War

Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
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Trip End Aug 27, 2010


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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Good Morning Vietnam!


Our transfer from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was uneventful; we changed buses in Phnom Penh, and after a short wait in the Mekong Express Office we were soon on our way to Ho Chi Minh City. Despite getting on and off the bus about three times, the border crossing was uneventful and unsurprisingly driving through the Vietnamese countryside didn't seem to be a whole lot different to the Cambodian countryside, except for the bizarre change of direction (from driving on LHS to RHS!). We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City late in the evening almost fifteen hours after leaving Hotel 89, but were relieved to discover that our hostel was less than five minutes walk from the bus stop. Our room at Ngoc Thao is a really nice large room with a huge balcony complete with benches and a table which more than makes up for being on the fifth floor with no elevator….we were needing the work out anyway ;-)


After a long day of travelling, we decided our first day in Vietnam should be easy-going and so after a leisurely breakfast we strolled to the Ben Thanh market where we spent far longer shopping than we had intended but after some serious haggling we came away with some good purchases; at least, we thought we did, and that’s what matters! One of Sarah’s indulgences was a package of Ca Phe Chong or "Weasel Coffee". Before leaving Canada, she had hoped that we would travel to Indonesia to visit Borobodur temple and to sample Kopi Luwak, otherwise known as cat-poo coffee. There the civet cat eats the ripe coffee beans and excretes them whole, but the digestive juices create a unique flavor of coffee which is prized by many and sells at a premium price around the world ($120/lb at Starbucks). Unfortunately we had decided to take Indonesia off of our itinerary due to the time and cost of getting there. But as you may have already guessed by now, weasel coffee is produced in a similar fashion to cat-poo coffee only via a different “processor”!


Spending too long at the market meant that we only had time for one more attraction in Ho Chi Minh that day and so we walked around the War Remnants Museum, which, surprise, surprise houses remnants from the war with the USA. Outside of the museum we found a good selection of tanks, aircraft, guns and artillery. Inside there were displays of photographs and other information covering the war itself and its legacy. Not surprisingly, the story on display is quite different to what popular western media portrayed. Some of the photographs were very disturbing and graphic and the kids had to be quickly distracted once or twice (Think “Daddy, where’s the rest of that man in the photo?”). As the museum was closing we quickly made our way through the final outdoor exhibit of tiger cages (where prisoners were actually detained). All in all the museum was well worth visiting but left many questions unanswered regarding the US war, questions we hoped to uncover during the rest of our stay in Vietnam.


Ho Chi Minh is a city that feels like Phnom Penh if fast forwarded a few years. There are still more two wheeled vehicles than four, but as Alex pointed out, they must have more money here as you rarely see more than two people per scooter! Crossing the street is quite the experience and is best done slowly, very slowly. It’s quite unnerving to step into the streams of traffic (especially with a child in tow) but it seems that as long as you keep moving at a steady pace the sea will part and flow around you….at least most of the time anyway;-) Another point of note…It seems that they have yet to consider the impact that garbage has on both the environment and tourism; where Thailand was pretty clean, Cambodia and Vietnam were both relatively dirty with alarmingly high quantities of manmade waste, particularly in the waterways. Both countries have been shaped by recent wars and their people still bare the scars and yet are some of the friendliest people we have met whilst travelling. They all seem to love kids and Lauren in particular has received lot of attention. We frequently lose her temporarily as she’s detained to pose for yet another picture.

After returning to the hostel from the war museum we booked a day trip to visit the Cu Chi tunnels the following day before heading to Kim Café for dinner and to watch the Manchester United game….United won with Rooney (of course) scoring so we finished the day on a happy note!


It was a bright and early start to catch the bus to the Cu Chi tunnels, with a stop en route at a factory where war handicapped Vietnamese make tourist souvenirs. The work they do is quite fascinating and we watched as they made beautiful pictures, manually gluing thousands of egg shell fragments of various colours to a base which they then sand to a perfectly smooth finish before finishing with a varnish. We ended up being suckered into buying a picture of a tiger for Lauren that we probably paid over the odds for, but hey the value came from seeing it being made and supporting a worthwhile cause.


Our tour guide for the day was Mr Binh (pronounced “Mr Bean”); Mr Binh is a Vietnamese citizen, born in Saigon (former name of Ho Chi Minh) and served in the US Navy during the Vietnam war. As I’m sure you can imagine he had plenty of interesting stories to tell… a fascinating, and touching exposure to the other side of the fence. Once at the Cu Chi Tunnels, Mr Binh led us through the various exhibits including models of the tunnel network, displays of Viet Cong making traps from US artillery shrapnel, and the numerous other resourceful defence systems employed. Finally we arrived at the main attraction, the tunnels themselves. The tunnels were built by the residents of a small village called Cu Chi which harbored Viet Cong. This subterranean network of tunnels and underground rooms is at three different depths, up to ten metres below ground, and totals about 260km! These tunnels were extremely hard for the US to penetrate; they were approximately 1.3m high by 0.8m wide, big enough for the Viet Cong to move through quite easily, but very difficult for US soldiers with helmets, equipment, and “fat asses”. The US tried to burn them out by dropping napalm bombs, this only succeeded in baking the clay soil into a rock-hard, essentially ceramic, surface, all the better for the next attack! They also tried injecting gasoline into the tunnels and igniting it, this had a similar effect to the napalm and reinforced the interior of the tunnels! The lowest level of the tunnel network was connected to the river, so as soon as the US tried to inject anything into the tunnels, the Viet Cong exited at the river and would effectively snorkel using bamboo shoots and foliage for camouflage. They would sleep and rest by day and relax by night as the enemy would withdraw then because of the mosquitoes! It seems that despite the might and advanced technology of the US army they were continually outsmarted by the Viet Cong.

At the end of the tour we were able to crawl into the tunnels which have been enlarged slightly to allow “tourist fat ass” to pass through the tunnels! The tunnels were still extremely small and dark, despite having some lighting and exit points every ten metres. Derek decided after a short distance that the tunnels were not for him and exited early, but as the kids (being about the size of the Viet Cong and having lots of fun) wanted to explore further Sarah obliged and continued through the tunnels with them. We went up and down through different levels and through extra small openings, in what seemed like total darkness much of the time. The tunnels bend and twist continuously (because bullets don’t), so even the occasional light didn’t illuminate very far. It was with a degree of relief that we emerged into daylight and fresh air.


With the tunnels explored and understood, it was time to return to Saigon/HCMC and we decided to take the river option. We caught a speed boat along the Saigon river all the way back to the city. It took slightly longer than the bus but was far more interesting. The kids had great fun learning some neat party tricks from Mr Binh and Derek & Sarah enjoyed watching the river traffic and life unfolding along the river banks.


We had planned to spend the following day doing a Mekong River tour, but having enjoyed our boat trip the previous day (and not fancying the required three hour bus ride) we decided to abandon the plan in favour of another day in the city. We started off at the Dan Sinh market but soon decided that it had little to offer tourists unless you were in the market (pun intended) for some surplus army supplies… The large rats there didn’t help endear us to the place either, so we headed off in the direction of Reunification Palace, soon stopping at a nice little patisserie. Another characteristic of Saigon is the obvious French influence….unlike the other South East Asian countries we’ve been to, Vietnam seems to have some fantastic bakeries; the bread is wonderful and the pastries are light and fluffy … “c’est formidable!”


Next stop Reunification Palace, headquarters of the South Vietnam government in 1975. On April 30, 1975, tanks smashed through the gates of the Palace and South Vietnamese government surrendered. The war ended and the palace remains exactly as it was on that fateful day in 1975. two tanks still remain as a reminder in the courtyard of this peaceful haven in the middle of the city. It was neat to wander through the place, and independent of anything else just plain weird to see a building like this decked out like it was still the mid-seventies ... right down to the rotary dial telephones, and tasteful turquoise wall paint. Alex was particularly impressed with the tanks, the helicopter on the helipad and the gambling room, uh oh, could this signal trouble ahead???


With a better (but still incomplete) understanding of the US/Vietnam war, we decided that we’d seen enough war stuff and that it was time for some fun; armed with a new toy, recently purchased, we found the nearest park and attempted to play a game that we’ve seen both here in Vietnam and in Cambodia. It’s a bit like hacky-sack, only the “sack” is more like a weighted, slimline, springy badminton birdie. It looks so easy…however, it would seem that they are all more coordinated and or flexible than the Moody family…still, we had fun trying and with practice, who knows, we might be able to beat our record of five taps!



Our hostel booked us seats on the open bus from Saigon to Mui Ne, so tomorrow we will be beach bound again…..looking forward to some big waves….
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Comments

Pete Harris on

Hard to believe they managed to fit me into that spider hole you show Lauren coming out of, isn't it? :-) I loved the tunnels at Cu Chi. Did they take you to the clearing and make you search for the hole first? None of our group found it, despite having a plot barely the size of a kitchen to search. Clever stuff.

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