We Miss Saigon

Oh my goodness, its been so long since our last post hasn’t it!? Sorry about that, been having too much fun. Anyway, I’m back again, here to give you a break from work, bore you to death on a Sunday afternoon or lull you to sleep at night with another epic blog post 🙂

Whatever you want to call it – Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon or Hanoi’s bigger and scarier sister – we were pleased to be heading that way out of Da Lat. I’d missed the warmth of the sun, fresh Bia Hoi and not being stared at wherever I went. All that I hoped Saigon could offer me. So, feeling like a zombie and walking like John Wayne (man, I drove that bike a long way yesterday – please see Andy’s Da Lat blog), we got into a shitty little mini van, herded to the local coach station and boarded our bus for Saigon. A traveller from our hotel told us it would take 11 hours to get there (what a douche bag!) when our fake Lonely Planet book said it would take six. Turns out it takes eight hours (one hour of that was stuck in the city’s rush hour traffic) so put that in your pipe and smoke it!

We wandered round for a while trying to find our bearings and finally found the back packer’s street where our guesthouse could be found down a tiny alleyway. We were greeted by the guesthouse owners, a lovely elderly couple, and shown to our room. Anh, the guy, even showed us how to open the door, turn the light switches on, how to use the fridge and tv, plus how to flush the toilet. He must have thought we were from the moon or something and had never seen these sorts of wondrous contraptions before. Bless him! We ventured out into the city that night after being warned several times by Anh about bag snatchers and pick pockets (both of which we luckily didn’t encounter), found a local Bia Hoi stall and bumped into Harry and Lisa – our Aussie friends – and went for a curry.

The next day Andy and I planned to walk around the city (which believe it or not isn’t that hard to do on foot as the centre isn’t that big. We sat with our Lonely Planet book whilst eating breakfast and read about the monk who had set himself on fire in one of the street corners in Saigon, as a protest against the government’s mistreatment of Buddhists. Do you know the one I mean? The image of him sat crossed legged whilst flames engulfed him is such an iconic image. I only knew about this monk from the album cover of 90’s rock band – Rage Against The Machine. There was a memorial there now which I really wanted to see and pay my respects to. Monks will never fight or use any type of aggressive behaviour to stop injustice. Instead they will commit suicide by burning themselves alive to make the biggest point at a protest. It’s still happening now in China with Tibetan monks.

We started out by walking to Saigon’s very own Notre Dame cathedral, a mini version of the one in Paris. We passed an opera house and also visited the old post office, both of which were in an old French colonial style of architecture. We carried onto the palace where the prime minister of Vietnam was once based, using it as a centre of communication during the war. A massive famous building that had beautiful gardens but was somewhat empty now and a bit of a tourist stop. It was stormed by communist liberators from the north at the end of the war, who broke through the gates in tanks, waving the red communist flag.

The next stop for us was the war museum and nothing could prepare me for what I was about to see. Room after room of the most disgusting graphic photography of American atrocities – burnt Vietnamese villages, napalm melting children and piles of dead bodies with GI’s smiling and joking next to them – all one sided by the way, propaganda imagery to shock, not in favour of the Americans what so ever. I felt sick to my stomach and several times had to wipe a tear from my eye. ***PLEASE BE AWARE THAT OUR PHOTO GALLERY FEATURES SOME OF THESE IMAGES.*** Obviously I am not going to go into the details of the war in Vietnam, I still don’t properly understand it myself, Google it if you are interested, but you just don’t realise that these poor people are still being affected by un-exploded bombs and the terrible agent orange the Americans used, causing all sorts of disabilities even today. Just sitting in the backpacker road having a beer the night before, we were approached by people with missing limbs and burnt faces, begging for money. It’s just so sad. The outside of the war museum was full of planes, tanks and guns with douche bags climbing all over them for the perfect photo. Idolising this sort of disgusting shit baffles me. War is wrong, there’s nothing good about it.

I was pleased to leave the museum that day but felt I had a new sense of respect for the people of Vietnam and an understanding of their past. We carried onto the corner of a busy road where a memorial now stood where the monk had set himself alight. We both lit an incense stick and contemplated what had happened on this piece of ground. It was when we turned around to cross the road that we realised it was Saigon’s famous rush hour and we were in the middle of it. Hundreds upon hundreds of mopeds and motorbikes piled up at traffic lights, whizzed over the round abouts and mostly took to the pavements to avoid having to stop. It was CRAZY!!!! But absolutely brilliant to watch. 🙂

The next day, we booked onto a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels which included a stop at a Cao Dai temple on the way. The religion Cao Dai is a mixture of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. They believe in all but you are still allowed to focus on one under the same roof which i think is a brilliant idea – bringing different faiths together. Priests either wear white, blue, yellow or orange depending on their religion and the rest of the congregation wear white. They believe famous poets and creative people throughout history to be saints, one of which is our very own William Shakespeare! The temple was beautiful, full of colour and the sound of gongs. Everywhere you looked, the sacred Cao Dai eye was watching you, floating within its pyramid, just like the symbol found on a dollar bill in the US. We stood in the eves above a ceremony (they have four a day) and listened to their singing and watched them meditate. Cao Dai isn’t a well known religion but in the region near the Cambodian border where we were visiting, it was very popular indeed.

After, we headed to the Cu Chi tunnels where the Vietcong guerrillas fought the US in the war via the means of underground hidden tunnels, booby traps and bush craft/survival techniques. We were led into the jungle and shown how the Vietcong lived amongst their enemy. I tried out one of the original openings of a tunnel in the ground. My shoulders barely fitted through! The door was completely invisible when covered in leaves which was a little scary when I had the door close on me and I could hear the guide cover it with mud and leaves above my head. Andy and I crawled 100m down one of the only surviving underground tunnels, now widened for tourists. It was pitch black in parts and boiling hot. Some sections kept dropping a level or two and proved too much for most of the tour group who bailed out of the emergency exits along the way. When we emerged the other end, dripping with sweat, covered in mud and squinting in the midday sun, we received a round of applause.

Later we watched a very one sided video about the war which, like the museum had, gave the impression that it was the whole of Vietnam against the foreign (US) invaders. Our guide Thuong was quick to clear things up after the video. He fought in the war alongside the Americans (whom he considered as friends). He said it was the North vs the South and believed Vietnam to still be a separated country. He was not keen on communism and would never call Saigon city ‘Ho Chi Minh’ like the North wanted (after their communist hero). It was refreshing to hear a different opinion from a local as he shed some light on the whole complicated mess that was the Vietnam war.

All ‘war’d’ out, we were pleased to get back to the city that night and enjoy some more Bia Hoi with the locals. We didn’t consume too many jars though as we had a flight to catch in the morning to the paradise island of Phu Quoc – south Vietnam, where we would be spending five blissful days soaking up sun on a white beach…or so we thought!

Cue dramatic gopher music – dum dum duuuuuuum!

Emma xxx

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