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Published: March 20th 2012
Ho Chi Minh City
War Remnant Museum
8th March ’12 Ho Chi Minh City
We had decided to catch the early bus which left at 8.30am and took about 6 hours with a stop where we managed to grab a sarnie – pate and ham no less! An old Vietnamese guy started talking to us and offered us tangerines. It turned out this was his first visit back to Vietnam in 30 years and he now lived in America in Washington DC, he told us he was 70 and very proudly announced that he worked in the Seven Eleven. Unfortunately at that point we all had to get back on the bus so we missed the chance to ask him what he thought of Vietnam now and if we had dared, why he had left – he obviously left during the war and as he went to the states was he working for the south Vietnamese government? Intriguing.
We pulled into HCMC right by the back packer area and were soon assaulted by the noise of a million scooters, people selling things and trying to get us to buy tours or ride on the back of their motorbikes! Yep we are back in a big city!!
Ho Chi Minh City
Now how do I cross the road???
Our Hotel was down a tiny alley off the main road and the numbering system was really haphazard so we wandered along being pointed in the right direction by numerous people. The alley was one of a series of small connecting ones which ran between the 2 main roads that made up the backpacker area and they were all full of small hotels, cafes, tiny shops and hundreds of little stalls selling local food. A lot of local people also lived in the area and every morning and evening they were out chatting, shopping, cooking, eating, lounging and generally going about their business, it seemed a world away from the madness of the main streets!
We decided to go out and investigate the area and straight away our landlady was warning me to be very careful with my bag – something she repeated every time we went out and had me quite paranoid at first! There is apparently a lot of bag snatching done by people on scooters, but I have to say we did not see or hear of any in all the time we were there. We quickly had the area sussed and as it was
Ho Chi Minh City
Cau Dai Holy See Temple
so hot decided not to do any more sightseeing until the next day.
9th March ’12 HCMC
We had arranged to me up with Lindsay this lunchtime as she is still in HCMC and living with her extended family. I was really looking forward to seeing her – even though we do not really know each other, our connection being HRH. It was great to chat to someone from home again and we all decided to book a tour together to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels the next day.
As Lindsay has decided not to go too deeply into the war stuff in Vietnam we left her going for a bit of pampering whilst we set off armed with a map to visit the War Remnant Museum. We decided to walk it, which gave us our first proper taste of trying to cross the main roads and roundabouts of this city. Well what a nightmare it was, worse than Hanoi I thought as the roads were so large. At some crossroads there were traffic lights which did give you a bit of a chance but as there was never a point when all the traffic stopped you
Ho Chi Minh City
Cau Dai Holy See Temple
still had to be looking in every direction at the same time! Added to this if the traffic doesn’t want to wait it just comes up on the pavement and short cuts the lights and usually there are a few bikes going down the road in the wrong direction or cutting across the lines of traffic – it’s just mad!!
So we walked and dodged traffic for a long way and eventually found the museum, I have been told it used to be called the American War Crimes Museum and it should have stuck with that name. We had also been warned it was gruesome, from the outside it was just a big square building with a few captured tanks and aircraft outside but once we got inside – well all I can say is I was ashamed to be a member of the human race. It was the most harrowing and distressing experience (I have only felt like this when we visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia), there were large rooms filled with photos of the torture and devastation wrought on the Vietnamese people by the American troops. They were accompanied by testimonies from the people who were
in the pictures or were family members. I couldn’t stop crying and felt I had to look at them in order to bear witness to what was done but after seeing a photo which I have a vague memory of seeing in a paper of young children in utter distress, screaming and running down a road with their skin burning from napalm I just could not look at any more. A lot of the photos were taken by war photographers and had captions putting them into the context of what was happening at that very moment, a lot had been taken just before the people in them were executed. Aaarrggghh god it was horrendous, I have thought about it ever since.
Another very distressing room was devoted to the use of Agent Orange and chemical warfare, which the Americans used to try and totally destroy the ecosystem in Vietnam, this was utter evil. Even today people are still suffering from the effects of these chemicals. There was photo after photo of the birth defects and deformities that people have to live with as a direct result of this. Even Howard had to step out for some air at this
point. I can’t accurately describe anymore of this as it was beyond comprehension but we have, while in Vietnam met and seen a large number of people who have been affected in this way – people with missing or deformed limbs who are forced to drag themselves along on the road to beg from tourists, people who skin is a patchwork of splotches of dark and light and the most extreme case, I saw was a man whose face was a flattened huge round shape with misshapen holes for eyes.
I came out feeling ill and full of grief I couldn’t bring myself to look properly at the recreated jail cells from what was once a beautiful island but was devastated and turned into a concentration camp during the war.
When we have so many examples of the horrors of war and what mankind is capable of doing to mankind and everyone condemns these actions and vows it should never happen again why then does it keep on happening? Just thinking about the museum and writing this blog has brought back those harrowing feelings again.
On a more positive note, hurrah for the Vietnamese people! Their open,
Cu Chi Tunnels
Entering the tunnel
friendly, welcoming nature is a constant source of amazement and delight to me.
We met up with Lindsay for dinner that night and for once we were out late! She is on local Vietnamese time and not used to eating until 9pm. On the way I was offered cocaine and marijuana – so that’s what happens in HCMC when you stay up!! We found a kind of roadside restaurant and sat chatting whilst people came around offering in Lindsay’s case a ‘sexy’ massage and a huge variety of lighters shaped like hand grenades, assorted guns and vicious looking knives! Plus all the usual books, fan, fags and sun glasses.
10th March ’12 Trip to Cau Dai Holy See Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Today was an interesting one, Howard, Lynz and I were booked on a day trip to the Cau Dai Holy See Temple and Cu Chi Tunnels our guide was called Buffalo and was totally nuts! We did a lot of driving but he kept us entertained with stories ie how Vietnamese people used to swim naked in the rivers but don’t now as there are very large fish in them and
that is how ladyboys are made, apparently him and 4 others used to swim like this as kids and now 2 of his friends have to live in the temple as they cannot marry due to the fish biting off delicate bits –‘it is true!’ he kept saying while laughing his head off!! So now our group was known as the Buffalo Soldiers and on we went until we had a stop at workshop/shop/snack bar where people with disabilities as a result of Agent Orange are employed – the crafts were lovely, particularly the big lacquer screens but as there was no way they could fit in a rucksack sadly I didn’t buy anything.
Eventually we arrived at the Cao Dai Holy See Temple where we spent about 40 minutes. This temple was very different from any of the others we have seen, the outside was decorated with gigantic all seeing eyes. The religion is peculiar to Vietnam and started in about the 1930s and is a mix of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Catholic.
After removing our shoes we quickly walked along a piece of carpet to the entrance (thank goodness the carpet was there as it was
so hot your feet would have blistered on the stone) and were herded up onto a balcony by robed people wearing armbands. The balcony was the viewing area for tourists to watch the ceremony which takes place several times a day.
The huge hall downstairs filled up with people in various robes, presumably denoting their rank, who were placed into neat even rows by the people with the special armbands. The head ‘priests’ wearing red or blue came in and the praying began, it appeared to be a series of bowing movements and was accompanied by lovely singing by a group of young people and an orchestra making strange twanging sounds – which to my western ears seemed strangely at odds with the serenity of the rest of what was happening. After gawping at the spectacle for a while we had to leave, no one seemed bothered by the gawping or the herds of tourists stomping up and down the stairs!
After a rather tasty lunch we headed off to the highlight of the day – the visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is in a jungle area to the west of Saigon. We were first shown
a black and white film made in the 60s which began with the beauty and bounty of the area, the crops and fruits produced and the fact that people from Saigon often visited this area to enjoy the natural beauty. Then war came and it explained that the villagers had to build the tunnels to escape the bombing and attacks. It was heavy on the propaganda but very atmospheric and did set the scene for what we were going to see.
We stopped in a clearing in the jungle where there was an entrance to one of the original tunnels, if it hadn’t been for the tourists standing around it you would never have spotted it. Buffalo lifted a small wooden lid covered in leaves up which covered the entrance – it was tiny! Several people including Howard had a go at lowering themselves in, which could only be done if they had their arms stretched up above their heads and then kind of slid in bringing the lid down on top of them. Apparently the tunnel then curved down under the ground. Most people had to be pulled back out again.
We saw examples of the various
Ho Chi Minh City
Notre Dame Cathedral
booby traps that covered the area, from pits filled with sharpened bamboo stakes to assorted spinning, twisting and gouging contraptions all covered in sharp stakes and ready for the American soldiers.
The villagers would use the tunnels to hide in but also to ambush enemy patrols by coming up behind them after they passed. There were traps rigged up in tree tops with boulders ready to crush anyone who stepped beneath them and kind of spring loaded ones which hung behind hut doorways ready to swing out and impale anyone barging in. It was all very gruesome, but as they didn’t have the artillery or weapons that the USA did and these guerrilla tactics were all they had. Most of the villagers were just farmers.
We then went down into one of the tunnels that had been enlarged for the tourists. At my height I only had to squat down but very quickly it became very claustrophobic and dark. It wasn’t helped by the fact that the people in front kept stopping and there wasn’t much air. Despite telling myself to just pretend I was in a cave, my body just rebelled and went into panic mode and
when I spotted an escape tunnel to the side I just bolted up it. It was a horrible feeling!! Howard carried on and at the end was soaked in sweat and said he had to do part of it on his back as it was so low, thank God I got out! And our tunnel was only 100 metres long and was an enlarged one! I hate to think what it must have been like for those villagers in war time.
The tunnels were a vast underground network on several levels with chambers that were used as hospitals, schools and cook houses with a system for carrying tell-tale smoke away, there were also air shafts which again were carefully concealed. Villagers often had to spend days, weeks, months or years underground, I can’t begin to imagine how horrendous that must have been.
In one area was a firing range where Howard had a go at shooting an AK 47, even with ear mufflers on the noise was deafening and that was with just one gun being fired!
I have to say it must have been terrifying to be an American soldier fighting in these conditions but that
Ho Chi Minh City
In the post office
does not excuse what was done or the methods used to try and defeat the VC, aaarrrggghhh bloody war!
It was a strange visit, interesting and informative and helped to put things in context, but being able to fire weapons just seemed plain odd given where we were.
We got back to HCMC in the early evening and said our goodbyes to Lynz who was heading off to Dalat the next day, while we were off to the Mekong Delta. It was great to meet up with a friend from home and to be able to talk!
14th March ’12 Last Day in HCMC
Today we attempted part of the Lonely Planet’s Walking Tour, with added breaks as it was soooo hot and humid. We visited the Ban Thien Market which was inside a large building and soon found ourselves getting trapped in the tiny aisles by mobs of ladies all trying to convince us that we really did want another t shirt, linen trousers, pairs of shoes….. then it was on to the ‘colourful outdoor market’ which in reality was just one street with stalls selling local produce. On the way we discovered
Ho Chi Minh City
a kind of shopping mall consisting of hundreds of tiny stalls selling nothing but copies of designer labels – Holly you would have been in heaven!
After a quick stop for ice cream and a drink to revive it was on to the Opera House (nice building) and then the Post Office which was very grand and ornate but handy for stamps!, we passed Notre Dame Cathedral, had lunch and then onto the Presidential Palace – with a 30 minute round the block detour as Howard wouldn’t trust a local who tried to direct us. The Palace was a pure 70s timewarp with a few replicas of the tanks that had broken down the gates to liberate South Vietnam in 1975 and which led to the reunification of Vietnam, hurrah!
Before going back to the hotel we stopped at our local Beer Hoai – which is a collection of small plastic tables and chairs on the pavement with a small open fronted shop behind, where an old lady manned the pump and for 6000 dong (that’s 18p) you get a pint of draft beer! So several pints later……Howard the man who does NOT do shopping decided to make
Ho Chi Minh City
The Presidential Palace
up for lost time and got himself a pair of sunglasses (this took ages as I couldn’t stop laughing at him, he looked like he was a Russian hit man, which made the lady selling start laughing and kept halting the bartering process), a fan, a couple of books and a shuttlecock game. He also gave in and got his boots cleaned by a young lad who used a paint brush – first time I’ve seen that done!
Eventually we had our final meal – fish and chips, but I couldn’t face the apple pie and ice cream as I was still too full of beer (which of course was really lager).
Next it’s bye bye Vietnam, hello Krabi, Thailand again.
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