Sick And The City

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
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Monday, May 6, 2013

After the blissful peace and quiet and old world serenity that was all over Laos HCMH could not have been much more of a shock to the system. As our plane started its descent over the city all we could see were skyscrapers and a metropolis of a city for miles.

We got in a taxi and made our way through the madness, with more mopeds than I have ever seen darting in front, behind, alongside and into our taxi.  I had a bit of a Dorothy moment, clicking my heels together wanting to go back to sleepy Laos!

With just a few days in HCMC we were straight out to book ourselves on some tours, there were 2 that caught our eye.  A full day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai Temple and a full day city tour.  That was our two days in HCMC sorted.

My initial impressions of HCMC were that it was stuck in the 70's, the streets looked exactly like in the Vietnam war films with the women wearing either their long traditional silk dresses over trousers or their pyjamas with the obligatory cone hat.  I genuinely didn’t think people still wore the cone hats for real, but in HCMC you were nobody unless you had a cone hat!

First up the Tunnels and Temple tour.  We started the 110km journey out to the city of Tay Ninh.  Enroute we stopped at a Handicapped Handicraft centre, which is a centre which was founded in 1976 in order to employ the Vietnamese people who were living with disabilities as a result of the Vietnam war.  People suffering from both war related injuries and also the long term effects of the chemicals which were used such as Agent Orange which caused illness and birth defects, are employed to paint, carve and create stunning laquer pictures using egg shells.  It was somewhat haunting to see the rows of tricycles specially adapted for the disabled lined up outside the workshop.

After a couple more hours we arrived at Tay Ninh  where the Cao Dai religion was founded in 1926.   Cao Dai draws upon ethical precepts from Confucianism, occult practices from Taoism, theories of karma and rebirth from Buddhism, and a hierarchical organization from Roman Catholicism.  The temple in Tay Ninh is just magnificent, it is huge and peaceful and beautifully decorated.  There are 4 prayer sessions everyday, 6am, noon, 6pm and midnight and unfortunately the noon prayer session is just overrun with tourists. Thankfully it is very well organised so tourists are sent up onto a balcony overlooking the ceremony so they can’t cause too much disturbance.  It was beautiful to see the ceremony, the people are dressed in either white, red, yellow or blue and chant and pray whilst strange psychedelic harp music resonates around the building.  If you can find a spot away from having a tourist with their BBC reporter lenses perched over your shoulder it is a very relaxing and intriguing ceremony to experience.

After a quick stop for lunch it was onwards to the main attraction the Cu Chi Tunnels.

So here comes a mini history lesion about the Vietnam War – come on would you expect anything less from me??!!  So the Vietnam War is most commonly known for the American Army using all sorts of terrible chemical weapons against the Vietnamese, at least that was my ignorant knowledge of the war – yet again another gaping hole in my education!  In fact the War in Vietnam was an internal war of the North (Communist Regime – Viet Cong) against the South (Anti-Communist) and many other countries joined forces to assist.  The US Army were working with the South of Vietnam, other countries such as Korea were also part of the internal fight working with the North and South respectively.  Whilst technically the dividing line within the country was north of the city of Hue in the De-militarisation Zone (DMZ) there were people from the North in the South of the country and here they formed their own battle zone in the Cu Chi Tunnels.  The Cu Chi tunnels were the site of many military campaigns during the war and ultimately helped to achieve military success.  The tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters.

The tunnels were approximately half a meter high by half a meter wide so to move around in the tunnels the fighters would pretty much have to commando crawl.  Food, air and water were scarce and the tunnels were also the home to poisonous ants, centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin making sickness rife.  The Viet Cong would often have to spend days at a time in the tunnels.

When we arrived at the tunnels we were shown a video to demonstrate the way that the tunnels were used and to show that even young girls were fighting against the Americans.  According to the video there was a much revered title sought by the Viet Cong and one young 12 year old girl achieved this title 'American Killer Hero’.  The video made in the late seventies also went on to describe the terror the people experienced with bombs being dropped ‘on schools, hospitals, pots and pans and road side chickens’.  It was to say the least, an interesting take on the war.

The Cu Chi tunnels were 121 kilometers long and were filled with secret escape hatches and booby traps. The site now has a number of booby traps set up for demonstration purposes and you really would not want to encounter any of them!  One of the secret escape hatches is called a fox hole, which is the smaller of the secret access routes was demonstrated to us and then we had the chance to try it out.  It was utterly terrifying, I had to hold my arms over my head to get my shoulders in and my hips touched the sides. I could not wait to get out of it!

There is now a section of the tunnels that has been made larger especially for tourists so that we can walk through the tunnels to experience what it would have been like.  These tunnels are 1 meter high and 1 meter wide, basically twice the size that they would have been during the war.  This section of tunnel is 100 meters long with exit points every 10 meters.  Tim and his nimble knees got into the tunnel and after about one meter of realising that crawling was really the only way through the tunnels he had to reverse out.  Despite the fact that my knees were perfectly capable of crawling through the claustrophobia and general fear was too much and I got out at the first exit after 10 meters.  Somehow I don’t think I would cut it as a Viet Cong fighter.

We were hot, sweaty, dirty and covered in mosquito bites, it was definitely time to head back to the city.

As we got closer to the bustling city with over 7 million people we got to see another of the cities free attractions.  The streets full of mopeds.  It is estimated that the city has over 2 million mopeds and I think that most of them we in front of our bus into the city, most with at least 3 or more passengers and many moving their worldly belongings on the back.  Whoever said that a moped is not appropriate for a family of 4 to use for their weekly shop was clearly wrong! Amazing.

So the next day things went a bit pear shaped.  Having had a largely sleepless night spent running back and forth to the bathroom with crippling stomach cramps, I had to concede that Delhi Belly had finally got the better of me.  Down but not defeated I got up, dressed, showered, watched Tim eat his breakfast and even made it over the road to the travel agent to get on the bus for the city tour.  Sat in the hot street with my stomach growling and saliva filling my mouth at a rate of knots, I had to admit defeat and retreat to my bed, leaving poor Tim to explore the highlights of Ho Chi Minh City alone.  In all fairness I would have been very happy to switch places as I basically slept through the day and did about 30 miles walking back and forth to the bathroom!

So Tim’s day consisted of a trip to the War Crime Museum, the part of the tour I was most looking forward to.  Tim loved the fact that this was filled with tanks and planes and other boys toys, but had to skip most of the terrifying and awful photos documenting the true terror of the war.

Next was the Thien Hau Temple which is a Chinese temple.  The temple is not specifically Taoist or Buddhist but is for the worship of the deity ‘The Lady of the Sea’ who is worshiped by sea faring Chinese communities.  The temple is funded by the sale of incense coils which are hung from the ceilings and burn for 12 hours making for a beautiful sight and smell.

The last visit of the morning was to Binh Tay Wholesale market in China town, this is a major business hub for the Chinese and Vietnamese workers and also for the Vietnamese farmers who sell their produce at the market.  The market was just as bustling as you might expect with people buying, selling and deliveries being made all around.

Once the morning tour was over Tim was delivered back to the town and sent me a message to say he was coming to check on me and would be home in 10 minutes if I needed anything.  Thankfully I wasn’t in desperate need of anything as an hour later he stumbled into the room looking stressed and harassed having been lost in the side streets of HCMC for the last 50 minutes.  I think this shows who has the sense of direction between the two of us!

Tim was soon back on the road for the afternoon tour whilst I was still bedridden and sleeping the day away.  The first stop was the Reunification Palace, this was the home and workplace of the President of the South of Vietnam during the Vietnam War and was where the iconic picture of a Northern Vietnamese Army Tank smashing through the gates was taken to mark the fall of Saigon on the 30 April 1975.

Since 1975 the Reunification Palace has been used for government meetings, special receptions, events and banquets for the heads of states.  The Palace is still set up in all its former glory from when the president would have lived there; it has everything he needed to run the country from a radio control room, a helipad complete with helicopter, a nuclear bunker and a nightclub.  Yes you heard correctly he had a dance floor with a full bar on the top floor next to his helipad, pimp!  The palace had the feel of a 60’s hotel and Tim felt like he needed a Hawaiian shirt and a Delboy style cocktail with an umbrella to fit in.  If this was a hotel we would totally be booking in.

The last stops of the day were Saigon Notre Dame Basilica and the central Post office, both renowned for their design which reflects the period of French Colonialism in Vietnam during the 1800’s.

The Saigon Notre Dame Basilica built between 1877 and 1880 stands at 58 meters tall and was made entirely from building materials imported from France.  The walls in the foyer of the cathedral are adorned with tiles which say ‘merci’ and represent donations to maintain the cathedral.

The final stop was the Central Post Office, still a working post office and a rather grand building designed by the one and only Gustav Eiffel, the French engineer most renowned for the Eiffel Tower.  Not a bad place to come and queue for your stamps I wouldn’t say!

So our last night in HCMC and I slept through it, I think I might have out slept most common housecats with at least 36 hours of on off sleep clocked up over the course of 48 hours.  At about 11pm that night through my sleepy haze I heard Tim trying to wake me.  Turns out he had cut his foot open on the bathroom floor and couldn’t cope with looking at it himself.  In my broken dazed state I cleaned him up stuck a plaster on it and returned to my sick bed.

Thankfully with the help of rehydration sachets, Gatorade and Imodium the next day I was up and about and ready to take the 6 and a half hour bus to Mui Ne.  We had booked this bus a few days earlier and had expected a normal bus, as it was we had a sleeper bus which basically means rows of flat seats with a box that your feet go in.  We were unlucky and got the back seat so 5 of us were squeezed in together which was a bit cozy, but I just slept through the whole journey avoiding any food or water until I was in sprinting distance of a toilet.  As it was despite the fact that Vietnamese bus drivers use their horn non-stop, overtake anything and everything regardless of what is coming at them and generally drive like loonatics we made it in one piece and amazingly we got dropped off outside our guesthouse.

Hello Mui Ne….
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