On the Trail of Uncle Ho - Vietnam

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Asia » Vietnam
April 25th 2008
Published: May 9th 2008
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Borders are rarely this significant. Usually the fact that some imaginary line on a map has been crossed does not actually show itself on the ground. The Laos-Vietnam border is different; we went from a steep, almost vertical, climb up through thick jungle to a sudden line of no trees, flat, bare ground and huge excavators eating away more of the hillsides. Suddenly there was a 6 lane road and houses everywhere. These houses were not the bamboo and hardwood huts we were used to, they were tiny concrete boxes, housing large families plus their motos.

Now “motos’’ (scooters and motorbikes) are everywhere too. There is a serious fashion business going on in Moto helmets too - you can get them in all colours with attachable sun brims in baby pink. The women also are seriously into covering up. Really most people here wear more “Hijab” than in Iran, but it is all about staying pale in this fierce sun.

The road from the border was brand new and enormous but had no traffic, there were street lights and people, there were shops with stuff in them, that stay open after dark!!!All of this was so novel after a
Uncle HoUncle HoUncle Ho

Ho Chi Minh, painted as a student
couple of months in Laos. We were happy to find cheaper prices than Laos and good internet. People often wore pyjamas and we don't just mean pyjama styled clothes, but literally nightwear complete with goofy teddy bears on them! There was business and economic activity everywhere ,including a recycling trade. And overlooking all of this are the posters and bill boards of Ho Chi Minh and revolutionary art work.

We spent a few days in the border town. Robin had given me his cold and we had to sleep. We had a good time though figuring out a bit about this new country. We spoke no Vietnamese, so our first task was to try to write up our own phrase book. Each day in the town we learnt to count higher, people were pretty keen to teach us once they understood what we were trying to do. You need to be able to count quite high to barter in Vietnam - the Dong is the weakest currency we have come across in all our trip and easily the most amusingly named.

Many other travelers and cyclists had warned us about Vietnam. We had heard that it was a tough place to travel and full of touts and scams and that bargaining was difficult. Luckily for us we entered Vietnam in possibly its best part. The Central Highlands really have no tourists and hence no hassle. For us it was great to have shops and markets with stuff for sale in them. In Laos there was just hardly any trade going on. Here we could buy biscuits and snacks for when we were cycling and also things like pasta and tofu so that we could cook ourselves sometimes. In Laos even though the restaurant food was pretty bad we were unable to find the ingredients to cook for ourselves.

In this area of the country few people spoke English, but this did not stop people from trying to speak to us, which was really nice and friendly. Women constantly grabbed me and compared their height to mine, laughing all the time. The women were yet again tiny, but in Laos they had seen so many tourists that this reaction was long past. It was the same for Robin’s hair. We felt like the whole market was looking at us often, but it was welcoming and curious and laughing
Hello MotoHello MotoHello Moto

Saigon Traffic
kindly. All the markets and shops and restaurants seem to be run by women. We wonder what the men do here, it seems mostly to be driving jobs, building or sitting around drinking coffee and smoking.

Despite offers to stop for coffee and the regular distractions of roadside stalls selling iced sugar cane juice or fried-egg baguettes, we managed to cycle south to Pleiku where tiredness and colds held us up for a few days more. It was great though as it gave us a chance to hang out in the markets and observe normal Vietnam life. People work long days getting up around dawn and possibly working until late evening. There were different waves of people working street stalls, the breakfast egg-baguette women, then the noodle soup crew and the evening beer and weird drinking-snacks women, all with pitches on different pavements around town. We rested up enjoying a slightly fancy hotel room with air con, cable TV and fridge, whilst eating heaps - happy to be able to buy a variety of good food again after so long on only sticky rice in Laos. We were amused to learn that in Vietnam sticky rice is only eaten
Welcome to the MachineWelcome to the MachineWelcome to the Machine

Just across the border from the thick jungle in Laos.
on special occasions, mostly at funerals, and the phrase "eat sticky rice" has a meaning roughly equivalent to our "kicked the bucket".

The central highlands are full of modern concrete cities. I suppose the guide books do not recommend them to tourists since they are not beautiful, however we liked it up there. The cities were modern because they had been completely flattened in the "American" war (as it is called here). We were traveling through some of the worse battle grounds, along the new "Ho Chi Minh Highway" that follows war-time supply routes along the mountainous western borders with Laos and Cambodia. This area had been badly hit by chemical warfare, leaving a terrible and lasting legacy behind for the population. The Americans sprayed massive areas of both jungle and agricultural land with defoliants (Agents Orange, Purple, Blue, White…), as part of "Operation Ranch Hand", a deliberate stategy to destroy the environment that spawned the term ecocide.

The dioxins these defoliants contained - the most toxic chemicals known to man - do not occur in nature and do not break down. Many people are still being born with deformities. The chemicals are going round and round the food chain here. It was not really a very nice thought as we tucked into more fresh produce. We saw people with missing or twisted, deformed limbs, the worse being a guy forced to walk on all fours like a dog. Over 2 million hectares of forests were sprayed with defoliants and other chemicals, land rehabilitation costs are between 300-500 dollars per hectare. The social costs of deformities are much greater. Vietnam has never received any reparations for the war - on the contrary there was an American led economic embargo against the country until 1994. Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange are currently trying to sue the American companies that manufactured the stuff - which include Monsanto, the producer of "perfectly safe" genetically modified food.

We loved the climate up on the plateau since it was higher and cooler than the surrounding areas. Also the modern concrete buildings all were colourful and cool. So many were fancy coffee shops and it seemed that in their long work day Vietnamese still made lots of time for coffees. In fact coffee was the main industry round about. Huge plantations of coffee and rubber stretched over the high rolling hills around us.
Tank Tank Tank

The first of many.
The cycling was great; fast downs and short fast uphills on good tarmac, great training terrain if you are a sports cyclist. For us it lent to faster speeds and fun riding but meant that by the end of the days we were exhausted since the terrain had sucked you in to going faster than normal with a loaded bike. Several times we were invited to stop for coffee, usually by teachers keen to practice their english. Following one such stop on our way south from Pleiku our new friend invites us back to his house to wash and then takes us for dinner in a nearby restaurant, the first time we have experienced this kind of hospitality since Pakistan. As it gets later and there is no invite to stay at his house he takes into town to a cheap hotel, only we soon learn that foreigners cannot stay in this town. Clealry concerned about problems with the police our new friends rapidly disappear, it is going dark and we cannot stay anywhere legally until Buon Ma Thout - the next city still over 50 miles away. Still, we have had a decent feed and spent less than 3
It could be Aberdeenshire, Scotland?It could be Aberdeenshire, Scotland?It could be Aberdeenshire, Scotland?

Near Plieku, Central Highlands, Vietnam
dollars the whole day. We fill up with water, ride a few km out of town and pitch our tent in the edge of a coffee plantation just off the road.

Buon Ma Thuot is an even bigger, new concrete city. As if the war wasn't reflected clearly enough in the appearance of the town, the main square is dominated by a huge tank just to remind us. It is famous for producing "Cafe Chon" a speciality coffee; small "chon"( some kind of weasel/ferret creature) eats the ripest beans - husks and all - digests the fruity parts and fermets the beans in its gut. The farmers then collect up the chon droppings and wash out the de-husked, fermented coffee beans before roasting ready for your morning expresso!

From Buon Ma Thuot we left the Ho Chi Minh Highway and made our way southeast across the plateau towards Dalat. We passed through great scenery of lakes, paddy fields and loads of farmers, up through patches of rain forest and into the coffee again. People here were working the land again and it made a nice change from Laos. There were a couple of big climbs but the road
Cigar LadyCigar LadyCigar Lady

Kontum District, Central Highlands
was not too busy and the views were great. Eventually we were passed by a few “Easy Riders”, Motorbike guides with tourists (foreign and Vietnamese) riding pillion. That is usually the only way foreigners got to see the areas we were cycling through and we felt so lucky to be freely passing along the great roads without spending a lot or having to rush through. We suspect that most of the people who had negative tourist experiences in Vietnam never really got into the normal cities and only end up going on a very well establish tourist trail. However we were now headed into this tourist trail at the hill station of Dalat.

As we got closer and closer to Dalat more and more foreigners passed us on their “Easy Rider Tours” we had not seen so many white people for a couple of weeks and we wondered what was ahead of us in Dalat. Was the imfamous tourist hassle of Vietnam finally going to hit us? I am happy to say that this never happened in our whole time in Vietnam. We were not going to go to Vietnam mostly because of the many negative stories we had
Roadside RevolutionRoadside RevolutionRoadside Revolution

Communist Party billboards are a regular feature.
heard, but we are really glad that we did. We fell in love with the place in the quieter and cooler parts and I think that even if we returned now to a really touristy beach resort I could forgive it in the country since I know what a beautiful place it can be.

Dalat was lovely. It is Vietnam’s favourite honeymooners’ retreat. Apparently there are loads of kitschy tourist attractions like Crazy House, some place called Love Valley, and kitsch pedalloes on the lake. We didn’t do any of the tourist kitsch. For us Dalat just means pine forests and temperatures in the low twenties. The town sits at 1500m and has an average temperature of 17 Celsius. It was developed by the French as a colonial resort town and has its own kitsch Eiffel tower. It is famous for flowers and the market was full of them.

Whilst Robin would set off at dawn to explore the surrounding hills, forests and lakes I enjoyed being really lazy. Our small family run hotel was just perfect. I made friends with the lady working there and some of the other long term guests. I went shopping every day
The Ho Chi Minh HighwayThe Ho Chi Minh HighwayThe Ho Chi Minh Highway

On the way to Pleiku
in the market and we were able to use the hotel kitchen. We stayed for 11 days in Dalat. It was nice for us to be based somewhere for a while and in no time I had regular market ladies I got my food from. I tried to go to the women I thought had given me the most honest prices and also tried to always use some of the oldest women I could find. All the women were so happy I went shopping with them and were happy to hear my few words of Vietnamese. Many other tourists it seems hardly eat in the local market restaurants either as there were quite a few tourist restaurants in town. Now these places may be great if you are on a short holiday and want to treat yourself or if you are Vietnamese and want to splurge as it seems like that's the main feature of a Vietnamese holiday. For us it was much more fun to eat with the Buddhist nuns at the vegetarian food stalls in the market. Here we could see what normal Vietnamese eat and then just go around trying different things. There were all sorts of
Coffee BreakCoffee BreakCoffee Break

Thuan (right) and her friend invited us to stop for coffee.
weird veggie food, like vegetarian pig ears and veggie fish balls. Vietnam has a big industry in fake meats, but some of the quorn stuff and tofu products were really nice and it meant that we could try some of these different local flavours.

Dalat was not just about tourism there was lots of normal life there too but it was the first place we came across where loads of people spoke English and we were able to talk to people. We loved walking around making friends talking about Buddhism and ancestor worship. Also people watching whilst strolling round the lake in the late afternoon, where people power walked and span round on racing bikes. It was refreshing to find a place where people were into taking exercise.

Before we knew it was time for us to move on we only had a month visa for Vietnam and we had already bought our Cambodian visas in Laos so could not extend the Vietnam one. We were headed for Cat Tien National Park; down at about 150m above sea level it is a hot, dense jungle reserve, famous for the almost extinct Javan Rhino. Now despite what tour companies

Rebuilt Modern Cities in the Central Highlands
tell you there is absolutely no chance of seeing the Rhinos, there are only about 7 individuals left and these are in a closed bio-sphere reserve. Our interest in the National Park was the jungle itself and other wildlife and it is fantastic.

Crouching around the hot, humid, spiky, viney, rainforest slowly creeping up on a pitta - a beautiful ground dwelling bird - which is almost completely invisibly camouflaged in the leaf litter, but which weirdly has a bright blue back, tail and head and yet can disappear the moment you take your eyes off it, is our idea of fun. Well it was especially fun for me because Robin had done two hard early mornings more than me, learning the bird’s call and “getting his ear and eye in” while I enjoyed lie- ins!

The rainforest is one of the most difficult habitats to watch wildlife in. For a start there is vegetation everywhere and most of it hurts you! Navigation is difficult, there are no distant views to orient yourself with and all the time an intense and sometimes overwhelming wall of noise surrounds you. It is the thousands of insects all clamouring against your senses. Some people find the experience claustrophobic, but we loved it. Everywhere the different shapes of leaves grabbed our attention and there were really some magnificent huge trees. The canopy was so high above us our necks hurt trying to see the many birds we could hear but never see. However whilst we were standing still looking up we made the perfect target for the countless leeches which all made a bee-line for us. Our blood was what they wanted and despite our best efforts to knock them off we both fed quite a few of the little suckers. This may sound horrible, but we have a strange admiration for these little invertebrates. After the initial shock of finding a squidgey blood sucker attached to you has worn off we could not help being impressed by how successful a species they are and the fantastic ability they have of morphing their bodies to avoid being squashed or to cover distances at quite some speeds buy flipping end over end.

Anyway the jungle is quite energy sapping especially after we had got used to the cool climate up in the highlands. Our perseverance paid off however and in the end
Dog for Dinner Anyone?Dog for Dinner Anyone?Dog for Dinner Anyone?

We were assured these were very tasty, Plieku market
Robin had racked up an impressive list of new bird species and we had seen Langur monkeys, macaque monkeys, sambar deer, many squirrels of different sizes and a weird Ferret-Badger (possibly it was a coffee munching "Chon"), not to mention the hundreds of butterflies and creepy crawlies and the plagues of leeches!

When in the past I heard the place Saigon (I could never imagine it without an American accent!) I imagined a distant exotic oriental place with a tragic story of heartache brought about by war. The ride into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was not too bad although the road was busy, noisy and dirty, everywhere we could see plans for the new mega road they are going to build and even now there is a good system of 2/3wheeler lanes so it meant that we made fast progress. The centre of the city itself is easy to ride around. In fact the place has so many motos that it makes any other way of transport almost unbearably slow. There is a strange exciting 'shoal or flock effect' to being in all the motos, you seem to instinctively move as a group like fish or birds. If
Tasty TabbyTasty TabbyTasty Tabby

Yep Kitty's on the menu too!
you can’t beat them join them, and that’s what we did with a relish. Pedaling frantically at every traffic light to keep with the flow and some how merging and flowing around all those crazy roundabouts we made it to the tourist backpacker ghetto where the cheap hotels were. On the way we had already fallen in love with the city. There were loads of big shady parks and wide French-style avenues. Art deco and concrete kitsch mixed with street stalls and fancy fashion boutiques. There were grand palace-like hotels and statues of Uncle Ho and other historical heroes. Everywhere we felt a city that was booming. High rise buildings were springing up all over the skyline and there were expensive restaurants and bars.

We did not find the tourist ghetto too bad since you only had to walk one block away to find normal prices and local people to eat and drink with. The city was just plain fun. There was loads of life and although it was really busy and noisy there were enough quiet parks around to escape from it. There was also a great breeze which made the late afternoon really pleasant and we joined the hundreds of others in the parks, who were there for aerobics classes or power walking. Also the riverside was nice to stroll along and there were a good amount of older foreign tourists there obviously enjoying this vibrant modern Asian city.

We had some busy days in Saigon shopping a bit and visiting the poignant and intense War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace. We walked and walked and were impressed by how clean the centre of town now is and by the uniformed security staff who enforce traffic rules and prevent touts or sales people hassling you. Obviously the city has decided to smarten itself up and look forward to huge foreign investments in the economy and to a growing tourist trade which is not all backpackers.

We decided to take a tour to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. Usually we would never join a tour, but time pressure and a curiosity to see what the other tourists experience made us join up. It was when the huge coach pulled up that we remembered why we do not normally do this kind of thing…
However we resigned ourselves to the day and in fact it was
Coulourful Concrete CafesCoulourful Concrete CafesCoulourful Concrete Cafes

In Pleiku every other shop seemed to be a trendy cafe.
alright. The tunnel site is interesting. This was where the Viet Cong (the South Vietnamese resistance allied to the communist north) lived underground whilst still managing to carry out a "successful" guerrilla war with the Americans. Succesful in terms that they eventually won, but at a huge cost. During the wars with France and then America the locals dug over 200 km of tunnels, some even under a huge American army base, in which they lived, ate, slept, fought, but moslty died. The Americans responded to the tunnels by dropping huge amounts of chemical weapons and massive bombs, declaring the area a 'free-fire' zone. The people lived underground in really tough conditions, with tiny spaces for crawling through. The sections of tunnel we were shown had been widened so that fat tourists can get into them, and the rooms brought half out of the ground to make a more pleasant experience, but making it all seem a little fake. As always on a tour you are rushed through with the group, we tried to stay at the back, so that when we were crawling along the parts of the tunnels they thought that everyone was through and turned out the
War MemorialWar MemorialWar Memorial

We passed lots on the road to Buon Ma Thuot
lights on us. I suppose this made it even more authentic.

The shortness of the tour, the propaganda-like explanations given which all focused on how heroic and ingenious the VC tunnel fighters were, and the fakeness of the tunnels themselves perhaps do not really portray how grim things were here. This is one of the most heavily bombed, gassed and napalmed places on the planet - above ground only a thin cover of imported eucalyptus trees grow, the only species that can tolerate the toxic soil, and at one point we are shown "B52 bomb crater for posing inside for photo". The shooting range where you can fire an M16 and pretend to be killing VC, or an AK47 to kill Americans, is the icing on the cake (we were one of the few lots off our bus who didn't go shooting).

Of the estimated 20,000 people who fought in these tunnels, less than 6,000 survived. I still can not really get my head around the utter craziness, cruelty and criminality of that war or even more so of the current war that we are still waging against other normal people everywhere who just want to live out
Victim of U.S. Chemical WeaponsVictim of U.S. Chemical WeaponsVictim of U.S. Chemical Weapons

War Remnants Museum Saigon
their lives…

History Repeating
From 1964-1972 the USA and its allies dropped over 2,530,000 bombs of all types on Vietnam (including deliberate carpet-bombing of residential areas in Hanoi), fired over 900,000 artillery shells and planted over 20,000 land mines.
80 Million litres of chemicals were sprayed over the country, mostly Agent Orange, containing approx. 400kg of dioxins.
Across the border in Laos 3 Million bombs were dropped over a 9 year period. Cambodia was also heavily bombed between 1970-75.
All to stop the "domino-effect" and the red tide of communism over-running Asia and threatening Australia.
By April 1975 Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were all communist states. Vietnam and Laos are still communist states. The rest of South East Asia did not and has not become communist.

"North Vietnam will be entirely destroyed by our bombardment, thus driving them back into the Stone Age. They could sustain only a few weeks under US aerial bombardment"

- Curtis Lemay, Commander of the Strategic US Air Force, November 1965.

Worth thinking about next time you hear America (or anyone else) threatening to bomb an entire nation "back into the stone age".........

Anyway I digress…Vietnam today is well and truly over the war. With around 80%!o(MISSING)f the population too young to remember it, the war exists only in the minds of the old and as
What if I dont have a digger on my flatbed truck?What if I dont have a digger on my flatbed truck?What if I dont have a digger on my flatbed truck?

This was one of the more simple speed limits signs we passed!
a tourist attraction for westerners raised on a diet of 'Nam films. Money making is now top priority in Vietnam, like China it is experiencing a massive economic boom at the moment and it feels like an exciting and happening place to be. It was really nice for us because we were really able to speak to local people in this country so much more than in Laos or China and we had a great time here enjoying the good life of cold beers, iced coffees, good roads, fantastic views and extremely friendly people . We really did not want to go, but our visa was up and we had to cycle off in the now serious heat further inland, onwards to Cambodia.

Additional photos below
Photos: 60, Displayed: 38


Highland HouseHighland House
Highland House

Traditional tribal Longhouse, Central Highlands
Rice PlateauRice Plateau
Rice Plateau

Central Highlands
Krong Ngo- Rural VietnamKrong Ngo- Rural Vietnam
Krong Ngo- Rural Vietnam

Between Buan Ma Thuot and Dalat
Bia HoiBia Hoi
Bia Hoi

Draft, cold beer and lots of it. Ok its half-water but it costs almost nothing.
Tired Bike Takes a Rest.Tired Bike Takes a Rest.
Tired Bike Takes a Rest.

The Great Road from Buan Ma Thuot to Dalat
Central HighlandsCentral Highlands
Central Highlands

The main plateau before the last climb to Dalat
Misty MorningMisty Morning
Misty Morning

Central Highlands
Us and Duy VietUs and Duy Viet
Us and Duy Viet

Duy Viet is a poet and philosopher who lives in Dalat. He tells us that he had his best ideas whilst in a re-education camp after the Reunification.

It's the Eiffel Tower!
Mrs Chu and ErikaMrs Chu and Erika
Mrs Chu and Erika

I had to get on my knees to share this photo with our host at the guest house in Dalat.
Coffee Plantations Coffee Plantations
Coffee Plantations

On the road down from Dalat
Fellow RidersFellow Riders
Fellow Riders

Schoolgirls on their way home in the afternoon - they have to hang the tails of their Ao Dai over the handlebars.
Roadside HouseRoadside House
Roadside House

Actually this looks more like Laos than Vietnam, maybe these people have been left behind by the economic boom and concrete craze.
Monster RootsMonster Roots
Monster Roots

Cat Tien Nat Park
Furry Forest CritterFurry Forest Critter
Furry Forest Critter

If it weren't for a few individualistic insects who didn't follow the crowd we would never have spotted these insects.

5th August 2008

Where now?
I've been following your trip for some time now ie a couple of years! The blogs have suddenly stopped - have you finished?
3rd December 2009

I was in the US Air Force and was stationed in Pleiku from May of 1968 until May of 1969, at the height of the war. But I have many fond memories of my year there, and would share some with you, if interested. Thanks for your blog, it is very interesting.

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