of the dragon is another piece.

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They showed us some partially finished works. Remember the lady, we will see her again.

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We then went into the showroom. It was much larger than I had imagined, filled with countless “art” objects. (I put quotes around art, since real art is never produced on an assembly line.)

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Two Vietnamese maidens in their white dresses.

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A finished picture, very much like the unfinished one, above.

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Bamboo, a traditional subject.

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One of the workers, getting a short nap.

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A section full of inlaid vases.

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A four-part panel, women planting rice.

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Another four-part panel, a city street scene.

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For Westerners, a guitar player, with cubist overtones.

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A famous painting, The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt.

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A landscape with abstract undertones.

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We got back to Saigon in time to rest. It is Valentine’s Day today, so we went up to the rooftop restaurant to have a beer and see the sights.

It was most interesting to watch the traffic flow around the circle in the street below.

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There is a kind of order to the chaos.

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Mostly the traffic moves through the opposing traffic is groups, like schools of fish going through other schools of fish.

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Our final group dinner of the Vietnamese portion of the trip is to be a dinner cruise on the Saigon River.

When we got to the river, it was lit with lights. This is where the dinner cruises leave from.

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The boats are distinctively lit up. This one is like a big fish.

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This looks like a circus to me. Where is the ferris wheel?

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On board, at the table, everyone is having a good time.

These two Aussie girls are on their way back home. They had spent some time in Cambodia as volunteers in a school.

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Here are Carol and myself on our last night in Vietnam.

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The city looks beautiful from the cruise boat.

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Tomorrow morning we will leave Vietnam for Cambodia. Some people will leave the group, and we will get some new people as well. We enjoyed Vietnam much more than we had imagined. Now, how about Cambodia?

Related Posts

Earlier parts of this series can be found here:

Hanoi, Day 1
Hanoi, Day 2
Hue
Hội An
Mỹ Sơn
Nha Trang
Mekong Delta

If you enjoyed this post, you can find other travel articles here: Touring and Travel in India

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