S-S-S-S-Saigon

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
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Trip End Jun 08, 2006


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Saturday, December 3, 2005

We are now getting used to the Vietnamese minibuses which rudely drop us off at the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) but I still feel apprehensive knowing that we will have to continue our journey balancing precariously on the back of a motorcycle and then have to undergo the rigmarole of finding a suitable guesthouse.

HCMC, formely called Saigon is not the capital of Vietnam but with 8 million inhabitants and around 3 million motorcycles it is the largest city. The moto taxi drivers are used to tourists and despite seeing a driver at every corner we need to walk 1 km closer to our destination in sweltering 31C heat to negotiate a price lower than 1USD.

We hope to stay in one of Madame Cuc's guesthouses which have been recommended to us by some fellow travellers. This seems to be in the heart of the tourist zone. After the seclusion of the Mekong Delta our hearts raise a beat feeling the throb of bustling Western restaurants and English being spoken everywhere.

In perfect English the receptionist tells us that there are no rooms available in her hotel, but efficiently says that there are rooms in another siter hotel. John asks to have a look at the rooms and I turn around just in time to see him disappear on the back of another moto. He returns 10 minutes later reporting that the expensive rooms are nice and the cheap rooms are windowless. There are however only expensive 14USD rooms available tonight which is beyond our usual budget. The receptionist is ever so helpful recommending that we should try a 14 USD room tonight and then move to a cheaper room when they become available tomorrow. The rooms include free breakfast, dinner and fruit drinks. We hesitate to take up this attractive offer and as John suggests that before making a final decision he will quickly have a look down the street at the plethora of other hotels, the lady's attitude suddenly turns sour as she begins organising her nik naks on the counter. I wait with the bags and watch the ladys smile re-emerging from behind her desk as she sees some fresh backpackers arriving. She immediately trys to sell them the room which she had offered to us on a special discount.

It takes John 5 minutes to find a family run guesthouse just around the corner down a narrow residential alleyway for half the price of Madame Cucs. Their are only 2 rooms available in Bebe's, a family run guesthouse. The average income for many farmers is around 60 USD per month (this rises to 200 USD for employees working for an international company) so it is hardly suprising to find that many houses in HCMC have now been converted to guesthouses charging around 7 USD. Bebe's family cram their living room, kitchen and bedroom on the ground floor which is still a little mystery to me as there are no beds or sofas to be seen. We walk past them and up a steep winding staircase to the 1st floor which has an immaculate bedroom and bathroom all to ourselves. The friendly husband, his back covered in massage cupping marks comes to check that everything is ok in our room and makes us feel at home by presenting a dragon fruit to us.

We jump on some motos which take us to the war remnants museum where we spend the rest of the afternoon. The museum is a mishmash of mainly photographs and war artillary. The emphasis seems to be on the human suffering of the war. There is little fact, or information on the historical or politcal events. It's hot and stuffy as the Westerners squeeze around the microscopic English caption under each photo and a party of around 100 Vietnamese school children scribble away in their notebooks. The children look about 12 years old and look emotionlessly at the gruesome photographs. We see soldiers, civilians, wounded or dead. Mothers watching their homes burning. People horrificly deformed after the 75 million litres of defoliant sprays. The eyes of childen moments before their execution.

The war, although not forgotten, is over now, but in the evening as Vietnam wins 2-1 against Malaysia in the SEA football semi-final, swarms of motos, bicycles and pedestrians fill the street cheering and waving the bright flags bearing a single yellow star. Here we sense a strong national pride and perhaps the kind of emotion that must have been felt when the North Vietnamese were victorious over the Imperialists.

Everyone looks tired in the morning. We hear that most of the city was celebrating until 4am in the morning. I wish that I had joined in the fun as I wake with another pounding head after another perturbed night of sleeping and insatiable thirst following an excessive dose of monosodium glutamate (MSG) in my Vietnamese dinner. The waiter had specifically written on our order 'no MSG' but I figure that this delicious tasting seasoning must be tainted in all the seasonings in this country. I wonder how I am going to survive another 3 weeks and I make a mental note to try some western food and pizza in the evening.

HCMC is full of tour opeartors running 1 to 3 day trips to the Mekong Delta for very reasonable prices which is probably why we did not meet any independent travellers in this region. We take advantage of a cheap one day tour in the local area. It costs only 4 USD per head to have an air conditioned coach with a guide to visit the Cu Chi tunnels and we decide to splash out with an extra dollar each to have a combined visit to the Cao Dai temple.

Our coach leaves at 8.15am. Unlike the locals buses which have passengers hanging from the roof, our 60 seater coach is empty bar the 12 customers on board. They are mostly strange looking middle aged Europeans (like us?) although we also meet an Australian tagging on a day's holiday onto his business trip and an Irish guy who is also travelling for a year. Our guide is a young Vietnamese guy. He speaks good English, is enthusiastic, informative, humorous and genuinly seems to worry about us throughout the day. John snoozes in his reclining chair, sniffing and sneezing with the first signs of another tropical cold and comments on how much he is enjoying a relaxing day on a group tour with nothing to worry about and no choices to make.

The Cao Dai religion was founded in 1926 and has about 2 million followers in Vietnam. The members believe that there are so many different religions throughout the world that it is easy to get lost and therefore believe in a universal God. Their religion has a similar hierarchy to the Catholic faith but has many Buddist, Taoist and Confuscian customs entwined. As our coach pulls into the 1km squared complex of the head cathedral we see brightly coloured modern buildings of shops and houses which cannot fail to make me feel that I am entering toy town.

The main temple looks similar to a Western church from the outside except for a few extras. Here the bell towers contain drums, the statues of saints are of Buddhas, there are chinese paintings and in the centre is a huge all-seeing eye. We remove our shoes and walk around the interior. There are cool Portugese ceramic tiles on the floor, 2 pulpits and 28 columns with dragons swirling around from their base to the ceiling. It is bright and airy inside as there are many large open style windows, each contain another watchful eyeball surrounded by ceramic lotus flowers. The eyes follow us as we walk around and at the front of the building there is a large globe sitting on an alter which has another piercing all-seeing eye positioned in its centre.

There is a sudden burst of activity as it is time for one of the four masses of the day. This is one of the oddest experiences I have ever witnessed and having just finished reading 'Angels and Demons' by Dan Brown my mind cannot help but cast to the secret Illuminati and their pagon like rituals also under the image of a large watchful eye. At midday exactly, we hear the sound of a single low resonance gong, and the followers enter in single file. At the front of the ladies is a women dressed in white wearing a hood which resembles the Klu Klux Klan outfit whilst on the mens side, a series of high order priests enter wearing their colourful robes and papal shaped hats which again bear the watchful eye. A very peculiar thing then happens. As the final gong sounds and the monks fall to sit on the floor cross legged, and as if on cue, a heavy downpour of rain begins. The rain lasts about 1 minute and then the room is filled with a sweet and refreshing scent. The Westerners all watch dumbfound from an upstairs balcony with some unintentional pushing and shoving taking place to get the perfect photo-shot whilst the monks chant oblivious to their surroundings with their hands grasped in christian prayer, and bowing in time with the gongs.

After the stop at the Cao Dai which John calls the highlight of his day, we head onto the Cu Chi Tunnels. This complex of narrow underground tunnels was once home to many Viet Cong (communist sympathising guerilla fighters) and with its close proximity to Saigon, this area was once a prime target for the American Army. Nowadays it is targetted by tour groups from the city.

Our group enters the presentation room. There is a short propaganda film about several heros from the war, mainly young girls that were apt at handling guns. The people of the Cu Chi area were very ingenious in their attack. Bar AK47 rifles, which were sent from Russia, these farmers had very little else and would either constuct their own barbarious traps consisting of long nails protruding from massive balls dropped from the treetops, hidden trap doors leading to sharpened bamboo sticks tipped with poison, or homemade land mines which were dangerously assembled by dismantling unexploded American bombs.

Outside we take a short walk along a wooded footpath, zig zagging past the other tour groups. We are shown hidden trap door entrance points to the tunnels which our guide tells us the VC would hide or attack from. The ventilation holes for the tunnels were constructed using hollow bamboo sticks -these were later eaten by termites which very cleverly disguised the man made holes as they became surrounded by termite mounds. The smoke from the cooking areas was engineered to dissipate through a series of smoke diffuser caverns so that they could not be detected. The scent of the enemy was cleverly hidden from hunter dogs by placing American boots or their used toilet paper nearby.

We come to a shooting range which I think is a little odd for a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. I am horrified as I see young men, buying AK47 bullets at 18,000 dong a shot (1.2 USD). They stand, sweating and looking full of testesterone as they fire deafeningly at dummy people at the end of a field.

As we continue walking along our loop, hearing the sound of bullets echoing in the woods, I wonder what it must have been like being an American army soldier. I have seen the usual films which depict macho soldiers wading through the jungle but as I watch the Westerners in our group looking sticky and smelly, finding the heat and humidity almost unbearable, I realise that fighting in unfamiliar terrain with the fear of imminent attack and the knowledge that there is a hidden network of over 240km of underground tunnels containing the enemy must have been a fearful experience.

The final part of the tour is a brief experience within a 100m stretch of tunnel. Our guide makes several repeats informing us that there are three possible exit points along the tunnel, that the tunnels are one way and under no circumstances should we turn around. We should not enter if we have any heart problems, fear of dark, fear of enclosed spaces. He adds that we are not obliged to go into the tunnels and that he will not be entering himself.

I had read that the tunnels have been widened to allow fat westerners through. My mind casts back to the lava tubes on the Big Island, Hawaii where the tunnels had been enlarged so much that it was possible to drive a vehicle through them. This was certainly not the case for the Cu Chi tunnels. I am first to enter, behind a small Vietnamese man dressed in a VC uniform. He dives into the mud tunnel and moves at lightening speed in a squat-walk position. I follow him in a similar fashion. Not many others in our group join in. John is behind me for the first 30 meters but disappears at the first exit saying that it is too hot and claustraphobic. This leaves only me and the Australian guy left. We climb down a second level and then again scuttle down the tunnel. It is unbelievably stuffy and as I begin to crave fresh air I tell myself not to hyperventilate in the darkness. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to have stayed underground in these tunnels for days on end, or the claustraphobia that the VC must have experienced whilst fighting along this underground terrain.

Back outside the air feels no more fresher than down below. We climb on board our a/c bus and relax on the 60km drive back to HCMC passing through gaudy new housing developments which contain wacky brightly coloured houses. Motocylces branding the Vietnamese flag are everywhere as tonight Vietnam plays Thailand in the final of the SEA cup.

This entry is called S-S-S-S-Saigon because John likes Paul Hartcastle's 1985 number 1 hit which highlighted that the average age of the American combat soldier in the Vietnam War was N-N-N-N-Nineteen.
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