Published: November 2nd 2011November 2nd 2011
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon really, was noticeably wealthier, busier, and more commercial than Hanoi, with huge billboards and fancy shops. We did a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, which is part of the extensive tunnel network that the Viet Cong lived in during the Vietnam War, to hide from the Americans and the South Vietnamese army. It was really interesting to learn about how they lived in the forest, only coming out of their tunnels at night. Bec and I were too chicken to actually go into the tunnels though, as they were tiny! Recruits in the Viet Cong were often pretty young and very skinny from foraging in the jungle and from villagers. American soldiers were far too big to fit down them and this is how the North Vietnamese soldiers held the advantage. In the afternoon we went to the War Remnants Museum back in Saigon. We learnt so much that we hadn't known about the war, which to our generation, due to film and television, has this weirdly iconic, kind of mythical status. But the real stories we learnt were a far cry from Hollywood gloss. One room was dedicated to Agent Orange and other
chemical bombs. I could't believe what horrific things these bombs did to the land, defoliating miles and miles of forest, poisoning water and crops and soil, and maiming and incinerating thousands of civilians. But the effects of these chemical bombs didn't end 35 years ago, there are still children being born today with countless birth defects due to the exposure of their parents or even grandparents to the chemicals. That somebody invented such barbaric instruments of war, and that somebody made the decision to carpet-bomb a country with such potent, harmful chemicals is mind-boggling. Another room was dedicated to American aggression (it was pretty anti-US, and I'm sure atrocities were performed by both sides) displaying photos by the war photojournalists, chillingly intimate images of torture and murder. The horror, indeed.
Our last couple of days in Vietnam were spent on a slightly disappointing tour of the Mekong Delta (including a mildly interesting visit to a noodle factory and a floating market that had already finished!), and we were feeling sad at the thought that Bec was going home, but meeting up with Emma and Sinead again cheered us up. Saigon had been a slightly weird experience - I nearly
had my bag stolen by a guy on a moped who grabbed it when he drove past (my lightning reflexes thwarted his attempt!) and we nearly got run over by two guys who stole a moped before the poor owner could figure out what was happening - but we enjoyed haggling in the market and getting our last fixes of iced Vietnamese coffee. Our accommodation was fun though, a little guesthouse in a back alley where you basically walked into the family's living room! They were lovely and Ms Thu's 86-year-old father was really sweet and needed a little help up the stairs. I was very sad to say goodbye to Bec, but we had had a fantastic time together and done an incredible amount of activities! After she left I continued on to Phnom Penh in Cambodia with Emma and Sinead, and we met up with a couple of their friends, Kiera and another Sinead. After Saigon, I liked the feel and pace of Phnom Penh straight away. It felt poorer and shabbier, but much more relaxed.
We spent a day with a tuk-tuk driver taking us to S-21 prison and the killing fields at Cheung Ek. S-21
was a school that the Khmer Rouge took over and turned into an interrogation/torture prison. Thousands of people were taken there if the regime believed they were a threat - teachers, doctors, anyone who seemed educated or even just wore glasses, anybody who looked slightly ethnically different, or just anybody they took a dislike to. The classrooms were turned into prison cells, some had single cells built within, some were used for many prisoners shackled together by their feet, and the children's climbing frame became a gallows for torture. Every person was documented and photographed, before being taken off to Cheung Ek killing field, one of many around the country, where they were executed and piled into shallow, mass graves. It was a harrowing day, and there seemed no end to the lengths of depravity the Khmer Rouge cadres went to in their horrifically misguided attempt to turn the country to an agrarian state. It only happened a little more than 30 years ago, and it was chilling to find out how the Khmer Rouge were supported by the US, China and Thailand, that they held a seat at the UN until 1992, and that many of the high-ranking perpetrators
have never been brought to justice or are only just being put on trial. But for a country still traumatised by these events, still in the grips of poverty and with the countryside riddled with landmines, I was staggered by the resilience of the Cambodian people, and everybody I met was friendly and kind. To think that 35 years ago Phnom Penh was a ghost town with its inhabitants forced to leave for forced labour in the countryside, and now it is a thriving, bustling city is mind-boggling.
On to lighter things, I said goodbye to the girls who had longer to spend in Cambodia than me, and headed to Siem Reap for the 1000-year-old Angkor Wat temples. A tuk-tuk driver called Mr Happy picked me up at 5am (ouch) to watch the sunrise over Angkor with about a thousand other people, but it was a lovely time of day to be there. The main temple was huge, intricately carved and very impressive. I went to a few others, including the one where they filmed Tomb Raider and loved seeing how the jungle is reclaiming the land, sending huge buttress roots effortlessly through stone walls, gradually knocking it all
down. I only had a brief stop in Siem Reap, quite a bizarre party town in the middle of Cambodia, before I had to get back to Phnom Penh for my flight to Singapore and on to Australia. It is a shame I didn't have longer in Cambodia as I really liked it, but I definitely hope to go back one day. I had a brief stop in Singapore where I stayed with a friend of my cousin's, Jane, and her husband Jonno, who spoiled me rotten. They took me out for a yummy dinner, a Singapore Sling in the iconic Raffles bar where, ironically in such a clean city, you have to eat monkey nuts and throw the shells on the floor, and for cocktails on the top floor of a very, very tall building, with views of the Marina Bay Sands and the Singaore Flyer down below. I had a lovely evening with them and enjoyed some better-than-home comforts, lounging around their flat and sunbathing on their roof! But all too quickly it was time to catch my flight to Cairns and hit another new continent!
There are more photos below