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Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City

Southern Vietnam

semi-overcast 31 °C

Finally, sunshine!! As our bus pulled into Nha Trang at around 6.30am, the Vietnamese were already out in force getting in their morning workouts along the sea front, swimming, playing in the waves or stretching gently I'm benches.

It had been a rough twelve hours on the bus - after more plastic cheese crisp baguettes for dinner, despite begin relatively comfortable (all things considered), sleep had not come easily. But the sight of the long sweeping beach, crashing waves and blue sky made up for any tiredness we now felt.

After checking into a hostel and having a quick shower we were on the beach and getting sun-creamed up by 9am and the sun was already strong. The waves were fierce and several signs warned against going into the water but after so much cold and rain we were happy just to bake for a couple of hours.

Nha Trang as a town left me relatively uninspired. Whilst the beach was welcomed, the town itself seemed mostly geared to a Russian contingent and the beach was littered with fat balding guys in speedos and their skinny blond thong-bikini clad wives/girlfriends. We ate salads for lunch at a bar still with its Christmas decorations up (on Jan 12th!!) and a polystyrene snowman watching over the entrance.

In the afternoon we walked a long way along the beach in search of the the gallery of Long Thanh, a globally acclaimed Vietnamese photographer, that Sarah had read about in the guidebook. We were lucky enough to meet him in person and enjoyed looking at his work - hundreds of pictures of everyday life in Vietnam.

The only other sight in Nha Trang seemed to be a Buddha on a hill. We'd seen several Buddhas in the last few weeks but, as we were both a bit pink from the morning's sunbathing, we went in search of this one as opposed to lying on the beach again. We found it. It was big, white and Buddha like and was indeed on a small hill (although certainly not, as the guide book had claimed, visible from the town).

The evening began with red wine on the beach - what better way to celebrate a return to warm weather than seaside drinking? - before we went in search of a cheap, not too Russian oriented place to eat. Unfortunately this did not exist so we settled for not too expensive and just quite Russian and drank some Vietnamese red wine (not recommended but it gets better the more you have of it!).

The next morning, feeling a little worse for wear, we got back on the open bus for the last journey of our ticket - 10 hours (turned out to be twelve) in the daytime to Saigon. After a night on the sleeper bus followed by a hit day and a boozy night, I slept on and off for pretty much the entirety of the journey. Having read such terrible things about these busses, our experience honestly wasn't that bad. For fifty five USD we'd travelled over 1000miles (the equivalent to travelling from Mold, North Wales to Milan, Northern Italy). Anyone thinking of doing the same, we can recommend the Hanh Cafe ticket, or at least if you're also under 5'4".

Ho Chi Minh City was hot, busy and neon. Our hostel had over booked by several people (shame on you Ngoc Thao Guest House) so sent us to their 'sister hotel' on the other side of the park that was still being built. There was wood and mattresses lying around the reception area, a few rooms being used as dorms on the sixth floor (seemingly just to make money whilst they built their proper hotel) and the building work started loudly at 9am.

Hungry from our bus journey, we were (I was) a bit peed off by this and was struggling to be polite to the receptionist when he asked for our passports again despite us having already shown them at the first hostel. My temper running short I struggled to not shout rudely at the many hawkers and offers of taxis or moto rides as we headed out for food.

We ate next door to the place that had been recommended and that we were looking for - upon seeing the sign we got excited and sat down one door too early. We went for local cuisine - I ordered a shrimp and mushroom Vietnamese pancake and a big plate of green beans - before heading to a rooftop bar, ordering an appropriately named Miss Saigon cocktail and watching the traffic below (and a couple of old white guys with their younger Asian 'girlfriends'.

The next day it was our mission to see all of HCMC in a day... It didn't seem as though it would be too challenging as the book actually listed very few central sights. We began with some admin for our onward travels and then ate a brunch of Pho (beef noodle soup) and amazing iced coffees at a street vendor (we sat on kindergarten chairs). Next stop was the art museum. Unfortunately it was a very brief stop as we discovered upon arrival that it is closed on Mondays. After crossing several lanes of traffic at a particularly daunting looking roundabout we arrived at the market, much to the excitement of many of the store holders. I still was finding the incessant hassle a little unbearable; after the calm of northern Thailand and Laos, I suddenly felt like I was back in India and

It was pretty hot walking round - about 30 degrees - and walking anywhere in Vietnam is incredibly challenging. Whilst navigation is no problem, they have these things along the sides of roads that look like pavements... Do not be confused, they are in fact not pavements for walking on at all. They are motorbike car parks, spots for street food or just places to gather with your friends on kindergarten chairs and watch the traffic. They are certainly not for walking on.

We were at the War Remnants museum when it opened in the afternoon - according to LP it it the main 'attraction' in HCMC and 'appreciated by even the museum-adverse but not for the faint of heart'. They were certainly right about that. One area of the museum was dedicated to recreating the cells and 'tiger cages' - small barbed-wire cages that prisoners were kept in for punishment - and graphically detailing horrific torture measures used by the US against the Vietnamese complete with diagrams and pictures. The remainder of the museum was given over to photography. The were photographs of Vietnamese school children during the war, of various protests against the USA's activities in Vietnam from around the globe, of women and children being brutally shot at, of dead VietCong soldiers and, possibly worst of all, an exhibit of photographs of Vietnamese today, both young and old, who are still living with the debilitating after affects of agent orange and other chemicals used by the US during the war.

One guide I read described the museum as follows:
The museum is effectively a propaganda museum for the Vietnamese Communist regime, as it almost exclusively displays exhibits that are highly critical of the South Vietnamese and American war efforts during the Vietnam War, while neglecting to exhibit anything critical of the Viet Cong's war effort or atrocities.

Whilst that may be the case, I felt that, put perhaps very simply, as a museum located in Vietnam who did not start the war, were being fought on their own territory, undeniably had horrific atrocities committed against them and eventually won the war, they are completely justified in showing exhibits as one-sided as they liked. Or perhaps I've just been brainwashed by this one sided propaganda museum....?

Something else that caught my attention in the museum was one of the final exhibits, a collection of photographs taken by photographers of various nationalities. One photograph of a terrified looking group of women and children was captioned as follows: "Guy's were about to shoot these people" photographer Ron Haeberle remembers. "I yelled, 'Hold it,' and shot my picture. As I walked away, I heard M16s open up. From the corner of my eyes I saw bodies falling, but I didn't turn to look". I'd previously read a few articles discussing the ethical issues surrounding war reportage and photography but never before had I been confronted with such brutally graphic images in such a powerful and disturbing manner.

Exhausted, both physically and mentally from the museum we took in Saigon's answer to Notre Dame (also called Notre Dame), the reunification palace (that looked like a 1960s municipal building (and was essentially just that) and the post office (apparently a sight and also I needed to post a postcard) before heading back towards the hostel for a beer at Le Pub (Saigon branch).

We ate dinner at an amazing Indian restaurant called Babba's kitchen run by a Tamil guy living in HCMC. I asked for my curry to be 'quite spicy' and, unlike several places in India, my request was honoured and my food was extremely spicy, possibly the spiciest thing I've ever eaten. Further along the street was further evidence of HCMC's mini-Bangkok status - the obvious sex-tourists were out in force and groups of local girls sat outside bars names 'sexy girls bar' and 'crazy girls'. Needless to say we didn't drink at any of these places. The most popular places to sit, as usual, appeared to be kindergarten chairs on the street as bars had spilled out into the motorbike parks.

The next day we'd signed up for a trip to visit the Cu Chi tunnels used by the communist fighters in South Vietnam during the war. As we had no other plans for the day we'd signed up for a full day trip without paying too much attention to what it involved other than a visit to a temple as well as the tunnels. Boarding the bus however we were upset to discover that the temple was a three hour drive away, then it would be a 90minute drive bad to the tunnels before another 90mins back to Saigon. With a night bus journey ahead of us the situation was far from ideal but, as usual, we attempted to make the most of it.

Our driver JJ attempted to lessen the pain of the journey with a detailed rundown of the history of Vietnam over the last 1000 years including some personal stories and interesting facts along the way - we learned hat there are five million motorbikes just in the city of Saigon! He also made some vaguely uncomfortable jokes about the Vietnamese not hating the Americans any more because they bring money to the country... Just as in India, I had felt rather like a walking dollar sign since arriving in Vietnam and the south especially. I learned a lot listening to him talk about the reunification of Vietnam, the current political situation and the Vietnamese living abroad (whom he described as the banana generation because "their skin is yellow but like banana they are white on the inside just like you").

About half an hour into the journey, still in city traffic our bus was involved in a minor crash leading to the loss of one wing mirror. This caused us a half hour delay on the road and then another twenty minutes at a petrol station where someone tried to screw it back on. Our promised half way bathroom stop was also a long time coming and when finally, after already over three hours on the bus driving down extremely bumpy roads that were still very much under construction, we stopped at a place with one toilet cubicle (for a coach-full of passengers) and two angry German Shepherds, we asked JJ how long until we reached the temple he replied that he didn't actually know where we were as the driver had gone a different way.

Almost an hour later than scheduled, we arrived at the Cao Dai temple near the village of Trang Bang. I hadn't really understood what JJ had said about it but structurally it seemed to be a combination of a church, mosque and Hindu temple in one - there were two cathedral-style towers at one end, a mosque dome in the centre and a tiered temple at the far end. Inside we watched hundreds of people dressed in white praying for an hour and a half. We'd gathered that his was some sort of combined religion which seemed like a nice idea to me although later, when reading The Girl in the Picture, Sarah learned that Caodai is a cult founded under a civil servant of the French regime in the 20s, that depicts God as a giant eye and draws most heavily on the principals of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism (whilst praying to the giant eye).

After lunch, another drive and seven hours after we'd first boarded the bus that morning, we finally arrived at our intended destination, the Cu Chi tunnels. A pre-war getaway from the city, the countryside of Cu Chi we learned was also useful farming land that fell within the American occupation zone in southern Vietnam during the war. The network of tunnels built by the Vietcong under the ground, much of which was occupied by US army bases. A model of the tunnels and a documentary video showed an intricate network of tiny underground tunnels through with people would slither and larger westerners would be unlikely to fit. Apparently Australian armies trained what JJ called tunnel-rats, small soldiers to penetrate the tunnels and there were several lethal looking traps set up to prevent such an infiltration. In these areas, the soldiers would even sleep in these narrow manually dug tunnels underneath the jungle. I vaguely remember studying the Vietnam war at some point (perhaps in a French history class) and being told about how the Vietcong's guerrilla warfare defeated the professional and much better equipped American army mainly thanks to their tactics and familiarity with the landscape. The documentary also explained how the Vietcong was not just made up of men but also female soldiers and even some orphaned children - I supposed this difficulty in identifying Vietcong went someway to explaining (but by no means justifying) the US's killing of so many civilians.

After the documentary and talk from JJ, it was time to visit the tunnels themselves. First, near. A giant bomb crater, we stopped by a hidden tunnel entrance. Clearing back some leaves JJ revealed a lid that was little more than 30cm by 15. He lifted the lid, slid inside with his arms raised over his head and then, body hidden, covered the lid with leaves again and slowly lowered it, disappearing completely. He then gave each of us the chance to get in as well. After watching several people larger than me manage it successfully, I decided to attempt it too and got in fine but panicked a bit getting out again. The tunnel that led from the entrance was tiny and the thought of slithering along there on my stomach in the dark was not something I wanted to think about.

Next JJ showed us a selection of ingenious, simple traps made mostly from bamboo or metal hooks (made from bomb shells) before leading us past a the shooting range that was part of the site. The noise was almost unbearable but added a certain authenticity to the jungle experience. Then came the part I'd been the least looking forwards to, the opportunity for us to walk down some tunnels, ones that had been enlarged slightly for westerners. Aware that I get claustrophobic I opted to go in first behind the guide as the idea of being stuck behind people terrifies me. I followed his torchlight down the stairs but upon seeing the entrance decided that I actually didn't think I could do it and climbed back out again. I became a designated bag holder instead and watched as people emerged at various points looking hot and out of breath.

Fortunately later on was another larger tunnel and from the entrance I could see where the first exit point would be -JJ said it was a minute away if you went quite fast. I went first from the group with Sarah behind (but not too close) and whilst she called to me to slow down for a photograph, I ignored her, running as best I could in a crouching position to the end up and down a few drops here and there and was back in the daylight within thirty seconds feeling pleased that I'd done it, not in a rush to do it again and even more amazed by the efforts of the Vietcong.

Having read a little too much on military history (mostly European) over the years, it had been really interesting to learn more about the Vietnam war over the last couple of days and I was sure it was someone I'd chose to read more about in future.

Back in HCMC we showered and, all out of Dong, paid for our dinner in USD before collecting our bags for the night bus to Cambodia. From David's blog in which he gave much word count over to his bus experiences, he described the journey to Cambodia as being the word of all and, having headed out in that direction to the tunnels, I was starting to worry.

We received a lot of conflicting information about the bus - when we booked it we were told it left at 11.30pm, our ticket told us to arrive at 10pm. At ten pm we asked what time we had to be there and they didn't seem to know. So we got our bags and were led around the corner to anther travel agent where some young Vietnamese guys were watching atrocious karaoke on an iPad - David Guetta's Titanium is not a song for Asian karaoke. We were the only ones there. As a few more people trickled in, I found a leaflet advertising that the bus left at 23:45. Eventually, at 00:25 we were finally boarding the bus and bound for Cambodia.

We'd spent a total of eleven days in Vietnam in six different places and a total of fifty-five hours on various busses. Vietnam had grown on me a lot as we'd travelled further south. A girl I'd met in India had raved about how much she loved Vietnam and for some reason I'd neglected to probe further asking what she'd liked about it specifically. I'd enjoyed Vietnam and found it utterly fascinating - it was so very different to what we'd seen in South East Asia so far - the mentality of the people, its pace, its heavy Chinese influences, its food and its history. It had certainly been interesting and I'd learned a lot in Vietnam. I'd even come to enjoy the food by the end of the trip as well but I wouldn't go as far as saying I'd loved Vietnam. It was probably not somewhere I'd go back to but I was certainly very glad to have been.

Posted by madeinmold 08:57 Archived in Vietnam

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