Saigon (HCMC) - Nov 26-28
Nov 28, 2009
|November 26, 2009
Our flight this morning was at 8pm so we had an early start. We were keen to get to Saigon as we only had three days there and we wanted to try and see a couple of places today even through our tiredness.
Once we landed in Saigon our taxi collected us and we headed through the streets. The traffic was quite heavy so our driver took lots of little back roads and the avenues here were very tiny and a tight squeeze to get through. All the places we’d been to in Vietnam were completely different from one another. Hanoi had lots of small alleyways in the Old Quarter but nothing like here, whereas Hoi An and Hue were much more open.
We checked into our hotel and headed straight out for lunch. Close to the hotel we found a nice little café where Elizabeth and I both had pho – a traditional Vietnamese noodle dish. Elizabeth had hers with beef and I had chicken. Both of them were really good and it was great to try another local speciality.
In the afternoon, after a walk through one of the markets (bought a magnet; didn’t buy jeans as the guy didn’t believe my waist size and told me I must be bigger – hey, buddy, insults don’t make sales!), we headed to the Reunification Palace. This was the place where the North Vietnamese stormed with a tank to finally take over the South after the Americans had left. The palace was a 1970’s throwback and was pretty much unchanged since 1975. There were meeting rooms, living quarters and various other rooms for hosting foreign diplomats.
The best part of the palace though was the underground bunker. The area on the two floors below the ground level was used to protect the South’s President and held detailed maps of the region and communications systems for use whilst it was under attack from the communist armies.
After the palace we went to the War Remnants Museum. This museum was a memorial to the people who were killed in the Vietnam War but was completely one-sided and biased concentrating solely on the damage caused by the Americans and completely missed the original point of the war and the damage caused by the north and the communist uprising in that part of the divided country. It had some truly horrific pictures of Vietnamese soldiers being beheaded and children born with defects after the effects of biological and chemical warfare, particularly Agent Orange, which contains a particularly lethal chemical.
It was sad and harrowing reading reports of people who died and suffered so badly but the over-zealous bias of the entire complex overshadowed the whole museum for me. I understand how the people here suffered but I believe that an educational institution like this needs to provide some balance otherwise it loses credibility. For all the propaganda that comes out of America generally, there is nothing like this.
If nothing else, it at least provided a discussion topic for Elizabeth and I but we really both agreed it was nowhere near the whole story being told.
On the way back to the hotel we grabbed some snacks for tomorrow – we were going to the Cu Chi tunnels and were not due back until around 2 or 3pm so thought we’d best get some lunch to take with us.
For dinner we were trying to find a bar called Grill 69 which apparently did a range of different meats (including ostrich) in a Vietnamese style. However, a bar called Milwaukee was in its place and we decided to stick with that. I ordered a steak, Vietnamese style, which was half the price of the NZ steaks they had. The steak was really tender and well cooked and reasonable value for what it was. Shame the beer here was a little overpriced otherwise we might have stayed for some dessert, too!
November 27, 2009
Today we headed to the Cu Chi tunnels. These were tunnels used by the VC during the Vietnam War and were apparently smaller than the ones at Vinh Moc so we were looking forward to trying those out!
After a decent breakfast at the hotel, we met our tour guide. His name was something like Jung Win but he reckoned tourists couldn’t pronounce it so we were to call him John Wayne! This was quite funny to start with but even funnier when at many points along the tour he shouted “John Wayne group, follow me!”. It was quite funny and many other tour groups gave us funny looks too!
Our tour guide himself was quite funny and told us some stories while we drove out of the city. The first was about driving in Vietnam. He mentioned how some countries drive on the left and how some drive on the right. He then explained to us that in Vietnam they drove on both sides! We’ve certainly found this out the difficult way just trying to cross roads. I still reckon Hanoi was the worst place for crossing roads as at least here most people stop at the red lights!
Our first stop on the tour was one of your regular tourist traps, but this one was a little different. We were going to an art factory where all the artists were disabled as a result of, it was claimed, chemical agents dropped by the US during the war and the effect it had on the parents of the workers here. When we were first told we would be seeing some of the people affected, I expected it to be more of a village atmosphere with people almost paraded with their deformities and expecting money in return for pictures. In a weird way, I suppose I didn’t particularly object to this and would probably have parted with some money to take some pictures which at the very least would have been sad and heart-wrenching if not a little voyeuristic.
What we found though was a large, amazingly well organized factory and some amazing artists producing really great quality pictures. I had taken my camera in with me, as had most people, but unlike most I didn’t actually want to take any pictures of the people when it came down to it. It all seemed so undignified. I’m not sure what it says about me that I would’ve been happy to take pictures of someone begging but less so to take pictures of an artist working. I did take some pictures but it was because the intricate detail of the artistry was amazing, with some of the pictures made from hard, broken egg-shells. Watching the artists piece together the pictures from a stencil was stunning. Part of me wonders whether it seemed so amazing because of the disabilities some of these people had but, quite honestly, most of these people looked like they had no disability at all – I suspect the number of wheelchairs around indicates their issues were lower body. Maybe I’m just over-analyzing it all!
Anyway, after walking through the workshop we went into the showroom where Elizabeth and I decided to buy one of the pictures they were making. It was quite expensive for here ($21) but we felt that at least our money was supporting a wonderful project.
From there we headed out towards the tunnels. The sun was really beating down today and the humidity seemed higher than before. We’d had a huge rainstorm last night and hoped it would improve the humidity; alas not. When we arrived at the tunnels we walked through the forest areas to reach the entrances. The forests were all destroyed by the US during the war using napalm and almost every tree here was a replant. The forest seemed quite dense now and even with the paths that had been laid, the heat and humidity made it tough walking through. You can see how the US troops suffered here with the conditions, completely alien to them and forced into it by their government. I can’t imagine trooping through here in denser forest in the height of summer or the wet season.
Along the way we saw some of the small entrances the VC had made to enter the tunnels. The holes in the floor were tiny and it looked impossible to get in and out of. A couple of people in our group went inside the hole, including one English man who couldn’t fit all the way in as his shoulders were too broad. I didn’t fancy trying it – I was saving myself for the tunnels later! Our guide also showed us a number of traps used to halt the Americans. These involved mostly covered pits with some kind of spikes at the bottom from revolving trapdoors to platforms which when stepped on triggered four spikes from each angle to stick into your leg. Whilst they were quite ingenious contraptions, they looked very painful too.
Before getting to the tunnel, we passed by the shooting range and could hear a number of tourists firing off rounds on various weapons including pistols, shotguns and automatic weapons such as the AK-47 and M16. I would’ve fired one but I thought it was quite expensive at almost $2 per bullet. The point of an automatic is surely to reel off a load of rounds and to get a decent amount to pretend to be Rambo would’ve been expensive!
Finally at the tunnel entrance our guide told us the tunnel was only 1.2m high and about 0.6m wide. This didn’t sound too bad and I reckoned I could crouch the entire way through the 50m stretch of tunnel. When he asked if we were ready, I just said yes and was the only one to do so and so I went first – it seemed guides didn’t go down to the tunnels so I was the leader! Inside the tunnel it was tiny and seemed much smaller than I thought. I ended up crawling on my hands and knees almost the entire way through, carefully negotiating a steep slope by sliding on my bottom and soaking my feet going through a large flooded section. There were lights at certain points but some sections (like right by the slope) were pitch black so I was lucky I had my torch to use and was shouting back to others to warn them. It was pretty horrible down there, the conditions being completely unsuitable for, well, anything given it was so hot, humid and dirty.
After a few minutes I saw an exit and assumed that was the half way point so carried on going. From there the tunnel went further down and after jumping down two sections I couldn’t see where the tunnel led to. I wasn’t sure where I was going and given the guide had told us how the tunnels got smaller the deeper you went, I didn’t want to end up in one of the tiny tunnels laying flat on my stomach with no end in sight! The few people who had gathered behind me couldn’t tell what was ahead either and we did a quick turn around and headed out the exit. It turned out that most people had already exited here anyway and it was indeed the half way point. I was a bit annoyed I hadn’t done the full thing but just the first bit was tough enough. A few people in the group did the entire tunnel and on seeing them emerge I’m glad I bailed out at halfway! If we come back though, I’m going to do the whole thing!
Finally, after cooling off a little and trying to wash some of the clay from my legs and arms, we watched a short documentary about the war. Quite honestly, I don’t remember any of it as I switched off mentally when it started talking about awarding soldiers for being “great American killers”. I know every country awards medals to soldiers during or after conflicts but the way they were labeled just seemed to be another cog on the Vietnamese propaganda machine. I guess it is a point which is probably a little invalid as I’m sure the medals awarded to soldiers around the world for “valor”, “honour” and “defending your country” all basically amount to the same thing – killing the enemy. Still it was another lopsided piece of history I quickly lost interest in, another example of how the current regime has quickly forgotten that THEY invaded South Vietnam in the first place and, while the Americans had no place here, it wasn’t the Americans who started it. That might sound a bit like a school ground argument but from what I can tell it was fighting between the South Vietnamese republic and the communist North that triggered the US involvement in an attempt to stop the spread of communism. Maybe I’m missing something or over-simplifying the issue but I’m pretty sure that is the crux of the matter!
We got back on the bus for the trip back to the city. The tour didn’t include lunch and we were grateful we’d bought some snacks ahead of time. The journey back was much quicker, too, so we did wonder a little bit how far out of the way the factory had been on the way out there!
It was about 3pm by the time we got back to the room and after a much-needed shower we both had a much-needed nap until it was time for dinner. Sometimes I feel like my journal entries are nothing but a tale linking one eating time to another but I swear we don’t just eat; we’re doing other stuff on this trip, too!
For dinner we went to a restaurant called Quan an Ngon. This was an outdoor restaurant set in a lovely garden setting. It was raining a little when we arrived so they had covers over but once it stopped they opened the roof and that also helped cool the place down. The restaurant was a BBQ place where you had your own grill at your table. You picked the food you wanted and it arrived raw and you just cooked it yourself. The prices here were more than we’d paid before and we weren’t sure how big the portion sizes were so we ended up over ordering. We got vegetable skewers (pepper, onion, mushroom, courgette, tomato, aubergine), corn on the cob, some garlic rice and then a variety of steak, pork and chicken skewers. Everything was really tasty with the marinades being superbly flavoured. I have to also give my compliments to the chef (me, in case the clue wasn’t obvious!). Despite all the food and the fact we consumed almost everything, I was in the mood for something sweet so to counteract my typically Vietnamese meal I had banana and ice cream crepes! Elizabeth had green tea ice cream which I tried and didn’t like very much. It was nowhere near as
tasty as the soy sauce one in Japan!
Tonight was one of our most expensive meals in Vietnam and it came in at just under $20 but it was really worth it as we both deserved a good feast after our tunnel crawling exploits!