Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Jul 14, 2006
|Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Friday 14th July - Tuesday 18th July
Friday 14th July
After having a really hot, fun and eventfull week on the Island of Phu Quoc we were relaxed and ready to face another city. We had a few things that we wanted to see whilst in Saigon, so were looking forward to finding some good accomodation that was central to the main sights. After landing at Saigon's airport, we caught a cab into the main tourist/backpacker area of the city. We did this because accomodation is usually cheaper here and there are always good amenities like travel agents, post office, and supermarkets nearby. We were offered many guesthouses by touts, as soon as we got out of the taxi and ended up going with one offering an air-con room with bathroom and free internet for $8US a night.
We checked into our hotel which was up a small backstreet, and lined with lovely little restaurants, travel agents, guesthouses and shops. We initially thought that we were going to like the area as it seemed to have a lot going on. We made use of the free internet at our guesthouse then explored the touristy shops which sold some lovely handy crafts and clothes. We found a nice restaurant where we ate some good Indian and Thai food and relaxed for the rest of the evening and made plans for our next few days in the city. After making our plans we popped to a travel agent next to our hotel where we organised to join a coach trip the following day that would take us to the famous and original Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam war. We also booked ourselves bus tickets to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh for Friday 21st July.
Saturday 15th July
We woke up early at around 6am and met our coach at 7am ready to be taken on a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels only took an hour or so to get to and the bus had air- con, although we still seemed to be hot and sweaty for most of the way there.
We were both really looking forward to seeing the area where part of the Vietnam war with the US was fought. We wanted to learn about what had happened there as neither of us knew to much about it in any detail.
When we arrived the bus pulled up to a car park where we all had to que to buy an entrance ticket. We followed guards and entrance security staff into the forrested jungle where we started to head to an area where the war was actually fought.
What we were about to see can be described as a network of hellish, sweltering, black narrow underground tunnels forming a network of over 250km during the peak of its use.
The tunnels were started in 1948 during the war for independance against the French, and were slowly expanded. Each tiny tunnel was dug by hand, sometimes at a rate of just one or two metres a day. As the tunnels grew, arms stores, hospitals, bomb shelters and even theatres to stage politically-motivating plays were added but they were maily built to hide out and fight in. Kitchens to supply the tunnels' occupants with food were always built near the surface, but with long chimneys carved out through the ground to diffuse the smoke from the cooking fires and release it at a distance. The tunnels are barely tall enough to crawl in let alone walk in, so are therefore very cloustrophobic.
Burrowing silently beneath the feet of the American military, the tunnels connected isolated pockets of Viet Cong controlled territory, enabling the guerrillas to mount surprise attacks and then as quickly as they had appeared to vanish without trace. To penetrate this underground world, the American military had to take on the methods of the guerrilla soldier.
Frustrated by an inability to overcome a determined but poorly equipped peasant army the most technologically advanced fighting force in the world was forced to adopt the most basic form of hand-to-hand combat. Out of this came the so-called Tunnel Rats - an elite band of volunteer soldiers, selected both for their bravery and, above all, their small stature. Their motto was "non gratum anus rodentum" - bad Latin for "not worth a rat's ass".
Usually stripped to the waist and armed with just a torch and a pistol, the "rats" would often spend hours at a time inching through the humid, dark tunnels engaged in a deadly game of hide and seek. With each movement the rats would have to feel for any suspect root or wire that could detonate a carefully primed booby trap. Today, a quarter of a century since the end of the war, much of the tunnel system as it was has collapsed. But the area which we were visiting has been preserved and a section of tunnel enlarged to accommodate the bulky frames of visiting western tourists. Rumour has it that they have also been sprayed to deter the poisonous snakes, giant centipedes and the like that once used to infest the tunnel network.
Our guide showed us to some entrance holes first and we all had a go at trying to fit into one. many of the western men had to really squeeze into them, some couldn't at all as they were just too big, this highlighted to us how small and agile the Viet Cong must have been to jump in and out of the small holes so quickly!
The holes were so well hidden that we wouldn't have noticed them if they hadn't been uncovered by our guide. We saw many entrances to the tunnels strewn across all areas of the jumgle we were in. Every now and then our guide would point out that the large depression in the jungle that we were walking past and explained that it was created by a B52 bomb which had been dropped by the Americans on the Viet Cong during the war. These craters were large and everywhere! We also noticed that the forests vegetation was fairly young. Our guide explained that the trees and growth was fairly recent as the whole area we were walking around had had Agent Orange dropped on it toward the end of the war, which had killed everything in site including all of the trees and vegetation. It had since grown back. Our guide then took us to some reconstructions of some punji stake traps and other traps that the Viet Cong used to design and construct to injure and kill the American soldiers with. Please see the pics of these traps! These traps had been made in all different way's but the main idea was to build a hole and fill it with lethal bamboo spikes that pointed upwards or at angles, which were then covered by leaves etc so that when an American soldier walked over the trap, they would fall into it and be impailed by the spikes. Other traps that the Viet Cong used to use, included carefully placed trip wires that were primed to detonate a grenade or release a box of scorpions onto their unsuspecting victim. Landmines were also used! As we witnessed these reconstructed traps we appreciated how awful and bloody this war really was, and how brave all of the soldiers fighting in it must have been.
We also walked past an American tank which had been left exactly where it was grounded by landmines it had driven over back in the 1970's.
The Viet Cong were very knowledgeable when it came to combat clothing. They were totally prepared and used to the humid conditions and choose to wear light clothing and shoes made from rubber types that left no footprints so they were unable to be followed. The Americans were totally ill equipped and had to wear heavy boots which would be constantly wet from the rains and gave the Viet Cong clear footprints to follow!
Our guide soon led us to a firing range where several large semi-automatic and automatic machine guns were set up and ready to fire. John decided he wanted to try firing an AK47 so we bought 5 bullets, and went to the range and fired them. The noise was absolutely deffening, we hadn't heard anything so loud! It was really scary even though we knew we were safe, we couldn't imagine what it must have been like to have been in the jungle being fired at, but now had some idea of the noise!
Our guide then proceeded to take us to one of the tunnels that had been restored. The tunnel had 3 levels which you could choose to go down to, one at 3 meters, one at 6 meters and one at 9 meters below the ground. The deeper the tunnel the narrower it was. John didn't go into a tunnel as his wounds from our moped accident in Phu Quoc Island were still open and weeping and he didn't want to risk getting them infected, a sensible idea! I decided to go down and through the tunnel at 3 meters below the gound. It was only 80cm high and about 45cm wide, so was very small and cloustrophobic, I couldn't imagine how small the others would have been! Inside the tunnel it was dark, creepy and sooo humid, I was only in there 10 minutes and as I climbed a stairway to get out I was baked in sweat, gross!
We then walked further into the jungle to see an underground kitchen and meeting room that had formed part of the network. We also tried drinking the tea that the soldiers used to drink using local plant leaves, we also ate some roots of trees, (fresh tappioca) which is what they used to have to eat to survive on when they were low on food supplies.
The whole experience was really educational and we learnt a lot from our guide about the war and the conditions that the fighters had to survive in. We finished our trip with a video that showed real video footage of some of the Viet Cong soldiers making their weapons, landmines, tunnels and traps. There was good video footage of the area we had just walked around and of the people who had fought in this war, it was amazing to watch and made us realise that this was was so recent as it only took place in the 1970's when video/cine camera's were around and in use.
After a tiring day the bus took us back to Saigon and dropped us at the War Remnents Museum, as we knew it was small and had a couple of hours left in the day to see it in.
The museum was brilliant and really opened our eyes further to the atrocities of this war. We saw video documentrys of some horribbly affected babies and children who were the victims of the chemical warfare that was used on many of the innocent people during the war, like Agent Orange which was dropped on them by the American warplanes. We also got to see some very vivid photos taken throughout the fighting. Anyone visiting Saigon on holiday must visit the tunnels and musuem to learn about what really happened if you have the time!
Sunday 16th July
Today we made use of the free internet in our hotel and had a go at uploading photos to our website for most of the day. We also visited a local pharmacy where we were able to buy some more anti-malarial tablets, Malarone, as we were going to run out. We had a few nice meals around the local area and gave in to some book sellers again, selling excellent copies of popular paperbacks. We bought a book on the Cu Chi Tunnels for less than a pound.
During the evening we bumped into the Swiss family that we had met on Phu Quoc Island so arranged to meet them for breakfast the next morning as they were meeting people for dinner tonight.
Monday 17th July
This morning we met the Swiss family for breakfast at a nice restaurant, it was nice to see them again and chat about our week together on the island. They were leaving today to fly to Nha Trang so after breakfast we wished them well and said goodbye.
Today we wanted to go to the cinema and visit a local market to look for a cheap CD player, so set out in a bicycle rickshaw which took us to another side of the city that had some markets and a cinema in a shopping mall. We walked around the city and admired some lovely old buildings which had a colonial style to them and dating back to the French occupation. We stopped to eat at a nice Thai restaurant that we had found where the food was yummy and very spicy! We stumbled on a couple of markets and were able to get a good fake Sony CD player for 10 pounds. Afterwards we caught a cab to the Diamond Plaza shopping mall which was really expensive so we couldn't afford to shop there. We went straight to the top floor to a nice cinema there, but they were only showing two movies in English and neither of them we wanted to see. We walked around a nice park area near the mall and noticed a grand European style church which we took a few photos of but didn't go into. We then headed back to our hotel and packed our bags ready to catch our 5 hour bus to Phnom Penh in Cambodia tomorrow morning. We did some final buying of toiletries and snacks for our journey, had dinner and got an early nights sleep.
Tuesday 18th July
This morning we had to get up early, check out of our guesthouse and make our way to our bus. The travel agent gave us a lift on his moped one by one with all our backpacks, to the bus which was kind of him as it was about a 10 minute walk and we now had 2x 80 litre backpacks weighing 28 kg each, 2x small 20 litre packs, weighing 10 kg each and 2x strong 30 litre plastic shopping bags weighing again about 10 kg each!
We got on to our bus which was fine and had air-con as promised, then made our way to our next country Cambodia!