Trains, Tanks, Tears and Tiger Beer

Trip Start Oct 02, 2012
Trip End Mar 31, 2014

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Friday, December 14, 2012

We are awoken at 4am by the train guard banging on our cabin door. We have spent the night sleeping (sort of) on the night train to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), or Saigon as the Vietnamese still call it. Our hotel is about a mile and a half away from the station and our map is not what you would call comprehensive. As usual there are flocks of willing taxi/motorbike drivers waiting to try and rip us off. The first guy approaches us and quotes us 10 US Dollars for the 5 minute drive. Ian laughs at the absurd price and we move on. The motorbike taxi drivers want 150,000 dong (4.50), which is still about double price and there is no way we are getting on a bike with our packs on. We decide to walk out onto the street and flag a normal taxi down, failing that we would just have to walk it. A slightly more reputable looking metered-taxi driver stops us but he doesn't speak english and upon showing him our map he just points us in the right direction. We are probably not worth the fare! A walk it is then...

So twenty minutes after exiting the train we are walking through downtown Saigon a little after 4am. We are a bit nervous wandering about in the dark but the most terrifing thing we encounter is a freaky cat and a couple of scuttling cockroaches. A more pressing concern is that the hotel we are booked into has failed to send us confirmation of an early check in. They did send us a mail saying they had overbooked though, and that we would be staying at an alternate hotel for the first night. No address or hotel name was given. Worse case scenario is that we arrive at our hotel (called Hello) and there is nobody there to greet us. Which means we'll be sitting on the pavement until they open, and then they could say we can't check in until 13:00. We could be sitting outside for 8 hours or so. At least it's a warm night.

It takes us about 45 minutes to walk to the hotel. We trek along wide empty roads and see only a handful of people, some homeless, some shopkeepers, some doing their early morning exercises (usually consisting of swinging their arms aroung or doing a bit of fast walking). It feels like any other sleeping city. Using our now legendary navigational skills and razor sharp sense of direction, we make it to Hello without becoming lost(!) The front doors are locked and curtained. Oh dear. We ring the bell and wait. And wait. We ring the bell again. And wait. We look at each other, both believing no one is going to open the door. Then there is movement inside and before long we are explaining who we are to a sleepy looking girl. She ushers us in and calls the alternate hotel to see if the have a room for us. They do! We exchange relieved glances. We are quite exhausted and rather happy we won't have to wait 8 hours before check in. The hotel is just round the corner and an hour after stepping off the train we are tucked up in nice bed. Ahhhhh.

About 10am we are awoken by a phone call. It seems a room has become available in Hello and we can check in in 20 minutes, a man is on his way to carry our bags for us. The Vietnamese hotels we have stayed in have all proved to be super helpful and accomodating, Hello is no exception and we haven't even had to pay for the mini-stay in their alternative hotel. Vietnam is lovely.

Rested and refreshed we head outside. The wide quiet roads we walked down earlier this morning have turned into monsterous rivers of snarling traffic. Most of which are motorbikes. The drivers here are faster and less giving than that of our beloved Hanoians. Holding your breath and closing your eyes is a good way to cross the road. We are heading to the War Remnants Museum today. We have packed tissues as today is NOT going to be a barrel of laughs. The museum specialises in exhibiting proofs of American/Viet war crimes and their consequences.

Although all the exhibits are unashamedly one-sided and propaganderist, they are no less true and heartbreaking. The displays show how the American use of Agent Orange (a defolient/herbiside used to eradicate jungle where they thought the VC were hiding) has had a devastating effect on both the environment and the people. The dioxcin in Agent Orange has caused serious and appaling deformaties in Vietnamese babies for 3 generations. It is chemical warfare at its most abhorent. There are also machine guns, tanks, mines, helicopters, uniforms etc. All the normal tools of war. In addition to this there is an exhibition housing the works of war photographers from 11 countries. The pictures are harrowing and emotional. Most of the photographers died in the war and their pictures give a vivid account of the horrors of war. Outside the main building there is a reconstruction of part of a POW camp. It shows the tortures endured by the prisoners and the inhumane 'tiger cages' used. The tiger cages are small cages made of barbed wire used to house up to seven prisoners. Looking at them it is hard to comprehend how so many people can fit in such a small savage cage. After three hours in the museum we are both wrecks. The lumps in our throats are the size of basketballs and tears are only a heatbeat away. A tour of the museum is a tour of horror. The kind of horror that comes from seeing the reality of human suffering and the ravages of war. We can't take any more so we escape into the madness of Saigon and the unrelenting heat. We had other things planned for the remainer of the day but we decide against them. There is no joy to be had from visiting a pretty pagoda or grand palace today. The only thing to do is to head back to the hotel for a quiet Tiger Beer, some telly, and maybe a nap before braving Saigon again later, in search of some extremely tasty vietnamese food.
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