Vietnam - HoChiMinh City

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Our flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City was delayed by one hour, well it was Pacific Airlines (who are owned by Vietnam Airlines), so we considered ourselves lucky based on our previous experience.
Until now our time in Vietnam had been disappointing. The friendliness of the people and the quality of the food were two things that we had heard and read about before arriving and had looked forward to experiencing. Thus far neither had been as we expected.
Ho Chi Minh City was about to change our minds.
We caught a taxi straight to our hotel; it cost us exactly what we had expected and we were taken there directly. Our hotel (An An 1) had our booking and the room was exactly what we had expected. These may seem like small points but had become such a rarity in Vietnam that we wondered if we were asking too much!
After a stroll around the immediate area we booked a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels the following day with a company (Delta Adventures) that had been recommended on one of our favourite travel sites,
We ventured a bit further in the city and came across one of the large covered markets. The main roads around the market were crazy with thousands of motorbikes and cars jostling for position in the congested mess. Local authrites must have recognised this as an accident hotspot as there were traffic police dotted around to help people cross the mayhem (a bit like our lollipop ladies but in a more official uniform!).
Our half-day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels went via yet another handicapped crafts centre (as all Asian tours seem to do (PIC)) and our guide proceeded to waffle on (a bit too much) to try and make the 90-minute journey more entertaining. Perhaps the most entertaining thing was that the guide repeatedly said that he didn't want to talk about his own life, right before he launched into a monologue about his time as a soldier / American / 'famous' tour guide - we learnt more about him than we ever did about Cu Chi Tunnels or Vietnam.
After sitting through a 15-minute video on the origins of the tunnels and the people of Cu Chi we were given a briefing on the system of tunnels with different sections for fighting, accommodation, cooking, planning and escape hatches (PIC).  We saw how they were constructed and the layout of the vast network winding over 200km - reaching as far as Ho Chi Minh City.
The Tunnels are a clever and unique labyrinth of intricate ways, which acted as the base for the former leadership and party committee of Cu Chi enabling them to launch their offensive and tactical deployment contributing to the defeat of the US army invasion.
On our tour around the main site of the tunnel network we came across a number of hidden sniper holes. The opening was tiny and looked as if you would struggle to get a gun down there, let alone a grown man. No sooner did we question the logistics of the sniper hole, a local guide jumped down there and disappeared under the tiny lid (PIC).
Then came Andrews turn to try the tunnels. A section of tunnel is maintained to allow visitors to experience the way in which the Viet Cong moved through the passageways. Andrew decided to give it a go but Verdi thought about her knees and then thought better of it. The tunnel section allows visitors to escape after 30m, 50m or if you are feeling really brave you can go the full 100m to the infirmary section of the underground system. Andrew started the journey in the same stance the Viet Cong used, sat back on his haunches and walking in tiny footsteps with his butt just inches from the ground. After about 50 metres the pain set in and the walking became crawling and shuffling. The tunnels were so low and narrow that Andrews head and back kept hitting the walls and the heat was tremendous. Most of the tunnel was in pitch-blackness and Andrew had to feel his way through.
Most of the other visitors who attempted the tunnels escaped early but Andrew decided to carry through till the end. He emerged covered in sweat and dust (PIC) and with his legs wobbling like jelly - legs that would hurt like hell for the next few days.
The tour continued to take us around the Cu Chi site, showing us the various traps that the Viet Cong utilised to kill the American invaders - some of them were pretty gruesome!
The final stop on the tour was the shooting range - basically this is a way for the authorities to make loads of money off their glut of ammunition. Visitors can buy bullets at 20,000 Dong (75p) each and then try out the guns at the range. There was a shotgun, high-powered rifle and an M-16 (Rambo-style) on offer but Andrew decided to go for the infamous AK-47. He bought 5 bullets and loaded up the Kalashnikov. It may be a completely stereotypical 'man-thing' but Andrew enjoyed it nonetheless (PICS & VID).
The following day we caught a cab to the Reunification (or Independence) Palace and took them up on the offer of a free tour guide. From the outside the palace looks more like a government building (PIC) and it is actually only really used for important meetings and conventions these days. On the inside it is a lot more opulent and has a really eclectic mixture of styles, from the Seventies/Art Deco styling of the Gambling Room to the stuffed animals and chandeliers of the Presidents Office (PICS).
The president's garden room had some slightly distasteful ornaments, namely animals heads and elephants feet (PICS) but we guess that this sort of thing is naively seen as a symbol of power and wealth.
Our next stop was the War Remnants Museum. A collection of graphic images from the Vietnam War are on display in what is a largely one-sided view of the war; propaganda of a very different angle to many of the Hollywood films that we have seen surrounding the war. Some of the images of torture, napalm victims, and Agent Orange (chemical weapon) sufferers were appalling and it was hard not to turn our heads away.
The museum also housed a section of prison and a number of war vehicles but these seemed to be there just to fill the space - unless you're particularly interested in that sort of stuff. The main message that the museum conveyed was the true horror of war and the effect it can have for generations after the fighting has ceased.
Just south of Ho Chi Minh City is a district known as the Mekong Delta. It is the point at which the mighty Mekong River reaches the sea. The delta is a huge area, which supports an incredible 20 million people - the same number of people as the whole of Australia! The Mekong Delta has a network of waterways and most of the inhabitants of the area either live or work, or do both on the river.
A 3-hour bus ride took us to the edge of the Mekong and we boarded our boat. We drifted through some of the waterside villages with their forest of television antennas (PICS) and gained a great insight into the lives of the Mekong people. The locals went about their daily lives as we passed by; trading goods, fishing, cooking, washing up and generally getting from A to B (PICS). It was very strange to see features we would normally associate with dry land translated onto the water, such as parking spots and petrol stations! (PICS)
We left the boat and took a walk around one of the villages. The village was obviously angled at tourists but it did still give us an idea of the different types of 'cottage industries' that the locals are involved in, such as making rice paper, coconut candy, puffed rice and other treats (PICS). We are able to try these local delicacies and Andrew even braved a shot of 'Snake wine' (PIC) - it tasted just like whisky with a strange aftertaste - Andrew wasn't sure what snake should taste like so couldn't tell if it was a good vintage or not!
Further down the river we disembarked again for lunch. We were surprised to find out that we had to jump on pedal bikes and cycle a kilometre or so to get to the small family-run restaurant where we were treated to the local elephant ear fish.
One final stop took us to a market on dry land - this was much the same as any other market we had been to in SE Asia so we stayed in the shade and bought some drinks before getting back on the bus for the 3 hour journey back to Ho Chi Minh.
Ho Chi Minh City had restored some of our initial ideas of what Vietnam would be like. The people were much more friendly and honest than in the rest of the country, a sentiment echoed by many other travellers we had encountered throughout Vietnam. We were relieved that we could leave Vietnam with an impression of the country that wasn't entirely one-sided in the negative.
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