Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

Hoi An and Hanoi

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

(Emily) We said goodbye to Estebel and the lovely hostel staff and travelled south from Hue to the small town of Hoi An by bus. Although our journey was only three hours, it was part of a service that ran all the way down from Hanoi to Saigon, so was set up for overnight travel; the bus comprised of two levels of narrow single reclining casket-like seats which encased your legs in little cubby holes and were split by two aisles along the length of the coach, meaning you either had a window ‘berth’ or one down the middle. All pretty comedy, although the thought of staying aboard for a longer duration when we went up to the capital in a few days wasn’t very appealing as James was too tall for it and his feet were jammed in the cubby hole! We drove through some spectacular scenery, cursing the fact that we weren’t on our bikes (who knows why foreign registered vehicles aren’t permitted – we’d assumed it was some anti-capitalist law to keep everyone ‘equal’ but it must be a pretty archaic and out of touch one as there was no shortage of flash cars and bikes in the big cities). It was a recurring theme the whole time we were in Vietnam that we wished we had our bikes – staring out of a bus window just doesn’t cut it!

We had high hopes for Hoi An – guidebooks and friends who’d been there had sung its praises – and we weren’t disappointed. We arrived after dark and were quite simply enchanted by the old town; achingly pretty with its coloured lanterns, colonial French buildings, hanging vines and peaceful waterway. We both agreed that it was, along with Positano on the Amalfi coast, one of the most romantic places we’d ever been. It was incredible to think that it had been spared the devastation that so many other Vietnamese towns and cities had suffered during the war. In addition to the high cuteness factor, Hoi An also offered up a great selection of cafes and restaurants that wouldn’t have looked out of place in France one hundred years ago and which came as a relief as, quite frankly, the food in Vietnam hadn’t really excited us so far. It also seemed to be the country’s tailoring capital. Every second shop boasted attractive displays of Asian style clothing in beautiful coloured silks and satins alongside the latest western fashions, offering express made-to-measure services. I hardly even dared to window shop – that could have spelled the beginning of the end – but I’ll say this: anyone out there who’s looking for a holiday destination that’s a break from the norm, likes their food and has some money to spare for a whole new wardrobe, you couldn’t go far wrong with Hoi An!

Even cloud and drizzle couldn’t dampen the town’s charm when we went for a stroll the following day; it was still warm enough for shorts and t-shirts and anyway, it gave us the excuse to hole up in a cafe for the afternoon and watch the world go by. Even less touched by modernity than Hue, it was not difficult to imagine times gone by as you saw women cycling by in traditional dress, or small wooden boats selling their catch along the promenade that ran beside the canal. Esteban and Isabel arrived in Hue the day after us (we’re pretty sure they brought the rain – they have a bad habit of doing that!) and it was great to spend some more time with them. We even had an afternoon speaking only French, instigated by Esteban who speaks it fluently, along with English and his native Spanish (James: What a git!). It was great fun and gave us even more respect for travellers who are constantly having to communicate in a second language (basically, if it’s a multi-cultural group, English is always the default option. We’re not proud of this; it may make life easier for us but ultimately, we end up feeling like one trick ponies!)

All too quickly, our time in Hoi An came  to an end. We could’ve easily stayed longer but the date of our flight back to Bangkok was fixed and it would be silly not visit the capital, Hanoi, while we were here. It was going to be a long bus ride- taking us the three hours back to Hue and then a further twelve hours north to Hanoi – but we were lucky that, although the bus was pretty full when we got on, we managed to get two seats next to each other (most berths were singular as described above, but along the back was a row of adjoining lounger-style seats, obviously not as popular as for most people, it inevitably meant cuddling up to a stranger!) For us, however, it was perfect as it allowed us to watch movies on the laptop together (I saw Good Morning Vietnam for the first time – I thought I should watch some of the well known Vietnam war movies while we were in the country but wanted a more gentle introduction!) and then share the iPod when it was time to sleep. We heard a bit of a horror story from one of the girls on the coach; she’d been on a public bus up in the north of the country and someone had cut her hair while she was asleep, literally cut her whole ponytail off. Scary stuff, I really understood how violated she must have felt. She’d really had enough of Vietnam, saying she was fed up with being scammed and mistreated. We were really surprised as, although the Vietnamese people we’d come into contact with had not, in general, been as warm as in Thailand, we certainly hadn’t experienced any problems or sensed anything particularly sinister (Darren narrowly avoided being pick-pocketed in Saigon, but you get that in any major city). It just goes to show that experiences can vary wildly.

We pulled up in Hanoi at 8 in the morning and stepping off the bus, the first thing that hit us was that it was f***ing cold!!! We hadn’t been expecting quite such a temperature change but although we were practically level with Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, the difference was staggering (don’t worry, I do realise that weather is influenced by more than lines of latitude…) After enjoying pretty much continual warmth and sunshine ever since leaving Italy, you can understand why this was a bit of a shock to the system! Combine this with a not so great hostel that straight away fleeced us with a poor exchange rate and it wasn’t long before the phrases ‘I miss Thailand’ and ‘I want the bikes back’ were being uttered with increasing regularity. It’s fair to say that Hanoi is a world away from ‘in your face’ Saigon. There are still bars, shops, flash cars and the other trappings of capitalism but the heavy overcoat of communism is still firmly round its shoulders. I guess it’s not surprising with such a long thin country, that one end should differ so vastly from the other, particularly given the history between the north and south. Hanoi is only a few hundred kilometres from the Chinese border and it shows- culturally it is very Chinese, and the whole city has a bit of a grey, ‘oppressed’ vibe going on (the weather obviously didn’t help). (James: It wasn’t hard to see why there was a bit of animosity in Saigon towards Hanoi, as the people in the north, culturally different – Hanoi is further away from Saigon than Vientiane, Bangkok or Phnom Penh – were perceived to have come south and dominated all the top jobs). People were generally dour and tight-lipped compared with the friendliness we’d encountered in the rest of the country, and certainly a far cry from the eternal smiles we’d become accustomed to in Thailand. 

It has to be said, we didn’t get up to a whole lot in Hanoi, it was just too cold! All the tour operators offered trips to Halong Bay, famed for its limestone islets, but the weather really didn’t lend itself to time on a boat and talking to a few people at the hostel who’d just been, we were satisfied we’d made the right decision.(James: our decision was made easier by the fact that the only other place in the world where these geographical features occurs is off the coast of southern Thailand – precisely where we’d been sailing just days before!) We did have to get hold of a new Thai visa for James (they’d mistakenly only given him single entry when we got our previous visas in Laos, whereas I had the double entry that we’d asked for) so we got that sorted at the Thai embassy. Aside from that, the main attraction we visited was the Temple of Literature. Founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong and dedicated to the teachings of Confucius, it became the country’s first university just six years later.  We generally spent our time going for long walks around the city then trying to warm up in cafes (James: the weather was so unusually cold for Hanoi that schools had been closed as no buildings, including cafes, have any heating! People were even making small fires on the floors of their cafes and shops!) and starting the mammoth task of getting the blog back up to date (it had fallen somewhat by the wayside whilst Darren had been with us…) We realise that our lukewarm appraisal of Vietnam isn’t entirely fair, more a result of missing the bikes and coming from Thailand which, in case you haven’t already noticed, we love. Perhaps if we’d had the bikes and the freedom to explore, we’d have got a lot more out of the country. It also didn’t help that we happened to have the roommates from hell at the hostel in Hanoi – lights on and off all through the night and then, one night, a not so covert sex marathon to contend with (we appreciate that noise is par for the course with dorm living but c’mon!…) Luckily for us, on our penultimate night an Irish guy who’d had enough of the weather and was heading south earlier than planned let us have his private room that he’d already paid for – thanks Donal!   

Our flight back to Bangkok was out of Saigon so we got an internal flight with Jetstar the day before our return to Thailand – it cost only a fraction more than the 36 hour train journey so was well worth it. The tropical warmth of Saigon was like a tonic – god knows how we’re going to get used to English winters again… (James: we’re not!), although our return was marred by the taxi driver from the airport trying to scam us by driving rings round the city to bump up the fare – he hadn’t banked on us having a road map in our bag and being able to work out what was happening! Good thing the girl running our guesthouse restored our faith; she was lovely and even shared her lunch with us when she realised we didn’t have enough dong left to get anything to eat on our last morning. A nice experience to leave Vietnam with but I’m not going to lie, we were chomping at the bit to get back ‘home’ to Thailand…

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Hue-hey!

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

(Emily) After a few days in Saigon, our next destination was the small city of Hue in central Vietnam, near the coast. First impressions suggested it would be a good antidote to the nonstop noise and craziness of Saigon – certainly the view from the from the back of the taxi as we rode the short distance from the airport was of endless paddy fields, many flooded by the recent rains, and the town itself revealed tree lined avenues and charming, somewhat ramshackle buildings. The Hue Backpackers hostel turned out to be a great choice – clean rooms, unbelievably friendly staff, queen sized dorm beds so we didn’t have to pay for two separate bunks and, surely a perk that every hostel should follow suit with, free beer between 5 and 6pm! Darren got himself a private room at a hotel across the street (the whole dorm thing wasn’t working for him!) but he soon became an honorary guest at the hostel as we all spent so much time there (he even ended up going out for dinner with the lovely Thao who worked at the front desk…) The hostel ran a daily pub quiz which, it’s fair to say, we pretty much dominated on the first evening (don’t know why I’m boasting, I think we can safely say the effect of my presence on our winning score was negligible).

As I think James has already mentioned, the decision had been made back in Saigon that Darren’s time was better spent enjoying Saigon and Hue on a relaxed itinerary rather than trying to fit in a full tour of the country in the short time remaining (Vietnam is so long and thin, a lot of the time would have been spent on planes and trains getting from one place to another, and transport wasn’t cheap either.) This meant that we had a good few days to fill as and how we liked, with plenty of time for eating, drinking and playing cards in between (three of our favourite pastimes!) Hue’s old town is centred round the royal citadel, now a UNESCO heritage site, and we made quite a few trips over there to walk or cycle around the narrow streets and old palace grounds. We found it to be wonderfully peaceful and pleasantly untouristy, seemingly untouched by the frenetic pace of modern life. Many women still wore the traditional mollusc hats and carried two baskets balanced by a bamboo pole over their shoulders to transport their wares. The maze of roads surrounding the citadel were too narrow for cars so people dawdled by on bicycles, only serving to enhance the sleepy, backwater town effect. However, at points, we were reminded of the strife and conflict that, in the not so distant past, must have rocked the core of this small, peaceful community when we came upon rusty old American tanks and artillery pieces, relics from the war, and more specifically, the Tet Offensive. In 1968, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) launched a surprise attack during the national Tet holiday, striking hundreds of US and South Vietnamese targets throughout the country. Hue itself came under heavy fire, the communists’ main target being a US command post in the citadel, and with 26 days of fighting it became one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam war. Militarily, the attack on Hue was a failure for the communists but not before at least 200 American soldiers and 6000 citizens in the city were killed (1800 of which were executed). In addition, of 140,000 residents in Hue, 116,000 were left homeless as a result of the fighting. Wandering around the citadel it was hard to imagine what some of the older members of the community had been through, or appreciate the strength it must have taken to move on and rebuild their lives afresh.  

Keen to gain further understanding about the war following our facinating (not to mention thought provoking and chilling) experiences at the War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon, we booked a day tour that would take us to the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone), an area which had been devised to mark a boundary between North and South Vietnam after the French Indochina war in 1954 and had continued to serve as a dividing line in the subsequent Vietnam War. On New Year’s Eve we woke bleary eyed and dragged ourselves downstairs for the 6am start. The guide finally arrived, fifteen minutes late, only to take us just a few metres down the road for our ‘complimentary’ breakfast (far inferior to the free one we’d have got at the hostel). When, at seven, we still hadn’t gone anywhere, we began to suspect that this was going to be a bit of a shoddy operation (and precisely the reason we don’t normally do organised tours); we weren’t wrong. Frankly, the whole day was a bit of a joke, not least because out of the 12 hours that we were out on the tour, 9 of them were spent on the coach! Not funny seeing as the furthest point we travelled to was less than 200km away; even less funny for the poor woman who had to spend the whole journey on a fold up chair in the aisle as they’d overbooked! It would have been ok if the scheduled stops made it all worthwhile but unfortunately, our ‘points of interest’ were really anything but. Mount ‘Rockpile’ from which the US army had a key strategic observation post was just that – a pile of rocks; the plaque that marked the start of the Ho Chi Minh trail (the logistical network that the NVA and VC used to transport materials through Laos and Cambodia to the south) somewhat lost some of its poignancy now that the ‘trail’ was a highway; and a monument at which we were afforded a generous five minutes lacked significance in the absence of context. The most interesting stop was at  Khe Sanh fire base which, having been surrounded by almost 20,000 enemy soldiers during the Tet offensive, was held under siege for 77 days of fierce fighting. The remaining buildings now house many vivid photographs along with a selection of helicopters, tanks and unexploded ordnance. It was, however, unlike the museum in Saigon, heavily biased and it was obvious to everyone that we were being fed a skewed version of events. Finally, mid afternoon saw us deposited at the Vinh Moc tunnels, which we were hoping would be the highlight of the day. Whereas the Cu Chi tunnels had been used for armed combat, these tunnels, on the northern side of the DMZ, were created and used by civilians in order to escape from the bombing and fighting above ground. Whole villages lived down in the warren of tunnels for two and a half years, the underground labyrinth incorporating school rooms, medical wards (17 babies were born down there!) and communal kitchens. It was sobering to walk through the tunnels and imagine the extent of desperation that would have led people to live like that but unfortunately, the way we were rushed through left little time for consideration. (James: One unintended highlight for us though, was that when we emerged from the tunnels, we did so by the beach. Not special in itself, but this marked our first sighting of the sea, (the South China Sea to be precise) on the eastern edge of the Eur-Asian land mass. Having started on the western edge, it’s fair to say, we felt a small sense of achievement!)

With our bizarre day over we returned to the hostel ready to party; that evening was New Years Eve! I think it was my first one abroad (not for James of course, nomad that he is). The hostel put on a party and we had a great night chatting to fellow guests and enjoying ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ passion fruit cocktails before celebrating the start of 2011 out in the still balmy street. The next day was, unsurprisingly, a write-off – the most we could manage was a bit of cycling around the citadel in the afternoon – but the following day we became bikers again… sort of! We hired mopeds and went for a little jaunt. We originally intended to spend a few hours at the beach but just as we got there, a tropical shower put paid to those plans (at least the angry black clouds and fierce waves provided some dramatic shots). Making a break for it in a dry spell, we headed back inland and had a great time zipping around the countryside in the blazing sunshine which had kindly made a reappearance . I’d never been on a moped before so was a bit nervous but I needn’t have worried, mopeds are brilliant, it really is just a case of twist and go! We had a fantastic roadside lunch, bizarrely ordered in French as no one spoke English but one girl had studied in Canada, which we cooked ourselves using a hot plate and stock pot, and we also visited an impressive mausoleum. It was a great day out and we were all singing the praises of our little mopeds by the end of it – why on earth don’t we all have one at home? (oh yeah, the weather…)

Inevitably, the day came for Darren’s departure back to the UK. It was an emotional goodbye and, after almost six weeks together, seemed somehow too abrupt. Also, having taken us eight months to get to this point in the trip, it was bizarre to think that Darren would simply get on a plane and be back home in no time at all. It felt strange to be back to just the two us again, but we still had the lovely Isabel and Esteban (the Spanish couple we’d met back in Agra and had crossed paths with several times since, and who are collectively known as Estebel) who had arrived in Hue the previous day. What’s more, it was Isabel’s birthday so rather than leave that afternoon on a bus to Hoi An as originally planned, we stuck around to celebrate. The hostel staff – did we mention how lovely they were – took it upon themselves to organise a surprise cake and they extended happy hour in Isabel’s honour (a bit wasted on us as none of us drank rum and coke but it certainly made us popular with our fellow hostellers!) Then it was our turn to be surprised when the hostel manager stood up to award certificates for ‘the first motorcycle honeymoon circumnavigation of the world’! Estebel had organised this on the sly! We stood up to receive our certificates (a tad embarrassed but essentially more than a little chuffed) and were further surprised to be given a complimentary jug of margarita cocktail (James: Mmm…. Great!..) and a free t-shirt each! Awesome! It was a great way to round off our time in Hue.

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Cu Chi tunnels

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

(James) On the morning of our tour, we rose early and were collected by a small minibus full of fellow tourists and a guide, each of us hoping fervently that an organised tour wouldn’t prove to be a mistake. As the visit to Cu Chi was an afternoon trip, it had been combined with a stop at the Cao Dai Holy See temple in the morning (setting further alarm bells ringing…) which actually turned out to be quite interesting. Less than 100 years old, the Cao Dai faith incorporates elements from the main religions as well as celebrating non-traditional, latter day saints such as Louis Pasteur, Martin Luther King, and Victor Hugo. Strange, but true! The temple was, it has to be said, pretty gaudy with its candy cane-esque pillars and vibrant murals, but why not – who says religion has to be austere and muted?! We’d arrived in time for the lunchtime prayer (one of four daily sessions) and the hoards of worshippers in different coloured robes (each to reflect the root of Cao Daism they are most influenced by; Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or Taoist) were quite a sight to behold. After a lunch stop, the bus headed off in the direction Cu Chi but on the way, we suddenly pulled off the road and into an area full of what looked like large garages. Our initial scepticism about being taken to some tourist trap to buy kitsch gifts was quickly shelved when we discovered that it was a series of government run workshops, set up to provide working opportunities for the victims of Agent Orange (almost all of whom were born during or after the Vietnam war). Even more surprising was what they were making for the tourist market. Far from being cheap tourist tat, the workers here were producing high-end handmade pieces and most were doing so with seriously deformed limbs as well as other severe physical and mental disabilities. We walked up a production row and watched in amazement as egg shells were burnt (for colouring) before being carved and cut by hand with laser precision (along with mother of pearl) to create complex mosaics, inlaid into hand carved wood and  then lacquered and polished ready for sale. The work was incredibly intricate and the finished product was simply exquisite. We would have loved to have bought something but the prices, unsurprisingly given the man hours involved, were seriously high (and we don’t really have the room either); they seemed to be getting a lot of business from fellow travellers though and quite right too.

We continued on our way and an hour later arrived at the main event. The Cu Chi tunnels are an elaborate tunnel network some 121km long. Built and used by the Viet Cong (VC), the tunnels served as hide-outs, bomb shelters, communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon stores and living quarters for guerrilla fighters. The Cu Chi tunnels were particularly renowned due to their proximity to Saigon, and were the base from which the Tet offensive was launched in 1968 (more on this from Em later). The tunnels were a major thorn in the side of the Americans and one that considerable effort was directed at to eradicate. Massive aerial bombing campaigns targeted Cu Chi turning the lush forest into a crater filled moonscape, but so extensive were the tunnels that they remained operational. The tunnels were incredibly narrow (designed so that westerners could not get into them), dark and dangerous. They were filled with ants, mosquitoes, rats, poisonous snakes, centipedes and spiders and life in the tunnels, with the added problems of stale air, was pretty grim. The Viet Cong would spend their days underground before surfacing at night through tiny, well hidden holes to forage for food, tend to their crops or fight. The Americans even trained specialist soldiers, called ‘tunnel rats’, for tunnel warfare, the idea being  that they would discover and flush out the enemy by going into the tunnels armed with just a pistol, knife, torch and a piece of string. The work was incredibly dangerous; added to all the general dangers in the tunnels, the Viet Cong would set booby traps along the way, and some tunnel rats simply became trapped in particularly narrow sections or dead ends where they were beyond the help of the soldiers just a few metres above. In the end this approach was deemed too dangerous and abandoned.

Today, a preserved section of the tunnels is open to tourists and it was these we had come to see. Our guide was excellent, giving us a real insight into the life of the VC and showing us some of the range of incredibly resourceful but utterly horrific man traps built using household items to target any American GI unfortunate enough to step onto one – they were designed not just to kill but to maim, causing maximum psychological terror amongst the victims’ comrades and generally lowering morale. Whilst talking to us, the guide mentioned that we were actually standing at an entrance to the tunnels; we looked around, perplexed, and eventually found  it (although I think he’d cleared some leaves away with his foot!) It was a minute hatch which, when lifted  away, revealed a tiny space. We each took turns trying to climb down into it; Em made it, I just did (although I almost popped a shoulder doing it) but the much beefier Darren only made it mid way up his thighs – he wouldn’t have made it as a tunnel rat (Em: luckily for him!). What was really shocking was that inside the space beneath the hatch (which allowed you to squat down but left no room for movement), the guide pointed down to a tiny arched gap in the base of the wall not much more than 30cm wide and maybe 20cm at its highest point. This, it turned out was the actual tunnel the VC would get down into (with their weapon). We were at a complete loss. We simply couldn’t for the life of us conceive how anyone could not only fit through it but even get into a position where they could get into it. The hatch a few of us had managed to squeeze through, the guide went on to say, had been specially widened to accommodate westerners – we had noticed that the Vietnamese were diminutive but this was ridiculous!

We continued through the trees and our guide showed us a termite mound that doubled as a ventilation shaft before pointing out an original and unmodified tunnel entry hatch;  this one was so small that it didn’t seem possible that anyone older than about seven years hold would be able to squeeze into – needless to say, nobody even bothered trying. There is one small section of the tunnels that has been widened and is open to the public and it was here we found ourselves next. The guide did warn us that anyone with health problems or any issues with small spaces should give it a miss, which a few in the group did. The rest of us, however, were game (Em: I was having serious doubts, mind you!) The tunnels may have been ‘widened’, but don’t be fooled into thinking they were in any way ‘wide’. Crawling on our hands and knees into the darkness, we edged along scraping our shoulders as we went. After a long twenty metres we reached a exit point where, having been told that the tunnel was about to get smaller, the majority of the group got out. This included Em (too claustrophobic) and Darren (could barely fit in the first section) and, whilst they climbed out and walked to the field hospital (not for treatment), a couple of us chose to continue the rest of the way. At this point the tunnel narrowed and went black, pitch black. We edged our way along, at first on our hands and knees and then lying down on our stomachs and elbows, calling out to reassure the more nervous ones in the group. After a while (it’s really hard to estimate distances when crawling in utter darkness) the tunnel narrowed significantly once more and started to drop away. I won’t lie, I was a tad disconcerted as I called out to let those behind me  know what was ahead (I’d somehow been nominated to go first!). Not only had the tunnel now narrowed, but the height had more than halved and suddenly the only way to continue down the slope was to lie completely flat and shuffle forward using my toes and grabbing the dirt with my fingers. It really was very hot and very, very claustrophobic. After what seemed an age, I arrived at the end of the tunnel and emerged at the field hospital to find Em and Darren waiting for me. I’d only been under ground for maybe 20 minutes and had covered just 70 metres in a widened tunnel so I couldn’t begin to imagine spending all day living in there, carrying a weapon whilst being bombed!

The last thing on our agenda was the gun range, something Darren in particular had been looking forward to, where there was a variety of weapons available for visitors to fire. Obviously there was an AK-47 (the most heavily produced gun in history and weapon of choice for left wing insurgents and guerrillas the world over) but there were also American weapons. Darren could barely contain himself so off he went to pay and soon came back with a pile of ammunition. He was going for it! First he had a go on the AK-47, then the M-16, before very generously insisting (and paying!) for me to fire the M-16 (I’d already fired an AK in Pakistan on a previous visit and I have to say, for what it’s worth, I preferred the M-16.) After this, we were just about ready to go, but clearly the temptation had been too much, for Darren reappeared, half bashful, half giddy schoolboy, wearing a ammo belt over his shoulder – he was going for it on the big M-60 – think Rambo!! Suffice to say it was very loud and could have chopped a forest in half! Em, in the end, decided against firing one, she’d been horrified enough at how loud a real gun was! (Em: and I couldn’t really stomach it after all we’d seen and read about).

With Darren’s ammo belt finished, our day at the tunnels and was over. We’d had an amazing experience, made all the better (and more sobering) by our visit to the exhibitions at the war remnants museum and the work-shops for the victims of Agent Orange, all of which had help put things into perspective and underlined, as if it were needed, what a truly pathetic waste of life, on both sides, the war was.

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Good morning, Vietnam!

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

(James) Em and I were up fairly early on Christmas morning but with Darren having only been in bed for a couple of hours and, quite frankly, being grumpy in the mornings at the best of times, we decided to let sleeping dogs lie and went out for a wander. Our flight to Vietnam wasn’t until the evening – as you may recall from an earlier post, politics mean that foreign registered vehicles are not allowed in Vietnam so we were going without bikes – which meant we had most of the day to kill. Over lunch, and with still no appearance from Darren, we decided that a Christmas day massage might be in order. It should be said that I’m not normally that interested in this sort of thing but in Thailand they do very good ones for neck and shoulders and with my old biking/sporting injuries, they really are quite therapeutic. We sat down next to each other at the usual place but then I was ushered upstairs, something that hadn’t happened before, and shown to a cubicle  where I was asked to change into a pair of pyjamas. This I did, somewhat nervously it has to be said, and few minutes later a guy came in and closed the curtains before asking me to lie on my front (this didn’t exactly do anything to alleviate my nerves – how lost in translation could things have got?!…) Without further ado, he started standing on the back of my calves with the balls of his feet (full body weight) and slowly walked along my legs, stopping every few centimetres to really press down on any pressure points. It’s difficult to describe how painful it was but suffice to say that within seconds, I was silently screaming, and desperately trying not to chicken out and give in. When we’d walked into the massage parlour just minutes earlier, we’d both enthusiastically ordered the full one hour service… something I was really starting to regret. It turns out I had good reason to. Over the next hour I was put through a seemingly endless series of tortuously painful  manoeuvres and contorted into agonising positions,  one of which found me inverted upside down above my masseur who, lying on his back, supported me in the air on his knees, forcing me to instinctively hold my breath (I wouldn’t have been able to get a new lungful had I exhaled) in a position the like of which I didn’t think my body was capable of attaining. In summary, at no point during that hour was I in anything less than total agony. But as I walked down stairs afterwards to find a semi-comatose Em sitting in a very comfy looking chair, it has to be said I felt absolutely great (although this may have been a form of euphoria simply because it was all over!)

By the time we got back to the hostel, the place was rammed with kids and playing in the middle of them, now totally revitalised, was Darren, the biggest kid of them all. It turned out that the hostel works in partnership with a children’s charity and each Christmas puts up a tour group of under privileged children from around the world; pretty cool. Picking our way through the piles of presents, we got our bags together (most of our kit was being left with the ever obliging hostel staff) and headed off to the airport. Before long, we were on our flight to Ho Chi Minh City, eating steamed fish and rice (Em: not the usual Christmas dinner then!) and just 90 minutes later touched down in Vietnam, country number 23. It has to be said we were really quite excited about the prospect of Vietnam (Em: the war movie quotes from James and Darren had been getting out of control…) and curious about what we might find there. I guess there’s always some sort of auto mindset that assumes that any communist country will be not only stern and oppressive, but that things will have ceased to develop or progress since the regime came to power, effectively putting the country into a kind of stasis where nothing has changed for decades. Interestingly, the first thing we found on our arrival was that although officially the city is called Ho Chi Minh, for the locals it’s most definitely still Saigon. It’s not surprising when you think about it – the name has a long legacy, both from when it was the capital of South Vietnam and as a key city of French Indochina before that. When the south finally fell to the communists at the end of the Vietnam war, it was renamed after Ho Chi Minh or ‘Uncle Ho’, the late communist leader who had died (of natural causes) over five years before the end of the war. It was a classic case of state endorsed propaganda, designed to leave those in the south under no illusion as to who was now in charge (after all they didn’t rename Hanoi, the north’s capital, which would surely have been the greatest tribute). Either way, to the locals it’s still Saigon, so for the purposes of the blog we’ll now refer to it as Saigon. Furthermore, what immediately hit us as we took a taxi from the airport into the city was just how modern everything was. There were bars, cafes, luxury shops (including the oh so very bourgeois Armani, Versace etc) and the occasional luxury western hotel. Even more surprising was that on the road, aside from the sea of scooters (more on this later) was the odd Mercedes, Range Rover and Porsche. If the revolution was meant to bring an end to excesses of the old capitalist regime then nobody had told the people of Saigon.

When thinking about Vietnam, it’s hard not to have your thoughts influenced by the iconic images associated with the Vietnam war, whether through documentaries or Hollywood, but surely the Vietnam of nearly 40 years later did not warrant such a stereotype. However, having checked in to our hotel, we went out to get our first feel for the city and what we found, rather bizarrely, was surprisingly familiar. Dominating the streets of this particularly touristy area were dozens of clubs and bars, outside of which sat hundreds of tourists, mostly men, many of whom weren’t talking with each other but had their seats facing outwards on to the street. Meanwhile, local girls in impossibly short skirts flitted about and stood around the pool tables smiling, winking and challenging young backpackers to a game, who, egos flattered by the attention, willingly obliged, bought rounds of drinks and did their best to flirt, seemingly unaware that they were dealing with professionals and that money as opposed to putting on their best moves was the only way the evening was going to progress as they hoped. It really was just like those movie images ingrained in our psyche, except the American GI’s had been replaced by an international, and slightly more colourful, army of tourists, and lot more neon. That night, we had a couple of Christmas beers and played some pool but the main entertainment on offer was people watching!

The following morning we were up bright and early as we needed to plan our time in Vietnam. It was now 26th December and Darren was flying back to Bangkok and then home on the 4th January so we wanted to make sure he got to see everything he wanted in the time available. A quick look at the map revealed that Vietnam was both incredibly narrow (generally around 100km wide and as little as 50km at points) and surprisingly long (almost 1700km). Our initial thoughts had been that we could rent or buy a small bike or scooter in Saigon and ride it to Hanoi but clearly this wasn’t going to happen. Certainly it was possible but given that we wanted to actually stop at places of interest and not just ride everyday from dawn to dusk, it really wasn’t very feasible. Darren listed Saigon, the Cu Chi tunnels and the citadel of Hue as his top three places of interest. Hanoi was listed as a possible but given that our choice was to take time to savour three places or risk rushing four or more, we decided to go with the former. With the decision made, and safe in the knowledge that we had three days in Saigon, we headed out into the city. Far from having drab communist, or even American, influences in the architecture and infrastructure  as one might have expected, Saigon still held on to its deeper colonial past and had a distinctly French feel to it; we walked along streets with French names, past French style houses, bakeries and street stalls selling baguettes. But it was the wide four, five and even six lane boulevards (very much a la Baron Haussmann darling) (Em: wtf?) that captivated us. Now, you’ll remember that I mentioned scooters a little earlier. We’d heard from other travellers that the scores of scooters in Saigon would come as something of a shock to us, but nothing could have possibly prepared us for the sheer number! They were everywhere! These wide roads were simply rammed with a sea of countless scooters weaving in every possible direction. It was, quite simply, astonishing!

This brought us on nicely to our next spectacle – crossing the road. We’d read about it in guide books but like so many things, it’s easier said than done. The first time, we stood on the pavement for a few minutes, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all (and secretly, I think, hoping for some miraculous break in the traffic). Now, as I said, it really is hard to get across the sheer number of scooters in Saigon to anyone who hasn’t been there, and the general advice for crossing the road is to ‘just walk out in to the melee and keep going, letting all the traffic buzz and swerve around you’ (picture a swarm of wasps!), which is exactly what we did! It was hilarious and I wish I’d taken some video of it, but with one hand kept free for emergencies and the other held in a vice like grip by Emily, it simply wasn’t an option! In Europe, crossing a road like this would see you quickly taken to hospital, but throughout our trip, and in fact ever since Albania, we’ve been in countries where this system of impossibly busy  and seemingly rule-less roads has been standard operating procedure. It’s a strange thing, but with the exception of India (where almost a quarter of a million people are killed on the roads annually!), we hardly ever see accidents. Everything just keeps going – don’t ask me how but it does. Anyway, we walked slowly and tried to keep to a predictable pace and direction but to be honest, no matter what we’d have done, we’d have still had scooters zipping and swerving all around us.

In the afternoon we visited the War Remnants Museum, something at the top of most Saigon must-see lists. We’d been expecting an appallingly biased propaganda piece about the Vietnam war but what we found was altogether more candid. Outside the museum was a collection of captured American military equipment – tanks, artillery, helicopters and attack fighters – giving us a real sense of the iconic imagery of the war, and all just as expected. But when we stepped inside things really changed. Unlike the slightly diluted photos and documentation we get in the western world (to protect the more sensitive visitors), this was totally unedited and graphic. There were two exhibitions being held within the museum – the first was a tribute to the international war photographers who died in the conflict. Their photos were incredibly explicit and utterly disturbing, capturing executions (not just by the Americans), battle shots and normally the last photos, both of and taken by, the featured journalist. It would be fair to say that despite the large number of visitors, the atmosphere in the large room containing the exhibit was hushed and sombre, but that was nothing compared to the shocked silence in the second exhibition. Based on a project undertaken by an English photographer, it is a record of the execution and consequences of Operation Ranch Hand, perhaps better known for its association with Agent Orange.

Running from 1962 to 1971, Operation Ranch Hand had several goals. Officially it was the US military’s attempt to deprive guerrilla fighters of food and cover by defoliating the forests by spraying them with a toxic chemical known colloquially as Agent Orange (a reference to the orange warning labels on the drums); it was reported to both Congress and soldiers on the ground that the crops being destroyed were used to feed the enemy. However they would later discover that this wasn’t true and that almost all of the destroyed crops were, in fact, used to feed the local civilian population. Destroying the civilian population’s ability to feed itself was actually all part of a ‘greater’ strategic plan – to induce what was known as ‘forced draft urbanisation’. Effectively the idea was that by wiping out the rural civilian population’s ability to feed itself, famine would break out. The now starving peasants would have little choice but to leave the countryside and head for the American controlled cities, which would in turn not only deprive the enemy of their food supply, but take away their valuable local support base. Of course, history shows that ultimately it made no difference to the outcome of the war but it did create famine in Vietnam, and it did force many to move to towns and cities where they formed large slums. The numbers are astounding: during the period that Operation Ranch Hand was active, the urban population grew from 2.8 million to 8 million; 80 million litres of the herbicide were sprayed over Vietnam, Eastern Laos and Cambodia destroying 10 million hectares of farmland in South Vietnam alone and spraying 20% of the country’s forests at least once a year for 9 years. An estimated 400,000 people were killed or maimed at the time as a result of the toxins in Agent Orange, but the effects ran far deeper than that as the chemicals used (which were 13 times higher than the legal US limit) seeped in to the soil and the water table. The effects are still being felt today, with the soil in some areas still up to 350 times higher than recommended safety levels, and this, combined with the polluted water table,  has resulted in a population whose genetics have been severely compromised. A reported 3 million Vietnamese people have been affected by Agent Orange, including some 500,000 babies being born with severe defects (as well as an unknown number of still born births), and this number is still growing to this day.

The local population weren’t the only ones to suffer; those American soldiers and airman who came into contact with the chemicals have also been found to have abnormally high levels of dioxins in their blood, despite assurances at the time from the top brass that it was completely harmless. Like the Vietnamese, US veterans, many of whom were exposed to concentrated doses, have since reported a wide range of illnesses including respiratory defects, cancers, and disorders of the skin and of the nervous system and, like with the Vietnamese, it’s the children and grand children of the veterans who are in turn affected. The exhibition was pretty ‘no holds barred’. We were spared none of the horrors, and not a sound came from any one of the visitors for the 90 minutes we spent viewing photos and reading the testimony of Vietnamese and American victims alike. Agent Orange has become infamous for the effects it had and its illegal use (it defied the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical and biological weapons). We left the museum visibly shocked by what we had seen and read, and felt an anger not only at the fact that it had been allowed to happen but the fact that those in charge, those at top who were ‘brave’ enough to authorise such a program, weren’t brave enough to stand up and be held to account whilst those at the bottom on both sides suffered without any real recognition or compensation. Rather appropriately,  the next day  we were booked on a tour to visit the Viet Cong tunnels in the Cu Chi district outside of Saigon where we would get to see first-hand some of what we had just read about.

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