Dodging Motor bikes in Ho chi Minh

Trip Start Nov 30, 2009
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Trip End Jun 01, 2011


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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Time to depart Cambodia and head into Vietnam, our third land border crossing in less than 2 months and thankfully the smoothest running one yet.  Amazingly no bribes or "tips" changing hands for a change.  We'd already picked up our Vietnam Visas whilst in Sihanoukville (super quick, only took 10 minutes or so, although a slightly hefty $45 each for the privilege) and so it was simply a matter of the usual queuing to get the exit and entry stamps, plus unusually for a land crossing having our full luggage scanned. Bavet the Cambodian town at the border was a bit of a surprise.  After hours of driving past nothing but basic wooden homes on stilts we were suddenly passing hotels and casinos big enough to rival the Vegas strip.  Seems clear that not everyone in Cambodia is struggling, plus I’m sure they get their fare share of wealthy Thais and Vietnamese hitting the tables as well.  Kev was gutted that we hadn’t done the proper research in our Lonely Planet and organised ourselves so we could spend a night there

We’d been warned by others we’ve met that the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is total mayhem and they weren’t wrong.  I’ve never seen anything like it. There are millions upon millions of motorbikes everywhere, not only in the road but also driving on the pavement and none of them taking a blind bit of notice of the normal rules of the road or traffic signals.  Crossing the road was a real test of nerve, but by watching the locals we quickly learnt that you just had to step out and then slowly keep moving forward, ignoring the dozens of bikes swarming in every direction.  As long as you don’t engage in eye contact or make any sudden erratic movements they seemed to presume you haven’t seen them and find a way of avoiding you.   It was a bit like trying to part the seas.  Totally terrifying and goes against all natural instincts to start off with but strangely exciting as you step off the pavement and somehow reach the other side in one piece.  Feels like you've just preformed some sort of magic trip when you reach the opposite pavement.

Our visit to the city co-incided with the 35th anniversary celebrations of the day tanks smashed down the gates of the palace and started the process of re-unification for North and South Vietnam.  There were banners everywhere and a huge parade and ceremony took place on the 30th.  We visited the Reunification Palace the day before the big ceremony, a real 70’s time warp that has been left almost as it was found on the day everything changed.  There are even tanks on the front lawn and a helicopter up on the roof, plus mod cons like a cinema, gambling room and full on war bunker in the basement.

Touring the city for the day we spotted one of the most ridiculous things we’ve seen so far on our trip.  Two men, up a pair of bamboo ladders doing some repair work to the overhead cables.  Doesn’t sound ridiculous yet, but add in the fact that the road underneath their ladders remained fully open and there were four lanes of traffic below them – with bikes squeezing round them and perhaps you can see why we had to stop and take a photo!  Certainly wouldn't pass the health and safety inspectors in the UK.

To add to our ever expanding list of grisly South East Asian war related sights we opted to do a day trip to see the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Com during the Vietnam War.  A long drive out of the city by minivan, but managed to keep ourselves amused by playing 'spot the mad motor biker’.  In just a few hours we’d seen 2 guys balancing 10 foot long metal beams on their shoulders whilst trying to weave their bike through rush hour traffic – with everyone around them having to keep ducking and swerving to avoid losing their heads!  There was a lady with 6 huge wicker shopping baskets full of live chickens, a man whose bike was so piled high with bundles of laundry that you couldn’t even see the bike – just a pile of clothes with wheels, young children standing on the seat behind their parents and holding onto shoulders while they bombed along at 40km a hour, a baby sitting on a wicker bar stall that had been wedged between the handle bars of the bike and their dads legs-like a little mobile high chair.  The list goes on and on!

The Cu Chi tunnels were pretty interesting, although have been given the full tourist treatment – including widening them slightly so us big westerns can fit down some of them! They still felt plenty small enough to me, very hot, dark and claustrophobic.  There are tiny hidden trap doors throughout the forest that they used to drop down into to hide from the Americans.  The video at the start the tour is not the most p.c. of tourist information with lines like ‘The Viet Com had to hide from the Evil Demon Enemy’ – pleased there weren’t any Americans in our tour group!  Our guide also then took great pleasure in demonstrating the various homemade man traps – really barbaric trap doors with spikes in some very imaginative formations.  Horrible.  Highlight of the day for Kev was the chance to shot an AK47.  10 bullets for $10.  Despite the incentive of winning a Viet Com scarf (!) he didn’t managed to hit a target, although in Kev’s own words ‘he scared it several times’!  Unfortunately spectators weren’t allowed in the firing range so I can only take his word for it when he tells me the target was 6 inches high and 50 metres away.  Cows arse and banjo spring to mind!!

Also included in our tour was a visit to the largest temple in Southern Vietnam.  A new one to add to our ever increasing list of religious buildings as this one belongs to a fairly new religion called Cao Daism.  It’s a fusion of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, native Vietnamese spirituality and Islam.  I think they pretty much believe in everything.  We got to watch the daily mass, really colourful with everyone dressed in long robes and lots of chanting and bowing.  Not sure if we’ll take it up, but the decor and outfits were lovely!
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