Published: March 15th 2011
February 26th 2011
Sorry everybody, the tenses in this one are all wrong, but I thought it's about time to post this! Also, its kind of long and depressing at times :(
The night train pulls in at about 7am, the air is hot hot hot and sticky. I'm instantly sweating. We must be in Saigon. The station is relatively shiney and new, compared to everywhere else in Vietnam. We met an Aussie/Chinese guy on the train, Kez, who came with us to our hotel. He found a place down the street eventually, and we decide to meet up later for sightseeing.
After getting all checked in, we headed out on a walking tour of Saigon. We passed by the Post Office, the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Opera House and many more city sights. The city is fairly compact downtown, so we're able to walk everywhere (although cabs only cost about $1. There are not many locals walking, they avoid sweating by taking a cab). Trung is done with sightseeing later in the afternoon, so I headed over to the War Remnants Museum with Kez to learn a bit more about the Vietnam war.
The museum itself is horrific.
The outside is a display area for war-era equipment, bombs, planes, tanks, etc. The inside of the museum is split into themes; there is a prison area filled with photos of badly tortured prisoners in the hands of the Southern Vietnamese. There's an American section filled with photos of dead soldiers and a South Vietnamese section filled with blown-up photos of Vietnamese farmers, children and women. According to the museum, there were a few localized instances where the US army was ordered to find and kill Vietcong. Not knowing who was part of the guerilla forces, the army killed everyone in the village they were assigned. Photojournalists followed the army. There is one photo in particular of a grandmother holding her 5 year old grandaughter in front and being hugged by her two daughers who are standing behind her, covering their faces. They're standing in front of a burning house. Her expression is that of complete fear and desparation. She and her family were shot seconds after the photo was taken. It is at this point that I have to take a break. The photos are in colour, and they remind me of the people I've met during the last
Saigon Ban Something Market
never have I been pinched, grabbed and pushed so much! Hey! Buy something! Hey!
month of travelling. I'm overwhelmed by the horrific violence in the photos.
Last but not least there is a large section for the victims of agent orange, probably the stupidest decision ever made by mankind.
The area around Saigon (South Vietnam, which was being defended by the US) was heavily sprayed with Agent Orange during the war, because the Americans were having trouble spotting the Vietcong in the jungles and countryside. Agent Orange has the effect of burning the skin on contact, and basically kills every plant, animal and any other living thing. So the first side effect was to severely burn most of the farming population and kill the livestock. It then killed all of the plants (the effect the US wanted), turning the countryside into a dead, muddy, chemical infused wasteland. Because agent orange stays in the water supply and all of the crops, it causes absolutely horrific genetic abnormalities to the following two generations of Vetnamese people who were exposed to the chemical through their parents. Its unknown when these horrible deformations, cancers and skin deseases will stop being passed from generation to generation. One can only hope it will stop soon. There are several
teenagers and children at the museum as gruesome reminders that this is still going on. A band of smiling children plays music in the lobby. One has no arms, one is completely twisted 180 degrees from head to toe, one has no sign of ever having eyes or a nose, another is covered in painful looking skin cancers. They're having a great time playing the music for us and everyone claps and sings, a lighthearted moment in a depressing place. The US government still pays for their rehab treatments and residential programs as per a war crimes ruling shortly after the war.
The rest of our time in Saigon is spent relaxing, having coffee on rooftop patios downtown, admiring the old French architecture mixed with new, flashy skyscrapers. The newest structure is a 70 storey tapering office tower with a helipad sticking out as if pointing towards the ocean to the south. Its a fairly impressive building.
The next day is spent visiting the Cu Chi Tunnel system just north of Saigon. This area was occupied by about 20,000 Vietcong and was used as a base to attack Saigon during the war. I'm surprised its so close to
the city (about 50km away) as the official war front was all the way back near Hue, about 1500km away.
Our guide at the tunnels explain that there was about 200km of tunnel system, only used during heavy bombing raids by the US. Otherwise, the people lived and worked above ground. During the war, the entire system of tunnels were connected and included schools, homes, hospitals and storage rooms. The area was totally cut off on all sides by the US, and so they grew their own food, and created weapons and clothes from whatever they could salvage from US casualties. In the area you can see 8ft deep man-traps with sharpened bamboo spikes, and a wide range of other types of traps used to 'catch' US troops. The guide explains that most traps weren't designed to kill, just seriously maim. The troop would then yell out for help, signalling to the Vietcong hiding in the jungle that there are Americans near, and then creating an easy target by attracting the entire group of US troops to save their fellow soldier.
This type of fighting carried on for the entire war, and only about 3,000 of the original
20,000 survived the fighting.
The rest stop on the tour includes wartime AK-47's and other rifles available to shoot at a shooting range. Fun, no thanks.
The tunnels themselves are small, cramped, claustrophobic, dark and wet. I managed to squeeze myself through about 200m of winding tunnel, complete with 5 foot vertical drops to different tunnel levels in the darkness. I'm forced to either squat and shuffle, or, when my thighs give out, I monkey-walk head-first down the tunnel. At one point a bat flies over my head, or really, through the space between my head and my shoulder.
Its an amazing place, and I can't imagine being an American 'Tunnel Rat' and having to enter this place with nothing but a flashlight and a pistol. Most didn't survive, either due to the traps inside the tunnel, the grenade on a string left behind by whichever Vietcong left the area last, or by being ambushed by Vietcong living in the pitch-black tunnel.
Our next stop is Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We're officiallysaying goodbye to Vietnam after a month of thorough travel!
Trung wanted to have traditional Vietnamese one last time so we went out looking, but
by chance I looked up to a 2nd storey restaurant window and see a few people that we met in Hue and then Nha Trang, and so we joined them for dinner at a western restaurant. I have alfredo. So much for traditional food!
Kez is still tagging along with us at this point. We exchange facebook addresses so we can meet up again in Australia. He's from Melbourne, so hopefully he can show us around!
Our bus is scheduled to pick us up at the hotel at 11:30pm from our hotel in Saigon, the night bus to Phnom Penh. Oh if we only knew what we were getting into!
The 'hotel pickup' is a guy on a scooter who takes me, with bags precariously balanced, about 4 blocks to the front of a tour agency. There's a man passing around Cambodian visa applications and collecting our passports and $25 for the visa. Say goodbye to the passport! Some are questioning the system, but the bus driver says its just easier to give him our passports...
Nobody is in any hurry, and the 11:30 bus doesn't leave until 1:00am. We drove for about 1/2 hour before
the bus stopped for Pho Soup on the side of the highway for 45 minutes. We drove for another hour before we stopped again for 3 hours at a roadside pho stop. When we finally get underway again, its 4am. Oh, and its a sitting-up bus, not a sleeper. We got to the border at 5:30am. Its a full 2 hour drive from Saigon that took 5 hours. The border is closed and there's a handful of scooters sitting at the gate waiting.
A sleepy looking guard arrives at about 6:18am to lift the gate and our bus pulls into the impressive customs building on the Vietnamese side. We all wander through the ghost-town building, there's just two men in the entire building. Somehow our passports are stamped: we've officially exited Vietnam!
We took our bus the 100 metres down the road to the Cambodian customs building, and somehow the Cambodian visa stickers are already in our passports, we've entered Cambodia! FINALLY we can get on our way to get to Phnom Penh.
As we pull out of customs and head out down the highway its about 9am. Finally, on the road and nothing in the way!.
The bus slows down and stops at a rest stop... REALLY!?
We wait about an hour for a connecting bus, which turned out to have huge, lazyboy chairs, which was amazing. We wait yet another hour so that the bus can be jammed with boxes and bags of..rice? or something..
About another hour of driving passes, its now around 10am, and we pull up to.. a busy ferry port. Perfect.
Another 1/2 hour passes before we gingerly drive our bus down the dirt path, onto the ferry and cross the Mekong river. A cool experience nonetheless.
At about 12 noon, 12 full hours after saying hello to my scooter driver, we finally pull in to Phnom Penh and get mobbed by a gang of Tuk Tuk drivers. We find a guy, Mr. Lucky, who offers to drive us to 'a very good hotel'. we politely decline and ask to be taken to the hotel I emailed a few days earlier. We met a couple of Swedish guys on the bus, who come with us to the hotel, but the hotel is compeltely booked, so me and one of the Swedes go on a hotel search
under the 1pm, 35 degree Cambodian sun.
Eventually we strike out enough times that we take the offer from Mr. Lucky, who is still hanging around. He takes us to the Angkor International, where for $15 you can get a twin room with A/C AND a window, quite a steal in this town! Mr. Lucky is lucky indeed! Trung and I have some showers and chill for a bit before we go downstairs. Mr. Lucky is still there, 2 hours later, because he wanted to ask us if we needed a Tuk Tuk to go to the Killing Fields, which I gather is the thing to do here.
Trung and I decide to save the genocide for tomorrow, and we visit the royal palace and the silver pagoda. Its quite an impressive compound in downtown Phnom Penh. The king of Cambodia still lives within the compound, and a bunch of us just see a glimpse as he jumped into a waiting car in front of the palace.
The official areas of the palace are covered in gold, very ornate, and sculpture gardens everywhere. My favorite 'mascot' can be seen everywhere in Cambodia, a big, silly looking 'lauging
tiger' that guards the front door of every building. This tiger has the most excited face I've seen on a scuplture: a big, open mouthed grin/growl and the biggest bulging eyes ever. Hilarious.
We visited the silver pagoda that evening, so-called because the floor of the pagoda is covered with thousands of sterling silver floor tiles. Its quite a sight, although most of the tiles are covered to protect them from the tourist hoards.
We spent our evening at a hotel/bar called the 'Foreign Correspondant's Club' or 'FCC' enjoying $1 beer and watching the sun set over the Mekong. Phnom Penh is a less developed city that Saigon, however its very relaxed and people are pretty friendly.
The following day we decided to focus on the Killing Fields and S21 prison. The Swedes decide to come with us, and we negotiate with Mr. Lucky for $12 for the entire day. The killing fields are about 20 km from downtown and it's quite a senic drive through 'suburbia' and then into corn fields. The tuk tuk pulled off on a small, dirt road and then up to a shaded looking park with a large pagoda in the middle.
Its quite a peaceful place.
Outside the gates of the killing fields, there are several severely injured men begging, victims of the thousands of Cambodian land mines, remnants of the war. After the ticket booth, the first stop is the large pagoda you can see from outside.
As I get closer to the pagoda, you can see that its really just 4 columns with an ornate roof. Its only about 5 metres across at the front, and 17 levels high. The pagoda is filled, wall to wall with the skulls, bones and clothes of 17,000 Cambodians who were killed here by Pol Pot's forces during the Khymer Rouge regime from 1975-1979. A man asks me to burn some incence and pray. I asked him 'how much' because I thought like in other temples he's just there to make money, but he declines my money and gives me three incence sticks and some flowers to put at the base of the pagoda. In the quiet moment amongst the palm trees, again having met so many friendly people here, I can't believe that something like this happened to these people just 30 years ago. The skulls stare blankly out at
me, most with holes of all shapes and sizes where they were cruelly bludgeoned to death with bamboo canes, machetes, tree branches and peices of rebar. Bullets were too expensive.
There's a tree nearby where babies were held by their ankles and their heads smashed on the trunk, and another tree where they played blaring music so the local farmers around the prison wouldn't hear the prisoners cry out while being killed.
From the Killing fields, Mr. Lucky takes us back to the city, to S21 prison. Its a highschool that was converted to a prison where people were kept and interrogated until they were taken to the Killing fields. The highschool is filled with tiny cells built crudely out of brick inside the classrooms. The chalk boards are still on the walls. Most people know what went on here, so I won't repeat it.
These days, the photos of the people kept here are displayed on rolling chalk boards. It takes about an hour to walk by the 8x5" pictures of everyone. 99.9% of the prisoners were killed here or at the killing fields. Meticulous records of each person was taken by the Khymer Rouge. S21
was also a place where foreigners were taken, beaten and killed, including diplomats. In total, about 3,000,000 Cambodians were killed in just 4 years. As in Vietnam, there is a photo of a woman with her 2 or 3 month old baby and the look on her face stops me in my tracks. She and her baby were killed shortly thereafter. How is anyone capable of doing these things!? I'm afraid I don't know enough about it, but WHERE was the rest of the world??
After 1979, the high ranking Kymer Rouge party members were all allowed to leave and live out their lives in other countries. Some have been found, and several are just now on trial in Cambodia.
This museum/high school/prison is the end of our time in Saigon and Phnom Penh reflecting on the events of the last 35 years. Its horrible and disgusting, yet I'm constantly amazed at the resilience of humanity. The people here don't talk about what happened and they have carried on with their lives. They've developed their bombed-out cities into modern, beautiful places and they're extremely friendly, playful, shy and polite. Today, there is little sign that these things happened
here, aside from the large monuments that can be found throughout these cities.
While we're at S21, the Swedes see a friend from the UK that they met several weeks ago. He's staying at a small hotel beside the prison. The hotel donates to local charities, so we head there for lunch and something to drink and generally chill out after what Trung describes as 'reaching my daily skull limit'.
That evening we meet up again at a restaurant called 'Friends' which helps local street kids develop their restaurant skills. There are older 'Teachers' and younger 'Students'. The food is amazing Khymer food and the atmosphere is great, the employees are having a great time, and everything is spotlessly clean. What a great experience.
After dinner, we all decided to head over to a local dance club, people want to shake off that day's touring. We head to a place called 'Heart of Darkness'... sounds cheery, I know... Its actually a nice place made out of bamboo, playing good dance music. we all have a couple of drinks and dance for an hour or so, all the while surrounded by a group of 5 or 6 local
ladies. Eventually I headed over to the bar, where one of the ladies follows me and then asks for money. Too soon? I politely decline, and she gets pissed and storms off. Another tries to dance with one of the Swedes, but he tells her no thanks and she gets pissed and pinches him. ? Strange. The lady I turned down earlier returns and gives me an offer I seemingly can't refuse (monitary), which I also politely refuse. She yells something in Khymer and looks fairly angry.
Anyways, we all decide to leave before these ladies decide to gang up on us. Apparently this is the best bar to go to... Another eventful night in Phnom Penh.
The following day Trung and I head out on our daytime (thank god) bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Its a $6, VIP ride across the country. I'm SO excited to see the temples at Angkor that I can hardly wait for our bus!
See you all in Siem Reap!
There are more photos below