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Published: June 14th 2013
We arrived into downtown Ho Chi Minh City late afternoon, after a bus ride through searing heat, torrential rain and floods. As we recovered our luggage from the hold under the bus, two things dawned upon us. The first being that, the doors on the bus had not been as watertight as we might have wished, when driving through the flooded towns. This mainly affected my bag, although to what extent was still unknown. Amelia's predicament was worse however. Despite the use of a raincover, the padded rear parts of the bag were completely saturated, and more worryingly, smelly. We had heard of problems like this before from other backpackers. Vietnamese people put everything they want to transport into the hold of the bus, whether it it perishable, fragile or still alive and neglect to seal containers in a through manner. The horror stories we had encountered generally involved fish, but in our case, Amelia's bag, and on closer inspection most of the clothes reeked of Jackfruit. In addition in Dalat, we had neglected to pre-book our hostel for Saigon. So all in all we arrived in this city in worse condition than the Americans had left it in 1973.
After a quick internet session on the computers in the tourist office, we at least had some accommodation less than 5 minutes walk from the office where we began to sort ourselves out for decontamination. Having had quite enough of reality for one day, we decided to go Pizza Hut for dinner, just as we used to do for comfort food back in the old country. As we gorged ourselves on the stuffed crust goodness, the worries seemed to slide away with the warm mozzarella and pepperoni. Bliss.
The next morning we embarked on a tour around the Cu Chi tunnels, via some of the victims of Agent Orange. For this we had teamed up with some Irish backpackers, Siobhan, Sinead, Yvonne and Shane(no I am not making that up), but that's a bit of a mouthful, so from now, lets refer to them as The Corrs. Our guide for the day was a Vietnamese Man called Jackie, who looked exactly as a 'Nam vet should, with long straggly hair and glazed far away look in his eye. Jackie was however, not a veteran according to the Vietnamese government, he was an ex soldier. This was because he fought
for the South during the war and worked as an interpreter for American marines. When the war ended, Jackie and every other surrendered South Vietnamese soldier was sent to jail. Conscripts, privates and corporals served 1 year, sergeants and lieutenants 3 years, up to 20 years for senior generals and colonels.
Our first port of call was the Handicapped Handicrafts shop. This is another tourist trap, but with a difference. As you go in, you can see various things being handmade by some of the victims of Agent Orange, which I shall come on to later. Everything in the shop however, we had seen in various crappy gift shops all over Vietnam, so naturally we passed on the opportunity to buy more stuff. Then it was off to the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi was a village to the north west of Saigon where there was a large concentration of communist insurgents and sympathisers. Naturally the Americans had to go in there and set them right, so they levelled the village with some spare B52s. However the inhabitants would not be beaten so easily. They dug underground bunkers to live in, with over 200km of underground tunnels connecting them
throughout the area, from where they staged their guerilla warfare. This became an embarrassment to the army who moved in to occupy the area, with the commanding colonel having to report back to the Pentagon “We have seized control of the area, but a significant VC threat persists. However we can't actually find them...” This was a significant propaganda victory for the north and we were shown a NVA information video from the time. Slightly disturbing, but very interesting.
Only a few hundred meters of tunnels actually remain, but we were allowed to go through them. Even the one that they had expanded for fat westerners was far too small for comfortable ambulation. Indeed the only way to get through was doubled over and waddling through the pitch dark and heat, sweating like a lunatic. Getting through 200km of this suddenly sounded far fetched.
Agent Orange was the real shock of the day. The first reference to it was from Jackie, part of whose job it was to tell local Vietnamese people that there was nothing to fear from it, Agent Purple, and other defoliants. The idea behind it was that if Charlie was hiding in the trees,
the Americans would get rid of the trees to hide in. The several varieties that the Americans dropped were all based on chemicals called dioxins, now acknowledged to be the most toxic chemicals known to man. Just 80g is capable of wiping out a city of 10million people. The Americans dropped 100million litres. Within 10 years all the toxin had vanished from the soil, but it passes into DNA and passes on from parent to child for the next 4-5 generations, which is the real tragedy. There are babies born as late as 2005 with severe birth defect and abnormalities as a result of Agent Orange. It has also affected Australian, American, and Korean serviceman who were in Vietnam. Many of them have successfully sued the US government, and the companies who manufactured the chemicals, however the US courts still refuse to hear the case of the 3million Vietnamese people who are still suffering from the effects.
Back from the tunnels, we went to the War Remnants museum, basically a monument to the various atrocities of the French and Americans. The accounts were typically one sided and taken with a pinch of salt, but things like the massacre at
My Lai could not be spun any worse than the truth. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Lai_Massacre
After the final pack up at the hotel, we were resigned to get to the airport extraordinarily early so got an early night. Breakfast then occurred in Ho Chi Minh airport, which is surprisingly expensive to eat in ($7 for a sandwich!)
I despite the dodgy bits, I've thoroughly enjoyed Vietnam. The people are bizarrely bipolar. Some cannot do enough to help you out and are very friendly, but some are almost actively uncooperative and inconsiderate to the extent that you have to threaten to throw them off a moving train in order to get them to act in a normal fashion. But the landscape is beautiful, the history is turbulent and fascinating, and there is actually a good support network of other backpackers for advice and an occasional bit of help. Definitely one to revisit when we have much more money!
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