Saigon, Cu Chi tunnels, Mekong Delta
16.12.2007 - 23.12.2007
Saigon is a bit mental. Really bustling big city. There are so many motorbikes here. Crossing the road is an absolute joke. There are few traffic lights, and even where there are ones, none of the bikes take any notice.
They clearly are taking notice of what's going on around though, and so it is possible to cross with caution going very slowly and letting them weave behind and in front of you. Very dangerous though. There are apparently 8 million people and 3 million motorbikes in the city. They're just everywhere, and the rules of the
road don't seem to apply. They drive the wrong way down main streets and even drive about the pavements which means really there is no escape. They passed a law, only 5 days ago, meaning that they all must wear helmets. So they're all wearing really new shiny colourful helmets which is quite funny.
We've done quite a bit of wandering round the city. It's a really busy place, and tere are lots of tourists. There seem to be predominantly US tourists which I suppose makes sense. The area of the city that we're staying in is a bit of a mecca for tourists, and consequently it's a bit crap, but the centre is quite nice, and the shopping is pretty good. Not that I'm particularly interested in that. We spent most of our first few days just trying to get across the roads. The food here has been really good.
They do a soup called Pho Bo, that is a clear broth with noodles, beef, beansprouts, chili, aniseedy leaves which seems to be the staple for the locals. It's magic. Been getting a bit sick of it recently though because we've eaten so much of it.
They also have the cheapest draft beer in the world here. We sat at a little street bar that was full of both tourists and locals all tucking into the stuf. IT came in a plastic jug, about a litre big, and cost 20p, which is pretty good. Supposedly it gets cheaper further north, so very much looking forward to that.
We went on a tour of the famous Viet Cong tunnels at CuChi the other day. The site is about 1 hour drive out of the city, to the North West. We booked up with one of the many tour agencies, and went on one of the 30 or so bus loads of people that go there every day. Apparently they get 1000 visitors a day, which is pretty crazy. Our tour guide was pretty crazy as well. He (allegedly) was part of the US lead South Vietnamese army that fought the Viet Cong around Cu Chi. He gave an amazingly detailed account of the history of the war, and indeed the preceeding wars that Vietnam have been involved in. He was a fountain of knowledge. Not only that he was a veteran of the American War who had fought for the US collecting injured soldiers and returning them to the base. At the end of the war, even though he had lived in New York for a time prior to the war, and was invited by his comrades to return, decided to stay in his homeland. He was captured by the Northern Communist forces and spent 4 years after the war in a reeducation camp. So he said anyway. Even if it wasn't true it was a really good story. He certainly knew his stuff.
I was a bit sceptical about the tour, but the fact that the tour guide was so good made it so much more interesting. The Viet Cong were clearly extremely ingenious and skilled in the art of war, which makes sense as they had spent the 20 years prior to the American invasion fighting off the French on their own soil. They accepted that they didn't have the immense fire power of either the French or the US, but used their knowledge of the countryside to defeat both. The Cu Chi tunnels are an intricate system of tiny tunnels - 1.3m high and 60cm wide - built on three levels, 3m, 6m and 8-10m, running for over 250km along the cu chi river and into the jungle. They had been building them for the 20 years preceeding the US occupation. In fact the US built a base right on top of the network. So at night the Viet cong would emerge and steal weapons, etc anything they could get their hands on. Even when the US eventually discovered the tunnels, they tried everything from Napalm, Tear gas, Grenades, Smoke Bombs, even sending men called 'tunnel rats' or sniffer dogs down into the tunnels. Despite the masive casualties they remained in the tunnels until the US withdrawal.
They had boobytraps all over the shop, and were clever enough to smoke american brand cigarettes and use US soap to confuse the dogs that were used to try and trace them. All amazing stuff. I was hanging on every word the guy was telling us. It was great. Even Jenny was pretty interested in the stuff we were shown. Not so much the hour lecture on the bus. She slept and listened to her ipod instead.
We were taken round various bunkers, and shown an abandonned m41 tank. The highlight of the tour was the tunnels themselves. We were able to crawl through 100m of the tunnels. There were escape routes every 30m which you could get out of if you were so inclined. Many were. It was absolutley stifling, and really really cramped. Quite difficult to move.
It was also pitch black at some points and we decended twice, to 8 or so metres. Was very claustrophobic. We both made it to the end with another few, dripping with sweat. Quite a lot of people bailed out early. It just reaffirmed how incredible the Viet Cong were, as I think the tunnel we crawled along had been heightened to allow us to get through, and it was absolutley tiny, even for Jenny who's a midget. Was a really great experience.
The next place of interest that we went to was the War remnants Museum. This is dedicated to the American war. I thought it was really interesting. Jenny didn't.
They had various tanks, and other equipment that the US abandonned when they withdrew from Vietnam. One of the bombs was ridiculously big, about 3 times the size of me. It was used to wipe out areas 100m in diametre. Absoultely ridiculous. The main body of the musem is a gallery of photography of various aspects of the war. Some really amazing pictures. There was a lot of emphasis on the terrible after effects of the chemical weapons used by the US - agent orange and napalm. There were a lot of gory pictures of children born with deformities as a result of the effects of these, and terrible skin burns suffered by those who were subjected to napalm. There were a few really horrendous shots of American GI's involved in the Mai Lai massacre, where the US 'search and destroyed' a village, executing 504 civilians in the process, many of them women, children and elderly. The place is a really good exhibition of all that was wrong with the Vietnam/American war, and war in general.
After exhausting all of Jenny's patience with musems and war, we booked ourselves onto a 2 day tour of the Mekong Delta. Probably the less said about this the better. It was absolutely crap. Both Jenny and I were as bored as each other with this. The Mekong River and the floating market thereon were quite interesting. Unfortunately we only spent about 2 hours doing this. The rest of the time was spent on the boiling hot bus, or on boats. Not boats on the Mekong, but ones ferrying us to crappy factories making crap - coconut candy factory, rice factory, fruit orchard, rice krispie factory!?! It wasn't their fault obviously, but it wan't really what we'd gone to see.
We spent ages at each of these extremely uninteresting places where they tried to sell us the stuff they were making before getting back on the bus/boat for another 2/3 hours. Complete waste of time and money. What made matters worse was that we had to get up at 6.30am both mornings to go see these places. So we were both really tired and crabbit. The Mekong itself was pretty cool though, having slagged off the rest of it. We took a boat that weaved in and out of the women all selling their goods to other passing vessels.
It was massive. We also went to see another market where they were selling snakes and other interesting animals.
The Vietnamese seem to eat anything. We've seen snake on the menu already, and snake wine so hopefully will get to try that at some point. Then as we get further North supposedly dog may start appearing on the menu. Think Jenny may draw the line with that, I'm not decided yet........