6th Oct to 9th Oct 2014
Hoot hoot, beep beep, honk honk, toot toot, beep, hoot, honk........ Try listening to that for 13 bloody hours. We got picked up at 0730 in a mini van. I was so not impressed I thought that this could well be our mode of transport the whole way to Ho Chi Minh City! Shan kept saying no, we'd be transferring onto the big bus, I was mad and wouldn't think straight. We did of course change onto the nice comfy reclining seats once again.
We somehow both managed a few hours sleep but our driver just loved his bleeding horn. He continuously pressed it the whole journey. I'm not exaggerating, we timed it for a bit. It averaged at 13 hits a minute, every minute. Unceasing. Now don't think he's crazy- it's completely the norm in Vietnam to use your horn at every opportunity. They use it instead of that little fob on either the right or left side of the steering wheel, which you press up or down and makes a clicking noise- yes an indicator! Never seen an indicator in use. They hoot their horn to let people know they are overtaking, to point out to someone who is swerving, or to oncoming traffic who are overtaking bikes on their side. We heard it continuously in Hanoi (and we would hear it all the time in HCMC too). If only they used their indicator things would be easier for them.
Anyway that wasn't the only problem. We hadn't researched how long the bus would take, and when we asked reception at the hotel who kindly booked our tickets for us, they said we'd arrive at 1630, however half 5 came, half 6 came and we were weren't there. Shan used the bus' free wifi and checked his gps, it didn't look like we would be there for a few more hours! At 2030 we arrived, 13 hours later.
That was a long ass drive, but I did read my new book A Husbands Secret and got half way through it. Last night we passed an old man with lots of books lying on pavement, I seen two I wanted and tried haggling he wasn't having it, pointing at the puffin sign saying it was a good book. We walked away, I wanted them but Shan didn't want to pay he said the man would follow us and offer them cheaper he did, he ran up behind us offering a better price. I said to the money man I wanted them.
So we'd arrived it was dark and we were ready to get in our nice hotel, we got a taxi from the bus terminus to the 5 star Windsor Plaza Hotel. We wanted to treat ourselves to somewhere nice as we'd be spending 4 nights there. It didn't disappoint, our room is on the 18th floor looking out across the districts. (HCMC is made up of several different districts, we are in district 5 and the main one is district 1, the hotel has a free shuttle there). Lovely big room and comfy bed. And the price wasn't too bad it was £215 for the 4 nights.
As it was late, we took a quick look outside for dinner but didn't see much so headed to the hotels Chinese restaurant. (Yes I know we are in Vietnam not China) It was above our price range, but the food was good and spicy and there was lots of it.
So I had to do some research as I kept calling this place Ho Chi Minh City which is quite a long name, and Shannon kept calling it Saigon. I had thought that people weren't aloud to call it that any more, but then as you look around the beer is called Saigon, the bus stations on tourist shops are calling it Saigon. So I looked it up and here's my finding so I'm clear on it...
On 30 April 1975, Saigon fell and the war ended with a Communist victory. On 2 July 1976, Saigon merged with the surrounding Gia Định Province and was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the late North Vietnamese leader. However the informal name of Saigon remains in daily speech both domestically and internationally, especially among the Vietnamese diaspora. In particular, Sài Gòn is still commonly used to refer to District 1.
So I'm now calling it Saigon too just so you know. (Shannon's always right).
The U.S. government viewed American involvement in the war as a way to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam. This was part of a wider containment strategy, with the stated aim of stopping the spread of communism. The North Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong were fighting to reunify Vietnam under communist rule.
However down the line of this long war it seems the US lost their way and started targeting innocent civilians by conducting a large-scale strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam using aerial bombs to destroy the rice paddys and land which people used to survive. They sprayed dioxin poisoning through the land so the everything was poisoned, this in turn lay in streams and trees for many years to come, and babies are still being born today with life changing disabilities because of this. In the start they were meant to only target political places but in the end were deliberately bombing schools and hospitals. (Made me think of what's just happening now with US intervening with ISIS, how long til they kill innocent people there)
Although now the US and Vietnam are politically cordial, however for the Vietnamese the legacy of agent orange and dioxin poisoning remains unsolved the US has never paid a cent in compensation to the estimated 3 million victims of dioxin poisoning from the aerial bombings.
Today we visited the Reunification Palace, built in 1966 to serve as the presidential palace. The first communist tanks crashed through the gates of this building on 30th April 1975 when Saigon surrendered to the North. The building was interesting as well as huge, and the state rooms lie today as they did in a time warp since that day. Although now it is used for state banquets and even weddings. We seen the room used by the president, his officers and US advisors. We then walked deep down under the building to a large bunker which would be used when the tanks crashed through the gates, there was telecommunications and bedrooms. Outside on the grass was two tanks which crashed through the gates, as well as a fighter jet and helicopter.
**WARNING- I will be using graphic content and there are photographs which may be disturbing**
We were about to see more aircraft and tanks as we then visited the War Remnants Museum which documented the atrocities of the war. It was very brutal and had an array of heartbreaking photographs of the victims of war. We read and seen photographs and items of innocent civilians that were massacred in their hamlets and villages. Many witnesses at the time said the US troops would round the civilians up and shoot and dismember them. These included women, children and elderly. The US troops would set fire to their houses and also take people including children to concentration camps. We seen unspeakable photographs which were truly upsetting. We also seen a collection of recent photographs of taken by an award winning photographer who captured children of today with their life changing disabilities. But I smiled as they seemed happy in the photos, having fun surrounded by friends and family.
In another room I seen more of the effects of Agent Orange and Dioxin poisoning- this included deformed foetus' in a tank. Shannon liked looking at the parts of museum which held the weapons and bombs but it was too much for him to look at the heartbreaking photos.
It was indeed a very sombre day for us. But I also left feeling so much hatred for what the US done to these innocent civilians. It wasn't done by mistake or wrong information given they knew they were poisoning and bombing innocent people including children.
I read and I quote "if only the military planners in Washington had paid a little more attention to the history of this proud nation, the trauma and tragedy of a long war might have been avoided"
As the US were only the last in a long line of invaders including the Chinese, the Khmers, the Chams, the Mongols and French. But Vietnam vanquished them.
Our sombre feelings dissipated as we jumped in a taxi back to the hotel (we couldn't remember where the free shuttle had dropped us and we knew it wasn't too far). 3 minutes in the taxi broke down in the middle of the road, bikes squeezing past hooting their horns. I said to Shan I didn't know how much money we actually had left as we had both bought a pair of Ray ban sunglasses, a coconut drink, and a book written by a Vietnamese woman who suffered and survived the war. We agreed we could run up to the room to get more money. But the taxi was really broken, we were short by a few thousand. He was in a panic about his car that he said it was fine! So then we walked for like 20 minutes a bit lost looking for our hotel, stumbling upon an outdoor gym which I tested out.
Back at the hotel and the thunder and lightning started and we got a great show from our room. We headed to Pizza Hut for dinner and it was all very Western. It was pouring wet by the time we finished but it was only round the corner so it was fine. When we were walking in the streets we seen a crowd gathering, I little boy was holding a massive snake and showing it the crowd, Shannon was gone faster than the wind, he had seen the snake and dived into the busy road and ran across to the other side, leaving me alone, he hates snakes and absolutely crapped himself!
Now time to see the war from the Viet Congs' perspective. Today we set off to the Cu Chi Tunnels 75km outside of the city. It took about two hours to get there, including a toilet stop at a factory run by people with disabilities from agent orange. They make beautiful paintings and other items. They can't work just anywhere, because they are disabled.
Arriving at the Cu Chi Tunnels, our tour guide bought our tickets for the group of 14 of us which cost us £2.50 each. The tour had cost us just £6 each so it was all good value. We watched a video about the need for the tunnels. They were dug because the Viet Cong would hide in the tunnels and the Republicans and US wouldn't find them. They didn't live down there just went when there was a raid.
There was a chance to go inside a real tunnel entrance. It was smaller than a drain cover and rectangle. (Larger people wouldn't fit). Shannon was up second to go down, you had to put your arms above head and crouch down. I was scared I'd get stuck so bowed out. Much to Shannon's annoyance and my later regret.
In amongst the forest we were walking we then came across a real US tank which had been blown up in a land mine, so it lies exactly where it happened. Unlike all other tanks you see at museums we were allowed to climb all over this tank which was cool. We also seen a crater caused by a B-52 bomber, a whole about 10 feet down and wide, with no regrowth of trees around. As I said we were in a forest, but at the time the US used Napalm bombings and the forest was left as sticks. So it's all been replanted.
Then it was time for the shooting range. I didn't have much interest in it (I was sure the gun would backfire and whack my face) but Shannon was of course well up for it, but you had to buy the bullets in sets of 10 and they worked out about £12 so when the guide said everyone could share there bullets with someone else, Shan asked a boy if he wanted to go halves. The noise surrounding us was beyond deafening so when they went down to the range I went with them, all of us with ear defenders. I got good photos of Shannon as he shot the M16 rifle at targets in the field.
Then it was time to go inside the tunnels. It was a 50 metre stretch with exits every 10m. We had both been nervous, me incase I got stuck and panicked and Shan because he has (mild) claustrophobia. So we wanted to go last but another few people was scared so wanted to go last, in the end they never even tried it. The entrance had been widened so it was easy for westerns to fit in, and the rooms which you entered were also widened, but the tunnel itself was the original. It was just wider than our hips and we had to crouch down the whole time, sometimes even on our knees. And to think the Viet Cong stayed down here for long periods.
So we worked our way through the tunnels to the end of the 50m and our guide told us we were the only ones to complete it. Everyone else bailed at the first exit.
We also seen examples of the booby traps the Viet Cong made, they looked gruesome, spikes coming from different angles to penetrate through different parts of the body.
And then it was back in the bus, and I was reading my new book I got at the museum yesterday, it's by a Vietnamese lady who grew up during the war, called 'When Heaven and Earth Changed Places'.
And so I want to say a few things that I think about the war and maybe my perspective will look different than that of the title of my last blog. From my book I established that the Republicans came and were nasty, killed villagers, stole all their rations of food and gave no hope to them, then the Viet Cong would come and be nice, not steal food or kill (unless the person was a known traitor) and gave them hope that their village would be protected. Thus making the villagers content. Then the Viet Cong would recruit the children to dig out trenches and make the booby traps, the children had a chart of progress and were rewarded, they didn't realise how much danger they were putting themselves in. The Viet Cong then told villagers to make bomb shelters for themselves, and then also made them made dig outs under their houses to protect the Viet Cong. So therefore when I said in last blog I was disgusted the US obliterated innocent villages because they thought Viet Cong were there, well actually they may well have been, as they were using villagers as their own protection.
Yes the Viet Cong were bad, I never said they weren't, the booby traps they made for the Republican and US to fall to a horrible death were horrible, they would be left there to bleed out, and I can only imagine how a fellow soldier would feel when he seen one of his comrades in a trap. Shannon offered that the way they'd feel when seeing a friend be killed may make them assume everyone was the enemy and kill whoever they could.
Either way, like in all wars innocent people will die, as such a sad fact that is.
So the two hour journey was fine, although it had been raining most of the day and now it was also lightning. Arriving back in Saigon the guide told us whilst in Vietnam you must try to eat local, it helps the economy. He laughed and said it was terrible how Westerns come and ask where is McDonalds. I agreed it's sad people only want McDonalds, however with the lashing rain, puddles and the fact we were leaving very early in the morning and therefore had little money left- we had also stopped at the market this morning and Shannon bought 3 tshirts. Three! And I got a lovely red silk floaty dress. So we had a McDonalds. But we have given lots to the economy during our stay! I was a bit disappointed about Saigon due to the fact all the streets and kerbsides had trash strewn around.
Caught the shuttle back to the Windsor Hotel and started to repack again, this time making sure to fit everything into hold luggage and hand luggage for our flight to Jakarta tomorrow. Shannon actually helped for once, but suddenly backed away saying there was a terrible smell and did I know what it was, it was near the dirty washing bags and I panicked that it was that. I smelled it and it was horrific like a dead rat, we both backed away and looked at each other like - could it really be a dead rat??- then I picked up a carrier bag that I kept my seashell in that I found on the way to Nha Trang. It was stinking like rotten fish! It went straight in the bin, and I sprayed Shannon's aftershave all over the place. I couldn't sleep at night thinking what used to live in that shell.
So now it's time to leave Saigon and Vietnam we booked our flights with Vietnam Airlines to Jakarta, costing us £362 for us both.
We have really enjoyed our 16 days in Vietnam and would love to come back one day.