Day 87: And The War Goes On....

August 10th, 2001

Day 87. Before I set out to see the sights of Ho Chi Minh City I headed for the Cambodian Consulate to get a visa, this was remarkably quick and easy.  All I had to do was enter a sparsely decorated room with a very large wooden table in the middle, hand over my passport to the guy sat on the other side, then an hour or so later he gave me the passport back with a rather illegible script stamped all over it.  Cool!

What can I say about this city, well I’m glad I went to Hanoi first, Hanoi was a nice city filled with big decaying French colonial architecture and smaller traditional Vietnamese shops and houses.  Saigon is very much a big city which has lost most of its character to tower blocks, drugs, crime and grime.  Kids seem to constantly beg which irritated so much that after one guy said, “You are English you have so much and we have nothing” I gave the tactless reply, “Yep, that’s communism for ya comrade!”  I think if I’d arrived here first I may well have not decided to visit the rest of Vietnam.

Having said all that, the war remnants museum is really interesting and worth a visit.  As the title suggests, it’s all about what is left behind of the people and country after the battle is over, the soldiers gone and the media moved on to the next story.  Surprisingly, and in complete contrast to museums in the north, this museum does not point any blame at anyone for the injuries caused to the people and land of Vietnam.  It only seeks to reconcile them, hoping that such things will never happen again.  There are images of Napalm, executions of Vietcong by US troops, beheading of men by Australian forces, birth defects caused by chemicals such as Agent Orange, injuries from land mines.  In the streets you see many beggars with missing limbs as a result of landmines, begging because they are now unable to work, thrown out by society as being unproductive.  This place makes you think why, but does not seek to answer the question.  My personal conclusion is that it was all about power and control at any cost by a nation which likes to see itself as civilised and did not consider the effects on the civilian population, very sad and very unnecessary.

After this relatively balanced view I headed out to the xenophobic and more expected patriotic Reunification Palace with its anti-French and anti-American stance.  Having now travelled the length of Vietnam and seen the clear north south divide it’s become even more obvious to me why they need this hatred.  Instead of the leaders of the north blaming the southern Vietnamese, they’ve had to create a common enemy for the sake of national unity.  Although it was fundamentally a war between north and south, having the Americans and French there has created an outlet rather ironically creating a kind of unity between north and south which has kept this county together.

Saigon does have all of the usual sites of poor big Asian big cities with people defecating in the street, openly injecting drugs and begging but there is a difference.  In the street the old soldiers with missing limbs beg for money so they can live in a country for which they fought and now forgets them.  Their mistake?  They fought for the wrong side.  They even beg from tourists whose countries paid them to fight, supported in battle discarded in defeat, it’s an awful situation.

Day 82: Three Minibuses And A Tube Of Glue

August 5th, 2001

Day 82. As usual the minibus was forty minutes late in picking me up.  I had booked a trip to the ridiculously named My Son, a place which is meant to be to Vietnam what Angkor Wat is to Cambodia so I was expecting something really impressive.  The weather was terrible, heavy rain flooded the roads within minutes turning them into rivers.  About an hour into the journey as we bumped along there was a huge bang and almost simultaneously we veered off sharply towards a paddy field.  On hitting the paddy field we came to a sudden halt with mud and water shooting up and onto the windscreen, luckily none of us were really hurt as the paddy field acted like a big airbag.  We quickly scrambled out to see that the front right suspension had broken probably due to the hammering it got on the Vietnamese roads.  Our driver left us with the bus and hopped onto a passing moped but before he disappeared into the distance he made a number of weird hand gestures.  I hoped these meant that he was going to phone someone and not that he was going to go somewhere private to play with himself!

Eventually a full hour and a half later another minibus came to pick us up so we could continue our journey.  Shortly after setting off the vehicle started to stall, we all thought the driver was doing this as a joke so we all laughed and so did the driver.  This happened four times and the driver was still laughing but it was no longer funny.  The fifth time it happened, not much more than four kilometres away from where we had left the first minibus, the new one finally gave up.  For the next two hours the driver all but took the entire engine apart finally focusing on a small cap where the rubber seal had perforated.  The driver then jumped on the back of another moped which happened to be passing and headed off to a shop and returned by foot with a tube of superglue.  There was now a crowd of about fifteen locals looking at a man trying to fix a vital engine part with a tube of superglue but luckily before we had a chance to try the glued engine a third minibus came and took us the rest of the way to My Son.

My Son.  Vietnam.

To get to the site we had to walk across a rickety wooden bridge and then pop in a little wartime jeep for the short ride up a very muddy slippery hillside which the driver took great pleasure in skidding around on.  Sadly after this epic journey My Son wasn’t really worth it, there’s very little left to see.  I can only imagine how impressive it must have been but sadly this place was pretty much taken apart by relentless bombing during the French and American Wars.  Fragments of the temples remain amongst huge bomb creators with the odd sign reminding you not to wander too far off the beaten track because of ‘mines.’  I guess wars don’t preserve history, they make it.  Back at the entrance I noticed that the second broken down bus was there waiting for us.  Somehow they’d fixed it with the tube of glue but none of us were particularly happy about getting back in it.  Before heading off I went to one of the two restaurants which were open just outside the main gate.  One was clearly on commission from the minibus driver and the owner was adamant that I should eat at his.  As I sat down at the other place he came in and manhandled me saying “Come, come”, to get me into his place.  By this time after everything that had happened I was in a bit of a mood and I was pretty annoyed that he was grabbing me.  I really lost it with him standing up sharply, knocking him backwards shouting “Don’t you ever fucking touch me again.”  Not my proudest moment but at least I could eat in peace and he didn’t hassle anyone else on our bus.

It’s been a stressful day but we eventually we got back five hours late thanks to a tube of superglue.  This does seem a little ironic as superglue was invented by the American military in Vietnam for triage.  It was used to quickly stick wounds together rather than stitching.  I guess that’s why the stuff sticks better to you than anything else!  To relax after the ordeals I treated myself to a posh restaurant for dinner and tried the local delicacies of Won Ton dumpling, Banh Bao Vac (white rose; shrimp dumplings made from thin dough made to look like a rose) and Cao Làu (rice noodles like pasta with pork and fried dough).  While I ate I helped the restaurant owner’s daughter translate a letter into English for which they gave me free chocolate cake.  It was a really nice way to finish off a bizarre, irritating, very trying but a typical “backpacking” day.

Days 83 to 85: And Then Nothing Happened

August 8th, 2001

Day 83. This morning the German girl told me a bizarre story.  Yesterday she’d met up with a couple of like minded vegetarians and had been walking around the old market district.  In a side street they saw a number of dogs tightly crammed into a cage where they were waiting to become delicious “bite sized” meals for the locals.  So this wouldn't happen they decided to do something about it and buy one of the dogs.  Each with happy thoughts of the dog running freely around the paddy fields, splashing in the water, barking away, they bartered for and bought the dog.  The seller quickly picked up the dog they had so carefully chosen for its soft fur and loving eyes and with one swift movement swung its head to the floor with one hand and cut its head off with the other.  There was a look of stunned horror on all three of them as he continued to “prepare” the dog for eating.  She told me this in all seriousness but I couldn't help sniggering internally, but thought it best not to say that I'd actually tried some dog a few days ago.  I did however ask whether she had learnt anything from the days events to which she said “yes, that people here are sick.”  I responded quite sharply “no, just because people behave differently to us doesn't make it wrong here, we are the different ones.”  I pointed out that would a Muslim not think we are sick for eating pork?  However, I hope she learnt more importantly that, by trying to interfere with local customs without having any real understanding actually led to a worse outcome.  I said “What if no one bought the dog, it might have been released, did you think of that?”  Silence........  But this is a real pet hate of mine when it comes to how some backpackers behave.  It’s fine to object to something but remember where you are before you take any action.  Saying or doing something without any consideration could get you into quite a bit of trouble and it may not just be a dog losing its head.  After all, I object to China's treatment of the Tibetans and other minorities but if I was a guest in their country I wouldn't stand up in centre of Tiananmen Square shouting it.  We all know what happens if you do that!

Anyway, enough of my self-righteousness!  I spent most the day just walking around the Hoi An historical sites.  The most bizarre of these was some old fella’s house which was listed as a “museum to visit” on my entrance ticket to Hoi An.  I peered through the door but it was just an old house with an old fella sat in the corner doing old fella type things which unfortunately seemed to mean that he had to do these things semi naked.  He invited me in to look around but it didn’t feel right, the rest of the family were in the back of the house doing their usual daily tasks and I felt like I was intruding so after a quick look around I left.  I’m still not entirely convinced that this was the right place and that I’d actually just walked into a random bloke’s house and because he was so hospitable he just let me look around!

Hoi An is a really nice place, seems the most archetypal image of a Vietnamese town; peaceful, relaxing, no one hassling for a taxi or begging.  It also appears to be the place to go to get top quality suits made bespoke for next to nothing.  Heading into the markets within seconds I had a ‘Next Clothing catalogue’ pushed in front of me.  They said that they would copy the design of anything I wanted and give me the fitted suit tomorrow.  The overnight minibus I’d booked to Nha Trang eventually arrived one and a half hours late and it was possibly the most painful journey I’ve had travelling so far.  The seats were small with no headrest, no legroom with some having to sit on small pull out seats in the central isle and my stomach’s started to hurt again, Arrrgggg!

Day 84. When the hotel guy showed me a room I thought I’d ask if it had air-conditioning, he rushed off and then five minutes later another man came in, took the glass out of the window, said “OK” and then walked out!  Can’t say a lot to that really.  Reading my guidebook it’s clear that there’s really nothing to do in this town so I figure I’ll just chill for a couple of days to recover from last night’s arse breaking, knee crushing journey.  Can’t really say much about Nha Trang other than it’s a beach resort with tacky restaurants and bars on the sea front full of young French girls desperately trying to pull but sadly without the aid of deodorant or facial hair remover.  I spent the day reading and trying to find a nice chocolate bar which didn’t taste like cardboard.  I did however find a sign in the centre of town telling you why girls shouldn’t defecate in the street, looking at the picture the most concern seemed to be given to boys mistakenly picking it up and eating it as food!

64.  The Dangers of Girls Pooing in the Street!  Nha Trang

Day 85. I decided to book my onward ticket to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) for tomorrow, partly though time constraints and partly because nothing weird or stressful has happened in the last couple of days and I’m starting to miss it!  The only highlight so far was my lunchtime visit to a sea front restaurant.  While I was sat on the beach front having my Lunch the chef quickly rushed out of the kitchen and then proceeded to vomit all over the floor right next to me, nice.  The highlight of today was eventually finding some half decent chocolate, although I was nearly put off by the name of the Danish company which made it.  ‘Provided by Aarhus Olie’.  Chocolate provided by ‘arse hole’, nice!

65.  Chocolate Produced by Your What Hole?

Day 86: One Minibus And A Tube Of Glue

August 9th, 2001

Day 86. Predictably the bus was one hour late but I’d have been disappointed if it wasn’t.  When I found a seat and sat down I noticed that everything was not as it should be, there was no glass in the window next to me.  So after eventually picking up the remaining passengers we headed straight for a ‘window’ shop.  A man came out and measured the window then got a piece of clear Perspex, cut it to shape and then superglued it to the window frame!  Great, now I can’t even open the window and everything outside now looked distorted like a freaky circus hall of mirrors!  I’m now starting to believe that if it wasn’t for superglue the whole county would have literally fallen apart!

Through my nice new and slightly image distorting window I could just about see all of the bizarre sites Vietnam had to offer.  Again, pigs rolled up alive in wire mesh, then balanced precariously on the back of mopes while speeding down roads, more pigs rolled up in wire and placed on top of each other in the back of lorries.  Tens of chickens tied to handlebars by their feet, the rider taking his live quarry from the market back home.  Animal welfare hasn’t quite reached his part of the world yet.  There was one last stop before we arrived in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City depending on your allegiance, it was the small town of Phan Thiet where we had the delightful smells of the nuocmam (fish sauce) factory!  At first I did wonder how anyone could eat that stuff but even though the smell of the fermenting fish is horrific, a little bit added to food is actually quite nice.... honest.

Day 88 to 89: Don’t Let Go Of Your Pants!

August 12th, 2001

Day 88. I wandered around the old French District number three which is quite pleasant with its French style theatres, Town hall, Post Office and apartments.  Looking around one thing did surprise me.  Completely randomly and unexpectedly there was a small posh looking shopping centre and inside was a Marks and Spencer shop just selling pants!  Amazing, I don’t know whether this was a franchise or rip off shop but it looked kind of weird seeing underwear on display in a place like this.  I started to get the opinion that maybe the north winning the war wasn’t so clear cut after all.  The south got a taste for the west and won’t let go of its pants!  After spending too much time looking at the knickers section I decided that there wasn’t much to do here so booked my onward minibus ticket to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.  The highlight of today apart from the pant thing was going to a night market and buying a fake ‘Sony’ Discman and thirty two chart CD’s for $50us.  Still don’t know why the hell I bought the latest Dido album!

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

Day 89. Leaving Saigon we passed the newly built mansions of people somehow made rich on the back of communism.  Ho Chi Minh would turn in his grave if it were not for the fact that he had been stuffed and put in a glass case like a dessert in a posh restaurant.  At the border with temperatures over 38 degrees we stood for 1.5 half hours trying to ‘check out’ of Vietnam but as boring as this sounds, we were at least kept amused by the locals.  They were loading mopeds with luggage to the point the whole ensemble was three metres wide and three meters high with no space for the driver.  They would start and engage the bike engine while people ran alongside supporting it.  It had to be seen to be believed.

Cambodia: The Missing Millions

August 12th, 2001

To me four words are ingrained with the name Cambodia, they are Khmer, Pol, Rouge and Pot.  Pol Pot with the help from his revolutionary friends brought this country to its knees between 1975 and 1979.  He took control while the country was in disarray after the bombardment it took from the American forces during the Vietnam War.  The bombing was of the Vietcong on the Ho Chi Minh Road supply route which for a while had its route through Cambodia.  Famously the Vietnamese and Cambodians denied its existence so the Americans denied obliterating it with carpet bombing!  No one knows how many people died during this.  Eventually the Khmer Rouge took control of the whole of Cambodia although the country was split up into small sections which were held and run by a separate ‘wings’ of the organisation.  Unfortunately this created suspicion, fear, sparked mass killings and finally the death of the Khmer Rouge itself but not until an estimated 1.7 to 3 million people were murdered or died of starvation.  The basic theory of the Khmer Rouge was to make Cambodia a peasant society, a society in which no one owned anything, everything was collective, everyone was equal, true communism.  To achieve this anyone with an education would need re-educating, people with wealth and power were forced into doing manual unpaid labour.  Both of these groups were sent away to ‘study’ but few came back.  So what will be left years after the Vietnamese helped overthrow Pol Pot, which was partly due to his power mad disposition by trying to retake the Mekong Delta from them, and just over twenty months since the Khmer Rouge finally surrendered and ended their continuing war.

Day 89: Mansions To Mud Huts

August 12th, 2001

Day 89, (continued). Thirty minutes later we were in Cambodia.  The first thing I noticed on crossing the border was the extreme lack of tarmac, although it looked as if they were about to start making a road soon it was too late for my poor backside which has taken a battering on various busses over the last week.  The houses on this side of the border were dramatically different to those just on the other side.  In Vietnam the houses were mainly concrete and brick but here they were now made from mud, sticks and reed.  As we approached the Mekong River and its flood plains more and more houses were supported on posts, anything up to three meters and sometimes more above the ground.

To cross the Mekong we had to drive onto a rickety wooden ferry.  While waiting to cross the co-driver asked me the usual questions about me and my family, brothers, sisters, parents, married, single, etc. so in return I asked about his and got a chilling story of the Khmer Rouge and murder.  His parents, three brothers and one sister were all killed during the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge but somehow as a baby he was spared from this fate.  He was born in 1978 and so the murders would have happened at about the same time that I was at ‘play school’ playing without a care with Plasticine and pot paint, he was in hiding while his family were being murdered.  These experiences, these people, these stories you hear when backpacking make you realise that no matter how dull or tedious life may seem in our western world we should really not take things for granted.  While we laugh and joke, people somewhere in another part of the world are not so lucky.  What hit home more was the fact that while he has no parents, killed by an evil regime, it’s my mum’s birthday today which she will be having in the relative safety of Sheffield where the only things to worry about are the weather and the Manor Top council estate.