Hello Saigon

Trip Start Nov 29, 2005
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Trip End Nov 21, 2006


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Saturday, April 8, 2006

When all the lunacy of my bus journey from Vientiane to Hanoi unfolded, one of my first thoughts was that it was such a shame that Tom, Ali, Scott, Sherein and Elle -- the five farangs who turned south at the border -- would never know how the story resolved itself. There's always that small gleam of hope that their paths might cross with someone else's, but the odds were small since all of them were moving relatively quickly through Asia. Well, imagine my shock then when I was standing outside the Cu Chi Tunnels when I see Sherein and Elle walking in as well. I knew time was short, so I didn't bother with formalities such as "hello" or "how are you doing." I just launched straight in to try and catch them up, but after just 30 seconds I was hustled off to my tour and it all happened so fast that we were too thrown off to arrange to meet later in the day to get a more calm, complete story...and to find out how each other was doing. Stroke of luck number two happened later that night when I was wandering the streets of Saigon looking for a place to eat dinner after the two American girls I was supposed to meet never showed up. As I walked by one of the major streets I approached a restaurant with several tables set up outside and was excitedly greeted by a table of four on the street. Sure enough, it was the two Irish girls and Scott and Ali, all eager for me to wander by and share the story. Only Tom was missing, having left Saigon in the morning. The five had been traveling together pretty much the whole way after the bus ride. Surviving a journey like that just bonds people. Heck, it drew me in with those three Swedes and they were so smacked on valium they admitted the trip felt like it only took about four hours.

Never have I been more happy to be ditched in my life. After gleefully sharing the details of what happened to the bus, post-border crossing, we spent the rest of the night being the stars of the bar as our group slowly expanded. First we were joined by Jay-my a guitarist from Melbourne I met on my overnight bus to Saigon and then kept growing until we were about 12 strong and moving well beyond the realm of the restaurant. We were such good customers that the owner started shouting us free beer, presented us with plates of fresh fruit and even jumped into our group photos.

Saigon itself has been an interesting stop since it's provided the only real recent history I've gotten since arriving in the country. As a city, I don't like it nearly as much as Hanoi. It's equally chaotic, but not nearly as charming. Hanoi just had a special vibe, beyond the chaos was a calm, with all the activity going on, it felt very relaxing and low-key. Saigon is just a really big city, with huge roads, which can be quite interesting to cross as hundreds of motorbikes whiz by. It's also much more Westernized than Hanoi and has been the first place I've seen a Western fast food joint since leaving Bangkok nearly three weeks ago. The city, though, certainly has a grasp of its history. After arriving in what is officially now called Ho Chi Minh City at 5 am, I found a hotel, relaxed for a little and headed to the War Remnants Museum. There was certainly a bias to it (one placard explained that nearly as many Americans died in the 'American War of Aggression' as in WW II -- or was it I? -- when the disparity was in fact two million and then said that 'Úven more Americans died' in Vietnam than the other world war, when that difference was less than 100) but not nearly as noticeable as one might expect. It also had an exceptional and poignant section on the Western photojournalists who died during the war. Aside from the amazing photos, the stories and the manner in which they dealt with them was absolutely superb. Across the courtyard that is filled with war planes and artillery is the more disturbing section of the museum. They describe some of the American atrocities, often in gruesome detail, with photos to follow. I've spent the better part of four months, if not defending America, at least standing up for it and standing my ground on how I feel about its politics. But walking around that museum was the first time since I left that I actually felt somewhat ashamed to be an American. The museum, holds no bars either, at one point even showing a fetus that was deformed by Agent Orange in a jar next to one of the displays. The jar is just out there, no warning, just walk up, and bam, there's a dead fetus. There was also a section in which they reconstructed the guillotine the French used to kill prisoners and the "tiger cages" that were used to torture captured Vietnamese.

After leaving the museum I set out for the Reunification Palace, which is the spot where the North Vietnamese first marched on Saigon. It's supposed to be left as it was when they arrived in the city. Ironically, I couldn't get in because it's closed for the month for renovations. At the very least it gave me an extra hour or so to get back to my hotel and catch up on the sleep that I've been sorely lacking for, oh, the last month, give or take.

The next day I was at the Cu Chi Tunnels, a tunnel system about 30 km from Saigon where the Viet Cong hid out during the war. I wasn't all that impressed with the tour I paid for, but the site itself was really good and was an excellent insight into just how the Viet Cong lived in their fight for freedom. Many of the tunnel entries we were shown were no wider than the length of my foot. All around were massive craters from bombs that were dropped on the sight to try to drive the Vietnamese out. You're even allowed to enter a few of the tunnels. The tunnels you can go in have been enlarged to suit the more robust Westerners, and still you feel awfully claustrophobic. How they survived down there, where you work up an incredible sweat crawling 30 meters, in full uniform, fully armed and everything, for 10 years is incredible. You're also given the opportunity to fire any sort of weapon, from a pistol up to a machine gun -- that is if you're willing to fork over 18,000 dong per bullet. Since I've already had a go with an M-16 I passed.

Today I was in the Mekong Delta for a day tour. The Delta is about 70 km from the city and you spend just about the whole day either on a slow boat or visiting villages. Once you turn off the main river and into the rivulets, you can get a sense of what it must've been like for the soldiers floating down thirty years ago. Ferns grow nearly 20 feet high from the banks and there is absolutely no visibility through them. It must have felt awfully vulnerable. Today though, I could just enjoy the beauty of it all. Aside from the boat rides, we were taken to a village where they make coconut candy (free samples and all) and one where they make honey (likewise). We also stopped in separate villages for lunch and a snack where they play live folk music. It's all proper too, with the little girls who sing in traditional dress, curtsying before and after each song. At one point we were also put on small canoes to row down a section of river that is only about 3 or 4 meters wide. As a bonus we had our own little triangle hat to wear as we moved down river.

And that's just about it for my adventures in Vietnam. Tomorrow morning I get on the bus for Cambodia and country four in as many weeks.
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