Monday, 4 July 2011

Ho Chi Minh City, Cu Chi Tunnels and Hurtful Massage, 5-9 April 2011

As I was sitting eating my breakfast, I suddenly felt as though I was staying in Fawlty Towers being served by the poor small Vietnamese man being rudely bossed around by the owner, who is somewhat reminiscent of a female Basil Fawlty. She is incredibly nice to you when you check in, if you act the way she wants you to act and abide by her rules but as soon as you cross the line, whether it's on the price of something or if you have an issue with your room, she bites and begins to shout. I witnessed several occasions where she became the epitome of an ill-behavioured, bad tempered manager where customer service became non-existent. A man walked into the hotel and asked for a room, she told him the price and showed him up to the room and when they returned it was obvious that he decided to stay as he left his luggage upstairs. They moved over to reception where he was about to pay and hand his passport over when a new and higher price suddenly materialised. Quite rightly the man queried this sudden inflation, but the lady didn't take too kindly to the accusation of her lying and told him to get his bags and get out of the hotel. She also evicted a girl on the same day for a reason I wasn't aware of. Quite a loose wire indeed! Luckily I never had any issues with her apart from her chaotic laundry service where everybody's clothes are mixed together and you have to fish through a mountain of washing to find yours. That is how to lose a sock!

My back was still recovering from the previous evening when Andy One (as we called him as Kathy met him before me) very kindly decided to treat us all to a massage from a man who walked the streets shaking his bell looking for business. There are many of this men walking and cycling the streets ringing their bells and I would advise you to decline their offers as it was the most painful massage any of us have ever had. I thought my neck was going to snap. I believe that he works on making you feel really uncomfortable and in pain for five minutes so that when he finishes, you are so relieved and feel so much better that you think he's actually done some good, not just inflicted you to copious amounts of pain.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Going down.. Thanks Kathy for the photo!
Saigon is hot and humid, even in the morning the heat beats you into a sweltering blob of flesh and bones making it hard for you to get motivated. It is especially hard when you've got a room with fantastic air-conditioning and the thought of leaving it makes you quiver with fear. Nevertheless we got up early one morning and made our way to the Cu Chi Tunnels. There was a nice big group of us sitting on the cool bus including Kathy, Dan, Alan, Marianne, Victoria, Nicky and Tom as we made our way towards the complex that is outside of the Saigon. Alan was struggling to find a comfortable position as he's unfortunate to have long legs in Asia, which is definitely not built for tall people and I thank my lucky stars that I'm only 5'8” in this squashed situations. We arrived at the tunnels and were immediately ushered into a long open wooden hut where a film was being played that introduced the history of the tunnels and other interesting details but we never got to see all of it as we were moved off again before it finished it's loop. There was a lot of information on the rather long film so perhaps it was a good thing to be moved on as I never concentrate well in the heat to remember anything anyway.

The original sized entrances into the tunnel
The Cu Chi Tunnels were an extensive underground network under the ground of the Cu Chi suburban district of Ho Chi Minh City. During the Vietnam-American war, the Viet Cong built these tunnels as a base for their insurgency of the southern capital, most notably was used as the main base for the Tet Offensive. The tunnels lead to the river and also stretch as far as the Cambodian border where the Viet Cong could enter the region unseen. To enter the tunnels, you have to squeeze you way through tiny entrances that are concealed amongst foliage. The tunnel network is protected by a deadly traps positioned around the tunnel entrances. Despite the construction bigger tourist entrances into the tunnels, we all had our chance of squeezing our way down through the original sized entrances and it was extremely tight fit even for a slim western person. Once we got down through the wider, more Western accessible entrances, the tunnel shrunk to a claustrophobic hot passage way that forced us to crawl near enough on our hands and knees. It's small, and I cannot imagine what it is like too live, eat and travel further than a few hundred feet through these sweltering tunnels. These men were dedicated to their cause and with the help of these tunnels they were able to slip under the very noses of the South Vietnamese and American forces, gathering information and attacking with surprise. After a hundred feet or so, we took a left and headed back up towards sunlight, as if we continued on our present path we would have ended up in Cambodia (according to our guide). The heat was even more intense outside and we couldn't wait to get back onto the air conditioned bus and make our way back to Ho Chi Minh City. As we got back onto the bus Alan secured us two seats at the front of the bus where there was a little more leg room for him, but the middle aged couple that sat there before boarded the bus, stared at us and ordered out removal from their seats. We think we offended them with and quickly moved as we obviously broke the 'bus trip rules and regulations' that they were accustomed to.

Mekong Delta

Through the Mekong
Another day, another early start. This time Marianne, Victoria, Louis and I were heading of for a one day cruise through the Mekong Delta. I had been in a quandary whether to do the one day tour or buy a three day cruise up the Mekong that passes into Cambodia and ends in Phnom Penh but had been talked into doing the one day tour by the girls. We got picked up from near our hotel by a medium sized bus and a crazy tour guide who would not stop talking all the way to the boat which was around two hours drive away. Once we finally got to the jetty where we were going to get on our boat that was going to take us around several islands in the delta, the midday heat had grown into a massive oppressive beast beating down from above us which made me buy a sun hat from one of the hawker stands selling clothing and tack to tourists. The hat, which was not very aesthetically pleasing to others, was one of my best purchases and kept the sun off my head. I wore it with extreme pride as the others mocked it. As we got back onto the boat I bumped into Regina whom I had met in Mui Ne a few days previous. We exchanged a few words before our guide impatiently pushed us aboard our boat and headed off into the flow of the Mekong Delta.

Steaming through the Delta
Out first stop on the tour was a small island where we got to taste a few local delicacies. The Mekong, which begins in the mountains of Tibet and winds it's way through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and enters the South China see through Vietnam, the Delta is a vital area in Vietnam as it provides perfect conditions for growing all different kinds of crops. The area produces over half of Vietnam's rice output and it is the second largest exporter of rice behind Thailand. That is why the north struggled to feed their citizens when the country was divided during the war. After tasting the local peanut brittle and being careful not to harm my teeth in any way, we walked through the small village towards the small river bank where we clambered into a small wooden boat that would take us through the mangroves back and back to our boat that was waiting to take us to our next stop. The boat drifted effortlessly and silently through the small channels with our driver taking care not to collide with any oncoming vessel, trees or moored boats.

Aboard our boat again, the engine fired up and the skipper opened the throttle and we steamed off toward another island where we were going to hop aboard another smaller boat and taste a few more delights. It is unfortunate though that these cruises around the Mekong Delta are actually just a trip around different tourist traps. This one was a toffee shop where we were quickly and carelessly shown how they produce the candy by an unenthusiastic girl who was just interested in getting us to the checkout. I did actually get some as it was nice stuff although a little dangerous with my teeth and the thought of my crown coming off was plaguing me with every chew! It didn't and the sweets were nice, so it's a win there. As I pocketed the sweets and turned around I was confronted with a large snake. People were holding it and passing it between each other and I had my go with the heavy thing that would keep still and was slipping off my shoulders before someone came along and took their turn. Despite our guides best efforts to get us back into the shop and buy some useless tack, we powered off back towards the boat without separating from any more of our Dong.

Bye bye sunglasses!  Sorry no photo of Victoria's crash!
Back on our big boat again and all feeling hungry we headed off to yet another island where we were going to get our included lunch and take a quick bicycle ride around the island. We got to the island and were ushered into the restaurant where we were given an option of sticking with our basic lunch which was included in the price of the trip OR pay some small amount more and get a proper meal that is a local dish. Yet again, another Vietnamese tourist trap by offering you an included lunch that is barely edible but giving you the option to pay more to get the lunch we expected. Needless to say, we stuck with our included lunch as there is no way we were going to pay more. After lunch we headed round the building to collect our bicycles to have a little ride around the island. The bicycles were an absolute joke, rusty, non-functioning gears, non-existent braking system and handle bars that were barely attached to the frame. Regardless of the complete unsafe conditions of the bikes we headed off full of laughter. BANG CRASH WALLOP WHAT A PHOTOGRAPH! Victoria, inexplicably leaves the path and very slowly slices through some branches and collides with a tree. It later turns out that she was trying to take a photo with her camera and lost her balance, which is very easy to do on those bikes that weigh nothing. Marianne stops behind me and immediately pulls out her camera to take some photos as I get off and pull the bike off Victoria who was too busy worrying about the state of her camera than herself. She was fine, thankfully but this ended our bike trip before it really had a chance of getting going. We walked back to return the bikes and wash the oil of my hands, but as I leant over the toilet to put some paper into the bin, my sunglasses slipped from my head and ended up down the toilet. A day full of disappointments! Luckily I still had my hat!

We soon got back onto the boat and headed to our final stop, an island where we were going to taste a selection of fruit, including dragon fruit, jack fruit and mango whist sipping on some local tea and listening to some local musicians play and sing for us. After they finished playing, I couldn't help myself but go up and have a go on the Dan Bau which had become quite a fascination ever since I first saw it play in the water puppet theatre in Hanoi. I didn't know how it was playing until the musician gave me a quick lesson. Holding a toothpick, whether it had been used or not was another question, between my right thumb and index finger as a plectrum as well as creating a false harmonic with the heal of my right hand and adjusting the pitch of the string with my left hand I produced a sound, not an attractive one, but a sound nevertheless. The musician made me try and play Auld Lang Syne, but it didn't really come out like that, although it was reminiscent of a drunk Scottish man on new years eve so I think I was OK there.

This time we got back onto a different boat, a fast speed boat that was to take us swiftly back to Ho Chi Minh City. After sitting below for a while, I decided that I had had quite enough as everyone was sitting there peacefully with their MP3 players on, so I jumped up and headed out of the boat. As I left the rear door the wind immediately stole my hat from my head and took it to its new owner... The Mekong. It had a short tenure with me, and I was devastated when we parted company. Two sun protection losses in one day, how unlucky can one man be!!! Out of stubbornness, I remained outside at the rear of the boat in the sun, getting absolutely drenched by the spray from the boat and everytime I tried to move to the other side the man who worked on the boat, told me off and ordered me to move back across. Not sure why, but I followed his orders. Marianne, Lois and Victoria soon joined me in the sunshine and we began to sing songs as loud as we could. We thought nobody could hear us as the boat was making to much noise but as we disembarked onto the jetty in Ho Chi Minh some fellow passengers congratulated us on our rendition of the British National Anthem. Oops, I take it they heard everything!!!! The boat journey through the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh highlighted the distinct gap between the rich and poor in the country as we passed some run down shacks that clung onto the shores of the Mekong and landed within the new sky high financial centre of the city with it's rich hotels, shops and banks.

Saigon Zoo

The temperature seemed to get higher and higher, sweat used to be constantly running from my forehead and walking was an exercise in jumping from shade to shade to avoid the blistering sun pounding down from above. The room in the hostel was fantastically air-conditioned which made it extremely hard to leave because the heat hits you hard and without remorse as soon as you pass through the architrave. That morning, however, I got up early to say goodbye to Victoria and Marianne who were flying off to Borneo. I had been travelling with them on and off since Hué. It's always sad to say goodbyes but travelling is constantly full of them. I knew that I would also be saying goodbye to Lois as well who was heading into Cambodia later on too. On the other hand I understood that Jonas was coming to Ho Chi Minh later in the day, so that would be a hello again.

Despite the heat and the sweat, I agreed to go along with Tom and Nicky to Saigon Zoo. As I predicted, it was a long and uncomfortable walk there, made even more uncomfortable by not having my sunglasses to stop the sun's glare blinding me every few yards as the buildings parted leaving a line of fire. I had to stop and buy some sun glasses from a street seller. It's choosing the right street seller to do business with, personally I don't condone any of the pushy sellers on the streets and avidly avoid them. I came across one man who didn't say anything to me as I passed, so I turned around and handed over my cash after a little bit of haggling. My eyes were now secure from the evil sun rays.

Saigon Zoo is nothing spectacular, it has the usual animals that usual zoos have, so we walked around looking at the lizards, elephants, crocodiles and lions. I was surprised by the standard of care that the animals seemed to be getting in the zoo. It actually wasn't too bad, it could be a hell of a lot better but they weren't being purposefully mistreated. I don't go to zoos normally as I don't totally agree with keeping animals in captivity unless they have been rescued or are unable to survive in the wild. Having covered the zoo in under an hour, the heat had just become unbearable and we needed to leave and find some well needed sustenance and air conditioning, so we left and found ourselves a nice Thai restaurant and grabbed ourselves some food and relief from the sunshine and humidity of the Saigon.

Next Time, Cambodia, Magic and The Beach

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