Published: February 10th 2011February 10th 2011
Visiting Saigon is like going to a rave on serapax. You just cant keep up and your never going to. The entire giant city is on meth. Its like watching a dvd on fast forward and you're part of it.
Arriving in communist countries is always a drama, especially when just a few hours ago you were swimming in the andaman sea trying to straighten up enough to actually get on a plane. When your first meal in a country is rubbery snails, a tub of smuggled yoghurt and half a bar of smuggled chocolate and your mini saigon hotel room is the size of a cell at pentridge jail but with the added view of a vietnamese laneway filled with 126,000 motorcycles busy doing something from dusk til dawn, you are forgiven for having misgivings.
My plan was three days in Saigon and an overnighter out to Vung Tau on the coast so we had lots of time to fill...except for one small detail. It was labour day. Labour day in Vietnam is a big deal, lots of marching, lots of speeches and rallies, some protests and a lot of military presence to quell
any protests. Labour day is also a holiday in Vietnam, with as many vietnamese visiting tourist favourites with in their country as possible.
Seaside town of Vung Tau was totally booked out..so was the hydrofoil to get there. Theres a bridge option but that took 4 - 6 hours on a normal day not a public holiday. So I started madly googling flight routes within vietnam and hotel availability. I could get accomodation in Hoi An, but not a flight. I could get a flight to Na Tranh, but not accomodation. No flights or accomodation to Halong Bay at all. Flights and accomodation at Hanoi but premium rates.
Now to try and find a tour around the Reuinification palace and the Cu Chi Tunnels. After all, I can handle going to a country for 16 hours, thats not a waste of time and money, sitting in a hotel room the whole time wouldve been. Except all the tours were fully booked days in advance. The hotel staff suggested they ring a taxi for me and we headed back, packed up our bags and sat down in the lobby waiting for the taxi to arrive. Eventually
a mini bus arrived, conveniently having been told by the hotel staff that we would pay $100USD for the trip. I tried bargaining it down resulting in the young spotless polite driver making many phonecalls and coming back apologetically with the company he worked for wouldnt let him and set rates for special days yeah yeah...which went on until giant flung open the door of the minivan and hurled the bags in snapping Fk it just pay it lets get out of here. I guess youd call that a done deal.
The drive out to Cu Chi from district 1 is long and monotonous. Endless tin shack stores and workshops jammed inbetween french colonial three story terraces turned into shopfronts with apartments upstairs. Washing hanging from upstairs windows flutters lifelesly amongst the ever present red and gold star flag of vietnam. A 6 lane highway with thousands of motorbikes carrying whole families, pigs live and dead, balloons, fish, tables and hay...and every single motorbike, bus and van tooting constantly.
This six lane highway once looked very different and captured the attention of the world. They say a picture is worth a thousand words....and one taken here on
this highway did and helped to change the tide. When Yoko and John were in bed asking for peace, I was in pyjamas doing my primary school homework, a little girl my age ran up this road screaming , burning napalm over her naked body - burning an image into history and exposing the ugliness of man.
They shelled the shit out of this place. Napalm achieved nothing. The bombs, the whole clusterfuck of vietnam acheived nothing for anyone. No one won. A war that had no purpose and no outcome.
After what seemed like hours the sight of green grass and palms fighting back against time and defoliants finally started flirting between factories and shoe shops. I looked at the road signs and realised we were less than 100kms from the Cambodian border. Eventually the signs started to say Cu Chi and finally, we were there. It was easy to spot when we left rural Cu Chi and hit the tourist tunnels...tour buses stretched for miles amongst restaurants and souvenier sellers.
After paying the obligatory $25USD each fee we were photographed and given passes into the tunnels. It was Hot, really hot..around 40
degrees in a steamy jungles isnt a great combination for anyone, especially a pissed off giant who had spent the whole time on the drive out trying to sleep but couldnt because of the tooting. As soon as we showed our passes and walked under the arch past the display of captured enemy weapons from the "American War" I stopped to take pictures of the cluster bombs thinking, yeah, they would cause one major cluster fuck...I looked over at giant whos face was set like an easter island statue...guess he was thinking my brilliant idea to zip off to vietnam was one big cluster fuck.
Being a communist country it is always prudent to do as they say without arguiing i have found. Giant had never been to a communist country and bluntly refused when a vietnamese man in army gear asked us to come with him to watch film on the american war before going through tunnels. The guide looked somewhere between shocked and bewildered...here was this person twice his size telling him to go away when he had the uniform on. I didnt need to look to see if he had a gun, there were thousands
of M60s sitting less than 10 metres away...and he had friends, lots of them who are right up there on the not to be fucked with list. I shot giant a scowl and apologised to the man and showed him our passes and said Kumon the only word i knew in vietnamese..thank you. He softened a little before marching us to the ancient tv with the dvd plugged in. Giant asked when the movie would start and was sternly told to wait. So, we waited until a korean group and swiss family arrived to fill the required numbers for screening to start. It was interesting to see the war through their eyes, to hear it called the American war, and to see Hero no 1 an angelic looking girl of about 12 credited with killing 12 soldiers. Finally after having watched the nice movie about the American war we were bunched up with a group of Koreans and led into the jungle to past B52 bomb craters the size of your house.
Cu Chi tunnels were the stronghold before Siagon fell. When you realise the proxiemety to Cambodia you realise why the US forces used Cambodia as a staging base for bombing raids on North Vietnamese troups and accidently the south vietnamese people living in the area. My own personal view is you dont bomb and burn people anyway, and especially not accidentally...but it happened here. If we learned anything from our involvement in Vietnam, seems to me we must have forgotten it to be in Afghanistan.
So we wove through the jungle checking out the traps the vietnamese fashioned out of what they could to deal with allied troops on the ground. A trip wire and the jungle floor swings open revealing vicious stakes sharpened to points in a grave size pit. You would want to hope one of those spikes pierced your heart instantly if you were the guy who sprung the tripwire. Our guide suddenly stopped and bent down, dusting away leaves that revealed one of the hidden entry holes into the tunnel labyrinth below. We all marvelled at the size of it, how small it was, how people had used these tiny holes in the ground to find safety for year after year while the bombing raged overhead. The swiss lady was cheerfully popping her leg in there to try it for size when the guide said "This one, Vietnamese people only fit"......
Well, Guess I must qualify as a vietnamese person because I had no trouble lowering myself into it and getting back out.
The guide was most impressed as I scrambled up behind him and we began our descent into the tunnels down a tiny staircase carved out of limestone. You could only walk in here bent in half...except if your Giants size. He was behind me infront of the Koreans and the Swiss people. Once you're in there the only way to go is forward..and these are the tunnels that have been enlarged for western tourists. I was scampering along and followed up the stairway to the surface where the 'western tunnel' ended about 25m in total, just to give us a taste of what the tunnels were like. I made it to the top and breathed in the hot air after the cool underground and heard giant and the swiss people behind me talking - Giant was stuck.
I pulled out my camera and snapped away laughing until I heard him say IM FUCKING STUCK MY SHOULDERS ARE WEDGED and he wasnt a very happy giant at all.
The Swiss woman behind him was very helpful and stuck her hands on his bum and shoved forward, helped by the Korean people behind her who had formed a human chain of swiss ingenuity and korean work ethic. Im sure if she hadve had more room she wouldve whipped out her swiss army knife and carved out the tunnel a bit more. Giant was actually steaming by this time, his bald head dripping with sweat and the look of anger and pain on his face was mostly due to the fact he was wedged in an underground tunnel, but there was another reason.
In Thailand, he had developed a festering, manky, oozing yellow pus filled tropical ulcer....on his bum! It had started a couple of weeks earlier when he got a tiny scratch through his boardies while snorkelling and had began eating away at his bumcheek getting bigger and deeper every day. By the time we got to Vietnam it had eaten down into the flesh about as deep as the top knuckle on your finger. A perfectly round hole like someone had shot him in the bum. That was how my days were starting..waking up to have a giant sticking his bum in my face asking "Is it looking ok?"
How do you tell someone it aint ok honey, in fact, that morning when we woke up in Vietnam his bum ulcer was actually now a bubbling lime green hole surrounded by deep angry purple flesh. I had decided not to tell him how bad it was because he wouldve asked to be medivac'd home to Australia. Ahh, a mere flesh wound!
Im not totally heartless, I didnt want my holidayage interrupted but hey, I was watching him closely for signs of septicemea or golden staph infections. If he hadve passed out or started having fits I wouldve taken swift and decisive action of some sort. Im not a doctor and have no medical knowledge but hey, hes alive to this day.
So there he is stuck in a tunnel with a swiss woman and the koreans shoving on the incredibly painful wound on his bum when he twisted his shoulders and finally popped out of the tunnel like a champagne cork. His shoulders were grazed and his face was like thunder when he looked at me and said......
GET ME OUT OF VIETNAM NOW!
So I rang air vietnam and found a flight out that day to Phnom Penh. While i was on the phone to the airline I glanced over at the angry giant with a large hole in his arse and grazed shoulders only to spot the koreans standing just behind him all having their photo taken pointing at his head to show their friends not only did they go to the tunnels at vietnam, they met a giant there and have the photo to prove it. I never told him about that.
And the hole in his bum? Well, it healed, eventually. If anyone asks, he can just say he got shot in the bum during his time in Vietnam.
I had been to Vietnam before, and I like the country, and I do want to take Giant there again so he can see its not all that bad...I just need to plan things a little better, take him up to Hoi An and Nha Trang and Halong so he can see that the entire country is not out to get him :)
You've probably gathered by now he has no idea I share our adventures on travelblog...shhh...i