Last Stop: Saigon

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
Trip End May 10, 2005

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Monday, February 7, 2005

So, we were off on the open bus once again yesterday, travelling from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We left about an hour late, but this time, however, we also arrived at our destination over two hours late.

The countryside became much drier as we drove along the coast - lots of cacti, palm trees and rocky mountainsides. It reminds me of places we've been in Mexico or Central America. There's litter everywhere, mostly plastic bags. I'm sure plastic does have its uses in developing countries, but it also poses a number of problems. When I was in Ghana, I was told that cattle were ingesting plastic six-pack rings which get twisted in their stomachs and eventually kill them.

We saw goats and sheep (had only noticed cattle before) and vineyards. They produce a wine called Dalat here which isn't great but it beats the French Bordeaux swill they import from France - and it's half the cost. The French got the better of that deal. No French person would touch it, that's for sure.

The older homes are fashioned from wood; some were on stilts. The more modern ones were much the same style as in the city - made from bricks and stucco-finished - but only one storey with a couple of rooms added one behind the other on the back. The first room is the tallest, the last room the shortest as you could detect from the terraced appearance of the roof line.

The Vietnamese open tour buses go to great lengths to find accommodation for travellers going from place to place. When we arrived in Mui Ne, a popular beach destination, the drivers spent quite a bit of time searching for places for the people who were getting off to stay. Those of us who were remaining on the bus got off for lunch and when we got back on many of our seats had been assumed by new passengers. There was almost an altercation over it when a French-Vietnamese guy discovered his seat had been taken by an Australian. They sure know how to pack them in.

We keep running into a couple of young American guys in our travels who are continually complaining - about the quality/quantity of food, the transport, the accommodations, how dirty it is, etc. They're the type of travellers who give Americans a bad name; nothing is ever good enough. They should be on a tour staying at five star hotels. Martin noticed that they were carrying long cases and asked about what they were. Apparently they're fishing rods for when they get to New Zealand (!). Go figure.

Sitting behind us was a European fellow, a Vietnamese woman and their little boy who must have been about two. They were speaking to him in a combination of German, French, English and Vietnamese. It was very interesting.

The young woman in front of us from Switzerland had her left foot wrapped in a tensor bandage and was using crutches. She had an abrasion from being hit by a motorcycle. We've seen a number of tourists with leg casts and/or crutches. Considering the traffic, I'm not surprised! It would be difficult travelling here like that as it's hard enough getting across the street with two good legs! Being blind would be impossible.

Across the aisle was a tiny Vietnamese women with her two very large (not fat, just big) sons, about 10 and 5. (There are no fat people here, only fat tourists.) They were also very sick and had to be sick or pee several times during the trip. Unfortunately, there was no toilet on the bus and they couldn't always wait for stops . . . . It ended up seeming like a very long trip! (Mothers can be overprotective everywhere - I noticed she made the younger boy wear a jacket, hat and gloves - and it was 25C outside!)

It was mayhem when we arrived in Saigon. The traffic was incredible and even our bus had difficulty muscling its way into the traffic circles. They're gearing up for Tet here; people are out and about preparing for and anticipating the upcoming holiday.

The population of Saigon is about 8 million. Although teeming with people, it's not as daunting as Hanoi - our guidebook describes it as "organized chaos". It appears to be quite modern and cosmopolitan.

Today we hired cyclos to the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace. A cyclo consisted of the rear back of a bicycle (seat and back wheel) onto the front of which is attached a carriage seating on person. Though the museum and the palace were interesting, we didn't really learn much. Like many communist countries, they focus only on certain aspects and on promoting the communist party line. There was, however, an excellent tribute to the dozens of journalists (both Vietnamese and foreign) who had been killed during the war.

February 8 - Today we took a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels about 30 km northwest of Saigon. This area was a Viet Cong stronghold - the Americans knew they were there, but couldn't find them. Our tour guide's name was Tank (AKA Charlie) and he was delightful. His Enlgish was very good and he told a lot of jokes. He had been in the South Vietnamese Army during the war ("the wrong side") and made it very clear he did not like communism: "It look good on paper, but is broken". But, he says the poor people (farmers) like it because, although you only have $20-$30 USD income per month it's enough to live on and they are able to grow their own food. He tried to escape with the boat people who left beginning in 1978, but turned around when told the police were coming. Of the million boat people who left, about half drowned.

The Cu Chi Tunnels are quite intricate and include many bunkers, a kitchen, sleeping quarters and other larger areas. Many of the larger areas have been opened up so that the public can readily view them from above. Some of the tunnels are very narrow and you have to crawl through. To top it off, they're also very dark and humid. Martin went through all of them, but being the claustrophobic chicken that I am, I declined. They showed a video regarding the tunnels, but it wasn't very informative; rather, it was "rah, rah, good guys" (i.e., Viet Cong).

On our way back through Saigon, we noted that all the plants and trees that have been for sale were being cleared away and that all the shops are closing. Today is New Year's Eve and the celebrations will begin this evening. Tank tells us that Tet is often the only holiday that people here get. In the city they take vacation for three days, but in the country they may take up to two weeks.
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