One Bird Flu Over The Cuckoos Nest

Trip Start Nov 08, 2003
Trip End Oct 22, 2004

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Saturday, February 28, 2004


5.30am, now there's a time we haven't seen in all its digital flesh for some time, but we had an 8am flight (in Business Class we'll have you know) back to Ho Chi Minh City for four more days of seeing what more it could offer us.

Once again a member of staff at the Thienh Thanh hotel had pulled out the stops with a breakfast of boiled egg baguettes and sweet Vietnamese coffee waiting for us at the table. We rewarded her with an over-the-top tip of 20,000 Dong (70p) and she rewarded us with a smiley cheerio as we sped of in a taxi.

At 7am we arrived at the airport and were whisked along a threadbare red carpet to the Business Class check-in desk, where we were presented with a VIP-lounge access-all-areas invite.

The lounge looked a lot like a dentist's waiting room but with free refreshments and not a well-thumbed 'Woman's Own' in sight. A can of lukewarm coke and vegetable crackers were just what we needed at the crack of dawn, and luckily that's just what we got.

With a quarter of an hour to spare we were led to our own little private transfer bus which whizzed us to the front of the plane in full view of battery-hen class, and after a steep ascent came my favourite bit where the stewardess draws the dividing curtain blocking out the view of luxury from the prying eyes of the moneyless masses (I think I've let all this go to my head).

An hour later and we had begun our descent into HCMC. Suddenly Soph had what I can only describe as 'tummy turbulence' as a rich aroma of boiled egg baguettes filled the compartment almost forcing the pilot into an emergency landing, the guilty culprit who had let 'Polly out of prison' slunk into the depths of her first-class seat avoiding the disgusted glares of our fellow fortunates.

After waiting half an hour for our van, we arrived back at the Continental Hotel. It felt as if we were returning 'home', and in view of our recent good custom, we were free-upgraded to a deluxe room overlooking the city's main square.

The sun was shining as usual in HCMC, so off we went to make the most the sun on our skin and the carbon monoxide in our lungs. The bookshop was our first stop for a couple of Antipodean guide books for research purposes, which got me thinking, what have Australians got against Podeans?

As per usual we wandered aimlessly and took in some sights, our favourite being the street-level Red Arrows display where scooters speed towards one another at right angles and somehow miss each other every time, a modern miracle no less.

The Vietnamese cloning experiments have no peers in the western world. All women are size 6, with long black hair and wear sprayed on trousers while the men are all jockey-sized with no facial hair whatsoever. How they tell each other apart, I do not know.

But, when you look closer at the situation you begin to wonder whether it is cloning or actually whether the local hospital is doubling up as an Institute for Robotics. The language gives it away. It has a very awkward sound to it, due to its single syllable words. Each sentence sounds very robotic with no fluidity. The best English example of this would be the little girl in 'Grange Hill' about twenty years ago who fancied Ro-land. Come on you must remember her?

"Ro-land, why-have-you-not-got-a-ny-friends?-I-will-be-your-friend-if-you-want-me-to."

Anyway, you get my jist. And that concludes the findings of Professor Von Twonk.

On our return to the smoke, the bird flu crisis had really kicked in, and gangs of undercover chickens roamed the dark alleys coughing and sneezing in the shadows trading sachets of Lemsip. You couldn't get a fried egg or a plate of chicken noodles for love nor money. This forced us to feed our habits in the seedy world of black-market poultry exchanges with the Triads in the downtown Chinese district of Cholon.

Er, well actually that's a slight fib, it just forced us to live on Pho, and on trawling the back passages one night, we came across 'Pho 24', an ultra-fast noodle soup restaurant. This was to become our favourite cheap local eatery for the rest of our stay.

Soph settled for the regular 20,000 Dong plate of beef noodle Pho with bean sprouts, chilli and coriander, whereas I had to go a stage or four further (trust me). The 29,000 Dong (£1) Pho Dac Biet was their 'special'. The menu listed the ingredients, and I quote:

Beef noodle soup with well-done flank, fat brisket, soft tendon and tripe. It was a long lost Asian relative of haggis, but not so offal.

If there's anything in this world that tastes better than it sounds (and that includes Spotted Dick) it was this. The flank slithered alive in the mouth, the fat brisket quivered on the tongue, the tendon sprang demented around the tonsil and the tripe congealed the taste buds into a frenzy.

Heaven. Isn't it time for you all to go to lunch now?

That evening the city was gearing itself up for the end of the Tet festival with a dancing dragon extravaganza. In front of the Municipal Theatre a stage was constructed for the show of which we had circle seats with the view from our balcony.


After a distinctly unhearty breakfast of noodles and rice we set off for the War Remnants museum, a must-see for all bloodthirsty warmongers and anti-US tourists like ourselves.

As we walked into the open-air museum we were confronted with captured warplanes, tanks and helicopters, but the main attraction were the photographs in all their Vietnamese propagandizing glory. And boy did we have a proper gander.

You needed a strong stomach to look at the snaps and exhibits on show, and after a night of soft tendon and tripe, my legendary iron guts were put to the test.

(Cue Gary going into serious mode . . .)

Pictures of GI's holding the heads of Viet Cong hung beside black and white photos of massacred villages, the most famous being My Lai where 504 innocent civilians were killed. Thank God they were black and white. Another snap showed uncooperating Vietnamese dropped from helicopters and dragged along behind armoured vehicles. Big sweetie jars held deformed babies joined at the head, the after effects of the widespread dropping of chemical herbicides from warplanes. One of eight million experimental US bombs sat on a table, a 'Flechette' filled with a thousand tiny darts.

In all, the war cost the Vietnamese three million people. The cost to the US was 58,000 casualties and a bill of US$352bn. And nowadays they get their Calvin Klein hipsters in a twist about weapons of mass destruction? Ooh, somebody get me off my high horse and quick.

This museum really left its mark on us, something the Tate or any other Damien Hirst exhibit could ever do.

(. . . exit serious mode).

Back in the real world we succumbed to the tourist trail and jumped in a couple of cyclos to take us to the CD/DVD shop, and, safe to say, Platoon or Rambo wasn't going to be on our list.

A shopping basket full of various discs later and we were back in the cyclos heading for the swish, swanky, swarthy Caravelle hotel to push out our 'how-the-other-half-lives' boat once more for lunch at the 'Saigon Saigon' bar on the top floor, giving views of HCMC for miles, as well as reassuringly expensive steak sandwiches and kofte (well, you can only eat so many noodles and bowls of soft tendon and tripe). On the way, our cyclo drivers tried to pull a fast one with an impromptu tour of town until I caught on as we sailed passed our turn-off. "I think you need to do a left here for the Caravelle." I informed them. Little did they know he was dealing with a homeboy returning to his roots.

Carrying on the local speciality shunning, we headed for Café Latin that evening for nachos, tacos, burritos and eight other dishes ending in 'o'. Then back at base we tested our latest DVDs on the laptop with a double bill of 'Finding Nemo' and 'Kill Bill', with Finding Nemo winning our Oscar for the evening.


Our insatiable appetite for war knew no bounds and needed filling once more. The Cu Chi tunnels were our fix today, an underground Viet Cong village with an intricate network 200km long. Work on them started in the late 40s and they were finally finished in the late 60s just in time to foil the Americans and South Vietnamese armies. After ground operations by the allied forces proved ineffective and claimed large amounts of casualties, the US resorted to massive firepower, eventually turning Cu Chi's 420 sq km into the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare. Obviously this claim to fame was surpassed by Coldharbour Lane, Brixton some 20 years later.

So off we went in a taxi, and one and a half hours later, some 75km north, we arrived at Ben Dinh, the tunnel site, for some bend-ing on hands and knees through black holes (did you see what I did there?).

After watching a one-sided video on how brave the locals were during the war, we tagged along with another group for some pot-holing, 'Nam style.

First off we were shown some lethally spiky booby traps of various boobiness, that were each designed to perforate specific bodily organs and then some tiny hidden trapdoors hidden with earth and branches of which our guide squeezed into easily. On re-emerging he offered the wide-hipped, wide-shouldered tourists a chance, with only an anorexic Kiwi taking up the challenge.

After being shown some more lethal Viet Cong practical jokes we all traipsed off, never straying from the beaten track for fear of our internal organs being turned into extra large shish kebabs.

Next stop was the firing range, where US$5 would buy you five bullets and a choice of about twelve weapons to fire them from. There would be only one person who'd give it a shot.

They don't call me 'I'll-give-anything-a-go-once-as-long-as-it-doesn't-involve-jumping-out-of-a-plane-from-ten-thousand-foot-Gazza' for nothing you know. Actually, they don't call me that, but they would if it wasn't so much of a mouthful.

There would be only one piece of murderous metal for me. Two letters and two numbers that strike fear into everyone except Arnie himself.

AK-47. Nuff said.

After four tries I managed to hoist it onto my shoulder. Preparing myself for a recoil that would certainly fling me back on my arse, I struck a fetching wide-legged stance complete with ear-muffs and aimed for a red dot about four miles away on a wooden zebra (well it looked wooden from where I was). My first three shots went village-threateningly astray, so for the fourth shot I decided to open my eyes to see if it'd be easier. It turned out to be an inspired move as the red dot broke into a sickeningly life-like splash of red paint.

'Hasta la vista, baby' I muttered under my breath before blowing some imaginary smoke from the barrel.

I had one bullet left and I wasn't going to waste this one. It had Eminem's name written all over it, but luckily for him they hadn't got his wooden cut-out yet so I had to settle for the tiger next door, which I let get away for humane reasons.

As I swaggered away from the scene it became apparent the ear-muffs weren't quite as padded as they looked. The crack of the gunfire must be the loudest known sound to man, apart from, it must be said, Alastairs' camp laugh.

"Did you enjoy that?" enquired Soph.

"Quarter to eleven." I informed her.

It was now tunnel time, and there were three levels to explore, each getting progressively a bit tighter, longer and darker as you went on.

About half the group ventured into level one including Soph . . . well almost. One foot into the black void was all it needed for her to go all claas . . . claws . . . clost . . . scared of small spaces. I bid her a tearful farewell and told her where I'd hidden the savings as I disappeared underground.

Level one wasn't too bad as it turned out and I managed to stay crouched on two feet for the thirty metres. Every five metres a red light would appear as I concentrated my efforts on following a New Zealanders' guiding arse that I had my nose butted up against.

As I emerged into daylight, Soph had a bottom-lip-quivering proud look on her face as she rushed over and started body-slamming me whilst shouting "YOU DA MAN." . . . a touching moment.

Level two, and I was on hands and knees with four other brave souls, with once again, a Kiwi rear-end being my guiding force. This level threw a few right and left turns at us and the odd climb up onto a ledge. Forty metres later we climbed out, knees and hands muddied, and dripping wet from the suffocating heat.

Level three beckoned. Soph clinged to me and pleaded:
"Don't do it, you have so much to live for."

But it was something I just had to do, it was a rite of passage . . . it was my destiny.

After a last fleeting glance at one another, I crossed myself, and went searching into a world of nothingness for that familiar Kiwi gluteus maximus (I'm fast running out of alternative nouns for bum).

The third level had it all, 50 metres of crawling in 100 degree heat, tackling left-handers, right-handers, jump-downs, crawl-ups, switchbacks, triple salchos and upside-down in-'n-out back-flips with pike.

Finally it was over and the 'level three' roll of honour read: one Londoner; one Aussie; one Kiwi; One German and . . . one Scouser, oh well, it was nearly a proud list.

Soph jumped in my arms, tearfully beating my chest:
"Don't you ever do that to me again, you stubborn hunk of a man you". (Or words to that effect).

We said farewell to our fellow Guerillas and jumped in our waiting taxi for the trip back to the smog.

That evening we watched a crackly 'Fatal Attraction' video in the room and then flicked back to the TV just in time for Lord Hutton's speech clearing our beloved Tony of any wrongdoings. Blair's reply was an hour later so we legged it out to Pho 24 for a dinner of cow's entrails in hot water, slurped down in double quick time to catch Tony telling Michael Howard 'I told you so'.


It was our final day in HCMC and Vietnam and we'd seen all we needed to see. We had a few thousand Dong in our pockets waiting to be frittered away on nonsensical extravagancies, something we like to do every now and then as we're just not cut out for this Dollar-a-day backpacking business.

The Caravelle Hotel's pool and gym sounded as good an idea as any, so off we shimmied, and after handing over US$40 we had full use of their facilities. Into the gym we waddled to see if we could remember how to run. After a few left-right-right-left-left's we got the hang of it and pounded out one full mile before calling it a day to retire to the sauna, jacuzzi, steam room and amoeba-shaped swimming pool.

In the locker room I was confronted by an American ex-pat who had seen my grey T-shirt with the word 'ARMY' splashed across the chest. He enquired if I was military personnel. It had been some time since I'd practiced an American accent, so I had to bite my lip on false tales of heroic antics in Baghdad and the saving of 48 lives in a roadside ambush. I had to own up. "It's a fake from Chiang Mai". His respectful look vanished from his face.

After an afternoon of pampering by the pool it was back across the road to our little piece of history, The Continental, to watch another Tet festival procession from our balcony, followed by our usual diet of bull's gizzards in warm diluted phlegm with a side order of spicy cartilage. Gordon Ramsey, take note.

Tomorrow we were heading back west again to Thailand for a spot of island-hopping. One week of serious toxifying before two weeks of even more serious detoxifying.

The Chick and the Hen-Pecked Husband
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