Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Lost in Saigon

On our last full day in Vietnam, we got lost.

We were up early for a less than satisfying breakfast before we got on board our mini bus tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi is about 70km from the city (2 hours in the traffic) and there are a number of ways you can get there, ranging from public buses to private cars to speed boats. We went with the mid price option of a 12 seater with a guide. The brochure said our guide would be English speaking but this was a bit of an exaggeration. The words Mr Vanz was speaking were definitely in English but with very few consonants and no pauses between them so we couldn't understand a word he said. This was a shame because he talked all the way to Cu Chi so I'm sure what he was saying would have been interesting.

On the way we made a pitstop on the side of the road to check out a road side market stall. It took a few minutes to register that they were selling live river rats, snakes and lop eared rabbits. The lack of refrigerated storage means its more sensible to sell the meat 'fresh'.

Care for a live snake for lunch?

Or maybe a rat?
The Cu Chi Tunnels were built during the Vietnamese war to help the villagers and local guerrilla fighters hide from the US soldiers. They're a network of over 250km of very narrow, underground tubes connected like spider webs to bigger, communal areas providing space for cooking and arms storage. Amidst the maze were decoy tunnels and booby traps designed to outwit the enemy. The tunnels are just another example of the resilience of the Vietnamese people and the way that they just 'get on' with life, despite whatever hardships are facing them. Because they could no longer live above the ground, they went below. They even managed sneak out of the tunnels at night to harvest their crops.

Cu Chi has become a famous tourist attraction so there are thousands of people crowding through the area every day. There are 'workshops' making rubber sandals and rice paper and a shooting range where you can fire off an M16. The area is dotted with mannequins of Viet Cong soldiers and you can buy faux soldier uniforms and aeroplanes made out of beer cans. Because of all this commercialism the site has a bit of a theme park feel to it and so its hard to appreciate that this was actually a war zone, a grave yard, a place where terrible atrocities occurred and many people lost their lives.
At one stage you can climb down into one of the original tunnels and walk/crawl for about 20 metres to the exit. This, at least, gives you an idea of the conditions the Cu Chi people lived in. I bonked my head at least 10 times in the 20 metres and in the middle where it was really dark there was a rising sense of panic until you could see the exit shaft. If you're in HCMC then the tunnels are an historical site worth seeing but you wouldn't come back for a second visit.

On the way back we made another stop at a friend of Mr Vanz so we could buy some Pho (soup) for lunch. At 25000 Dong this was a real bargain, especially if you overlooked the cleanliness or lack thereof , the chickens walking through the restaurant and the squat toilet, sans paper. Cynically, I wonder if some of these tour stops are rigged to be especially colloquial for the tourists (like the faux market shopping we did for our cooking tour in Hoi An) but if it leaves you feeling that you've had a unique Vietnamese experience then I guess it's served its purpose and the family who own the shop have made a few dong.

We got the bus to drop us off at the War Remnants Museum. This is a seriously daunting place. There is nothing done to hide the horror of the Vietnam War here. The pictures and descriptions of the atrocities suffered by the Vietnamese people are explicit, from the French prisons, to the US bombings and torture of Viet Cong sympathisers and the effects of Agent Orange. It's completely overwhelming. We've had a few people tell us that the museum is anti American. I'm not sure it can be anything else. There was no act of aggression fromVietnam that started the war and the devastation caused by the US and their allies is still having an effect here. Any other explanation would be a very inconvenient truth. I felt a great deal of shame and anger that 'my' people could have been involved in such horror and it gave us cause to reflect on the meaning of the word terrorism.

When the galleries got too much for us we retreated to the coffee shop outside and that's when the evening deluge began. We thought we'd be able to wait it out but the museum closed at 5 so we sent Sophie out into the street to purchase us some ponchos (which took about 30 secs because a poncho seller magically appeared as she approached the street) and set off in the pouring rain to walk home via the markets. Somewhere between dodging the motorcycles on the footpath, the thundering rain and the holes in the pavement, we took a wrong turn and got lost. I'm really not sure how we didn't die because crossing roads in Ho Chi Minh is dangerous enough at the best of times, let alone in pelting rain, after dark. In true Amazing Race style, Sophie kept finding friendly locals to ask directions. Unfortunately many of these were conflicting, but eventually we found ourselves outside the Ben Tanh markets - that were just closing for the day!

Luckily the street food market was still open so we all chose something to share for our last dinner in Vietnam. It shows how far our taste buds have grown that even Taine chose local food and we ended up with a smorgasboard of dumplings, rice pancakes, spring rolls and chilli sauce.

The price of beer in Vietnam
The last few kilometres back to the hotel would have been smooth sailing if we hadn't had to travel through the riverside neighborhood. Maybe the rain and the 12 kilometres previously walked made us a bit complacent but we didn't really notice the changing 'vibe' until two guys on a motorbike mounted the sidewalk and tried to grab Sophie's purse. It was lucky that it was her vice like grip and fast reflexes, not mine, otherwise we would have ended the evening on a very sour note. As it was we were just cross she hadn't had the presence of mind to karate kick him off the bike.

Sophie says my blogs are ending without a conclusion each day. That's because I get too tired to finish them. I'm writing this one at the bar on the top floor of the hotel with the most magnificent view of this enormous city behind me.

That's it.

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