A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam Day 16

That's All Folks!

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On the road again. We've caught the Open Bus to Mui Ne, a seaside resort five hours' drive north east of Ho Chi Minh City. In the UK there are signs warning tired drivers to take a rest. Is this the Vietnamese manifestation of this advice? An exhortation to lorry drivers and others to have a rest before driving on? Or are they simply very cheap hotels? We may never know (unless Google has the answer). Our driver needs no such rest. He is a man in a hurry and impatiently passes slower vehicles. This horrifies a French couple in the row opposite us. They can see the road ahead and the regular 'narrow squeaks' with oncoming vehicles as we pop out and in of the steady stream of traffic. The woman is particularly concerned: never did the cry "Mon Dieu" seem more heart-felt. They've obviously not travelled on a Vietnamese bus before. We have and as a result Monica and I have become Bhuddists. It's Karma.

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Now, I have a confession to make. If you've been following the blog, you may remember a few days back (Day 11), I complained about the over-development of the Vietnamese coastline. Specifically, I regretted the building of a plethora of 'huge anonomous beach resorts'. Well, this is going to shock you. We're booked into one such a resort in Mui Ne. I know: I'm a hypocrite. Worse, I've lost any integrity I had as an adventurous travel writer - no giggling at the back, please. The only logical step is to cease writing the blog forthwith. Nobody wants to read about Monica and me sipping piña coladas while lying on a beach.

Before I go, let me show you how low we have sunk. We're staying in a beach bungalow at the very tasteful Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa. The very name tells you everything you need to know. There is a gesture towards ethnicity: all the bungalows are thatched, and widely spaced apart in a park filled with an abundance of coconut trees and flowering shrubs; an idealised Vietnamese village. Our bungalow overlooks the sea. For the energetic, there are two pools - one an infinity pool of the kind I've only ever seen in TV adverts - or our children's holiday snaps. There are tennis and squash courts (no badminton) and a pétanque area - it is a French Boutique Resort, after all. This is Beckham-style luxury on a grand scale (see photos below). And the weather is tropical. Monica tries to comfort me. It's 'pamper time', she says. But it's no good. I just feel a sense of shame. I can't go on. Goodbye.

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Posted by mikemonica 08:10 Comments (3)

Vietnam Day 15

The Củ Chi Tunnels

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The tour minibus picks us up from our hotel at 09:00. It is already half-full with passengers collected from nearby hotels. We pick up a few more and depart for the Củ Chi Tunnels, a couple of hours drive away. Our guide introduces herself. Hello, she says. My name is Thoy which means beauty. But some foreigners cannot pronounce my name and the call me Toy. This means stinking. I do not want to be called 'stinking'. So you can call me Lulu. At once the scales drop from my eyes, and the mystery of 'Sally, Sammy, and Yummy' (see day 13) is solved. These girls also have beautiful Vietnamese names which we tourists mangle. Much better to operate under a pseudonym.

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What are the Củ Chi tunnels? They are part of a huge network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district, just outside Saigon, and were part of a much larger network of tunnels that lay under much of the country. Built originally to fight the French, the tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding places during fighting, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for up to 16,000 Viet Cong. The tunnel systems were vital to the Viet Cong in their war against the American forces. For the guerillas, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce. They spent the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle. The 75-mile-long complex of tunnels at Củ Chi has been preserved by the Vietnamese government, and turned into a war memorial park. Visitors are permitted to crawl around re-engineered parts of the tunnel system, widened to accommodate the bigger Western tourists - like me.

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We learn a lot of this when we arrive at the forest complex and are shown an old (1960s?) black and white propaganda film about Củ Chi. This describes the heroism of the local fighters, many of them young girls. It shows them living in the tunnels; building booby traps; making land mines and grenades from explosives recovered from American bombs; and working in the rice paddies, 'gun in one hand, plough in the other'. After the fim, Lulu takes us on a tour of the grounds above some of the tunnels. She shows a concealed entrance and asks if anyone would like to try going down. I persuade Monica that she's the right size. After, her everyone wants a go - not all are a suitable shape. A six- foot-two Dutch guy with a large beer belly attempts the narrow entance and narrowly risks blocking it forever.

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Next, we review a series of booby traps, initially just concealed holes in the ground with sharpened bamboo stakes at the bottom. "You know why bamboo?" Lulu asks. The question is rhetorical. Apparently, bamboo wounds get infected easily. If not treated within an hour, an amputation was likely. Getting soldiers back to Saigon could take up to two hours. The booby traps got more sophisticated as the war progressed. There were working models of most of them on display. Lulu particularly admired a lethal looking door trap. You open the door and a wooden contraption full of spikes swings into you. "No more generations," she said. "You now a ladyboy".

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There was a ruined American tank in the forest. The Viet Cong had disabled this in 1970 with a mine. The vehicle could only get this far into the forest because the forest no longer existed. The whole area was defoliated. All the trees we see now have been planted since 1975. The tank had been largely dismantled by the Viet Cong who had reused the parts in their war effort. To emphasise their ingenuity we were shown a mock up of an underground 'factory' where American materials, including shells were recycled. Lulu pressed a button and the animatronic soldiers sprang to life sawing a cannon shell, or beating pieces of metal into spikes. Just like Disneyland.

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Finally, we are allowed into a tunnel to exprience what it must have been like. Of course, the tunnels we use are bigger and wider - the Viet Cong were much smaller and thinner. The tunnel was one hundred metres long with exit points every twenty metres or so. That was enough for me. I had visions of getting stuck in one of the narrow bends.

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Posted by mikemonica 09:29 Comments (1)

Vietnam Day 14

Sightseeing in Ho Chi Minh City

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The temperature is in the mid-thirties again. The heat radiates off the pavemants and buildings. The sun beats down from a cloudless sky. This is just the sort of day for some sightseeing in Saigon, wandering through streets heavy with traffic. Lesser mortals attempt this in organised tours with air-conditioned buses. Not us. We walk. First up, we make our way to the City Hall at the top of the broad tree-lined Nguyen Hue Boulevard. Situated in front of the City Hall, there is a statue of Uncle Ho Chi Minh offering advice to a child. There is an outdoor exhibition of photographs on display nearby. These are entries in an international competition, though they are mostly of Vietnamese scenes. Monica casts a professional eye over them before we move on.

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Next up, is Cong Xa Pari, Paris Square, with a couple of noteworthy buildings: the General Post Office built by the French in the 1880s and by the look of it, pretty much unchanged ever since. It even has those old-fashioned telephone booths you can see in 1950's American movies. There are French murals everywhere, the vestiges of empire. But reassuringly, the most prominent mural has been replaced with a giant picture of Uncle Ho. Opposite the GPO is the twin-towered Notre Dame Cathedral, a nineteenth Century Gothic construction. In front of it, on a grassy square, is a statue of the Virgin Mary holding an orb. This is the vantage point from which most tourists take their photographs.

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The plan was to visit the old Presidential Palace (renamed Reunification Hall), and the War Remnants Museum, but it turns out they take long lunches here. Both close from 11.00 to 13.30. If we'd been on one of those air-conditioned tours, or I had read my guidebook, I'd have known that. We head instead to the Cho Ben Thanh covered market, where Monica is a model of restraint photographing but not buying ..... much. It is midday now and the heat is overwhelming. Monica is showing signs of incipient sunstroke so we rest in a nearby park. As we sit on a bench a street trader offers her a manicure. That's the thing about Vietnam. Everyone is an entrepreneur. You have scissors and a mirror: you're a barber. You have cooking utinsels and stove: you're a restauranteur. Got shoe polish and a brush: you're a shoeshine. Got a scooter or motorbike: you're a taxi. This is the country that the Americans wanted to rescue from Communism.

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We eat lunch in a garden restaurant called Quan Nuong, specialising in barbeques - I should have remembered this when I order. Monica goes for the pak choy and grilled aubergine. I select the roasted vegetables and five-spice chicken. The waitress turns up with the chicken, yellow with spices, and appears to want to mess about with it with her chop sticks. It looks fine to me. No, I say, that's ok. I'll take it as it is. The girl is horrified. It is raw. The chicken is cooked at the table on a hot plate heated by a concealed burner. Monica is in hysterics - not an unusual state.

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The Presidential Palace was completed in 1966. This new building replaced the old French palace, which was bombed in 1962 by a couple of renegade South Vietnamese pilots in an attempt to assassinate President Diem. The pilots then flew to the North to join the Communists. One of them is still alive: Nguyen Thanh Trung, a hero of the Liberation Army. He is Vice President of Vietnam Airlines. The palace is a South Vietnamese Versailles. It is a beautiful four-story building, all concrete and glass. We are conducted around the various rooms by an austere young woman who tells us the history of the place. This is where the South Vietnamese presidents lived and worked during the war with the Viet Cong. It is expensive and extravagent. There are meeting rooms like throne rooms, a cinema, a games room (for gambling), a dance hall, reception rooms (one each for the President and his wife), a helicopter pad on the roof - used for escape. And so on. Contrast all this luxury with the simple two-roomed hut Ho Chi Minh insisted on living in and you can see why the North Vietnammese won. It was the Bourbons all over again. In the basement, there is a bunker on two floors, a place to retreat to if another attempt was made to bomb the palace. There was a lift from the President's office direct to this bunker. Once bitten twice shy. In the President's office the original phones are still there - one a hot-line to his US counterpart. The line may be inoperable now. In the Gardens of the palace there is a replica of an iconic North Vietnamese tank. In 1975 this tank burst through the gates of the palace and signalled the end of the Vietnamese war.

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Our final stop is the War Remnants Museum. This is both a sad and horrific place which offers vivid testimony to the massive cruelty of the wars conducted by the French and (especially) the Americans. The courtyard is stacked with enemy planes, and tanks, and field guns, captured or abandoned in their retreat. Inside there are exhibits of weapons, pictures of the war and its aftermath, and of demonstrations against the war. The sheer scale of the American attempts to crush the Vietnamese is shown. General LeMay's famous quote is symptomatic of their approach. His response to North Vietnam was to demand that "they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age". The Americans dropped four times as many bombs on Vietnam than they did in WWII, killing over two million civilians. They engaged in chemical warfare, spraying twenty millon litres of Agent Orange on the country to defoliate the forests where the Viet Cong hid. Malformed children are still being born as a result of this poison. And for all this Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize, and as Tom Lehrer said, political satire became obsolete.

Posted by mikemonica 04:46 Comments (4)

Vietnam Day 13

Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh City - Nothing much happens again

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When we leave our hotel for the last time, our three witty receptionists are there to see us off: Sally, Yummy, and Sammy, chosen no doubt because of their alliterative names. I suggest that maybe these names were made up for tourists but they deny it. These girls have charmed us for the last two days: they have bags of personalty, In any other country they'd be on the stage. They wave as our taxi drives away. Do they do this for everybody? Even our taxi driver is moved by the occasion - so moved, in fact, he admits to being an Aston Villa supporter (pace, Ciaran). On our way to Danang airport he points out places of interest. Just outside the town, there is a huge walled compound with watch towers. I had seen this on the way to Hoi An in the Open Bus and assumed it was an abandoned prison but it turns out to be an old American base. These litter the country.

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It's thirty-five degrees with blue skies when we step off the plane in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. On the drive into town along a dual carriageway, it is apparent that this is a wealthy part of Vietnam. There is less evident poverty than in the north; less streetside commerce; more westernised shops promoting international brands; there are lots of skyscrapers - Hanoi had none, and there are large banks and hotels everywhere. The roads, the whole infrastructure, appears well maintained. This is a city that aspires to be another Hong Kong, or Bangkok. Our hotel is in the centre (District 1), not far from the river (that is not it below). This hotel, like the one in Hue is a narrow ten-storey building, only as wide as our room, which is in the front. This seems to be a feature of many of the buildings in Vietnam. One consequence of this is that the hotel dining room is small, only four tables for what I calculate to be, thirty rooms. Breakfast is going to be fun.

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Wait until you get to Saigon and see the traffic, said my Australian friend, you're in for a shock, mate. Well yes and no. We've been to Hanoi. Yes, there is more traffic in Saigon, and the roads are wider. But Hanoi was more chaotic. Here the traffic is disciplined (up to a point). There are far more traffic lights, and one-way streets. There are dual carriageways, which act like two one-way streets when crossing. There's a nice line in our guidebook. It says the difference between roads in the West and those in Vietnam is that here the individual abdicates responsibility for his personal safety and assumes an obligation on the part of everyone else. Just step out onto the road, however much traffic there is and assume they'll miss you. Monica takes this a stage further. She steps out with my body between her and the prevailing tide of scooters. Note: do not assume you are safe on the footpath. This is often used as a shortcut by motorcyclists. The pavements are designed to enable scooters and motor bikes to mount them. Remember, that is where they are parked. Pedestrians walk on the road.

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We walk along the Saigon river, which is wide and with little to commend it. There appears to be nothing of interest on the water apart from tugs pushing barges of gravel upstream, and a gigantic floating restaurant promising meals and entertainment combined with a trip down-river. Beyond the tourist warfs, men fish hopefully. The path turns away from the river and follows the course of the Ben Nghe channel. A tall foot bridge crosses this waterway, From this, a group of boys are jumping thirty-odd feet into the water, climbing out and repeating the process. Smaller boys are jumping from lower vantage points. The water doesn't look that clean. It must do wonders for their immune systems.

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We end the evening in the restaurant next door to our hotel. The entertainment is provided by a couple of Vietnamese musicians in some sort of traditional dress, or approximation of it. They play antique instruments that we have become familiar with. Likewise, the mournful tunes. Monica starts to hum along. Maybe we've been in Vietnam too long.

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Posted by mikemonica 08:47 Comments (4)

Vietnam Day 12

Hoi An - Monica and Mike take the Bike

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It is possible to hire bicycles at our hotel for 75p per day. I plot a route with the help of Sally, one of the chatty receptionists. This will take us down the river to Cua Dai beach, along the sea front, and then back through the countryside to Hoi An: a round trip of about firteen kilometres. Sally is worried that we'll get lost. Her dierctions and my hand-drawn map are rudimentary. She presses a hotel card into my hand, "you call us if you get lost'. My guide book says those with a good sense of direction will find their way, those who get lost will come to no harm. Comforted by this thought, we venture out into the light traffic, explorers into the unknown. The bikes are sturdy vehicles with no gears. There are no hills in this part of Vietnam. Monica rides her bike every day in Cardiff so this is meat and drink to her. I take a while to adjust to steering and pedalling simultaneously. I lead because, notionally, I know the way.

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It's windy at the beach and the breakers ideal for surfers, though there are few in evidence. Monica's hair gets the Billy Connolly treatment, ''windswept and interesting''. There are groves of coconut trees along the beach and I pose under one tree, risking life and limb, to prove we are somewhere exotic and not Skegness. I read somewhere that more people are killed by falling coconuts than shark attacks - about 150 a year, since you asked. Red flags warn against swimming. After a stroll along this dangerous beach, it's back on the bikes. We find the turn-off that will take us through paddy fields back to Hoi An. Maybe something was lost in translation but when Sally described the route I envisaged a deserted road with just Monica and I alone in a sea of green, with maybe the odd water buffalo for colour. Unfortunately, the locals know about this road too, so we have plenty of company, many with little regard which side of the road they should be on. We end up back in the narrow streets of old Hoi An and impress the footbound tourists with our dexterity on two wheels.

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We have a small pool at our hotel which nobody appears to use. Flushed with my cycling triumph, I decide to freshen up with a swim before lunch. The receptionists are not convinced that this is a good idea. The water is cold, they say and the sight of me in the silk bath robe only heightens their concern. But I have been in cold water before - a youth spent swimming in the Pentland Firth. I've bathed in a Finnish ice hole. Just how cold can a Vietnamese pool be? Monica declines to join me. I have the place to myself.

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After lunch we return to Yaly's for Monica's first fitting. While I wait, I fall into conversation with an Australian. He warns me about Saigon traffic; says the Cu Chi tunnels are a must - you get to shoot guns; regrets the trip to the Mekong Delta, only worthwhile ìf you take the overnight option, otherwise ít is just like a boat trip here. I make a note of that last statement. We'll take a boat when Monica has completed her fitting. You can't walk along the river front without being offered an hour on the river, 'very cheap'. Our boat, on which we are the only passangers, is very cheap: about three pounds. Monica says something about the Minimum Wage.

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Our boatman knows the route, down river on one wide part of the estuary, the return via a narrower tributary lined with jungle-like foliage. He pauses the boat regularly by scenes he deems worthy of photographing: fishermen casting a net, a collection of fishing boats, a duck farm, riverside houses and so on. He has done this many times before and is a good judge of what tourists might be interested in. No words are exchanged. On the way back up the 'jungle channel' I recall the scene from 'Apocalypse Now' where Captain Willard (a young Martin Sheen) sails up the river on his mission to kill Kurtz (a bloated Marlon Brando). It's just like that.

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We're back in time for the final fitting. The whole process has taken less than twenty-four hours. Monica poses with her new friend, the tired- looking Fairy. She's entitled to look tired. She's four months' pregnant, and works seven days a week from 10.00 am to 09.00 pm. Monica has also learned that she's twenty-five and this is her first child; that Fairy and her husband live with her mother; that her husband works in Danang and is content to live with his mother-in-law. Similarly, Fairy has learnt all about us. If we stay much longer we'll be god-parents to the child. Monica looks very glamourous in her new dress. Judge for yourself.

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Posted by mikemonica 02:55 Comments (0)

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