Hoi An and Ho Chi Min City
Trip Start Jul 11, 2006
47Trip End Mar 16, 2007
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Matt is one of a highly elite group of good friends from my Japan days, a period when my flat, conveniently situated near the centre of Sendai, was known as Hotel Nick and the flow of patrons to this esteemed and somewhat cramped establishment (mainly for weekends of football-playing and partying) kept me thoroughly entertained for almost every weekend of my 12-month tour of Japanese duty. Matt was a central figure in this posse, constantly amusing us with a seemingly unlimited supply of colourful anecdotes from his varied and clearly well-lived past. Marriage has clearly not dampened his enthusiasm for travel and new adventures and, in Kerry, he has found someone with a similar affinity for exploration (as long as it doesn't involve rats or extremely large bugs)
With the prospect of hooking up with such an affable and interesting duo, I elected to spend 5 days in Hoi An in total. The time was spent undertaking day trips to local sights such as the Cham temple ruins at My Son, the long sand beaches outside of Hoi An and catching up with the Dolans over good local food and plentiful drinks. Hoi An proved to be an excellent back-drop; its old town residents have gone to great lengths to retain much of the architecture from the 19th and early 20th centuries so the town is packed full of attractive temples, halls and town-houses whilst also finding room to offer a plethora of fun little cafes, bars and some excellent restaurants. Hoi An is also considered one of Vietnam's most noted art and craft centres, and beneath the antiquated awnings of the old town, stores offering everything from outrageously low-priced bespoke tailoring and shoe-making to lacquerware and other wood products, art and sculptures.
Amusingly, not wanting to miss out on the tourist dollar bonanza, even the residential properties on the edges of the old town have converted their garages and home-fronts into stores of some kind or another. The most amusing were the series of garages in which a living room sofa and a few chairs had been placed in front of an old TV to which a Karaoke box had been attached
For my final 3 days in Vietnam, I ventured down to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City and got to see a rather different Vietnam. I had been warned that the Southern Vietnamese were considerably less friendly than those from the north and i certainly found them far more abrupt and less willing to help. Some attributed it to their reluctance at having to endure a communist regime following withdrawal of US troops in '73 and the subsequent fall of the southern government in '75, others to the high proportion of Chinese within the southern populace (they are the second large of some 45 different ethnicities within Vietnam and are concentrated in and around HCMC). Whatever the reason, it did not prevent me from enjoying my time in a city that is far more modern (and less attractive) than Hanoi with bigger roads, more traffic, larger buildings and lots of neon.
The highlights of a busy three days were both related to the Vietnam war: the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum (although the HCMC Zoo proved a curiously fascinating distraction featuring a monster python with the girth of a small child...hmmm..
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a tiny restored section of the vast (200km-250km) network of Viet Cong tunnels dug during both the war with the French in the '40s and '50s and the conflict with the US-backed south in the '60s and '70s. These tunnels lie some 60KM outside of HCMC and can be explored by tourists who have to crawl in almost pitch darkness along a winding, constricted and claustrophobic section of some 90 metres in length. Although not evident at Cu Chi, some of the tunnel network was incredibly intricate with up to three different levels, vast store rooms and deadly traps set for infiltrating US soldiers. As interesting was our guide, a diminutive southern Vietnamese man who had spent 10 years serving as a translator for the US army, often serving near the front line, and who made little effort to hide his contempt for the communist party (he was forced to endure a period of "re-education" after the war and hated the lack of freedom).
The War Remnants Museum in the city, a memorial to the legacy of the war and in particular the increasingly well documented (new confessions by US servicemen continue to come to light) atrocities committed by the US, proved very moving. The museum focused, in particular, on the effects of the US' use of industrial defoliants to clear vast swathes of jungle. Of these, Agent Orange was the most notorious causing horrific birth defects in those unfortunate enough to have been exposed to them for prolonged periods. Remarkably and shockingly, whilst US, Canadian, Kiwi, Aussie and even South Korean victims of Agent Orange have successfully claimed compensation through a series of high-profile law-suits, Vietnamese attempts have all been dismissed. The museum also featured a large and utterly absorbing exhibition highlighting the work of Western photo-journalists who had documented the war, highlighting their courage not just at venturing into combat but who had broken the journalistic mold by daring to take a contrarian, accusatory stance, and one that, ultimately, was to lead to the USA's premature exit from the region.
I ended up spending a few days longer in Vietnam than i had originally planned mainly because i have enjoyed the country so much. It offers fantastic value for money (4 star hotels for under 30USD, gourmet meals for less than 10USD), its people are friendly and there is plenty to see and do. I can easily see myself returning here. However, time to move on. Next stop: Phnom Penh where i am to be joined by my Kuala Lumpur friend Rhys, freed from work for a week to explore Cambodia with me.