Saigon

The crossing into Vietnam was how border crossings should be. Get on a bus, get off at the border, smile at the Cambodian official, get back on the bus, get off at the Vietnamese side, smile at the official, walk through a metal detector, get back on the bus and continue to Ho Chi Minh City. No hassle, no extra money, perfect.
There are certain images that are more striking than others when you think about a country. The one in Vietnam will surely be the sea of bikes that I witnessed engulfing the bus and all around it as the traffic lights changed colour. It was a swarm, a plague of colour and chaos. It was wonderful. Wiki travel talked about the biggest problem of arriving in Saigon is not where the bus drops you but that you then have to race for your accommodation against the other forty or so on the bus. No such problem here, only another three tourists were on it. It’s the low season in Vietnam, which I had assumed did not really exist, but Saigon was far quieter on the tourist front that I had envisaged.

Saigon is all a bit chaotic. It trumped Phnom Penh easily and was far more reminiscent of Delhi and Mumbai in terms of traffic volume. Crossing the roads was both entertaining and yet just a tad dangerous. My personal best was eight lanes with my heart in my mouth. Just like Phnom Penh, it is a hive of activity with plenty of green and communal areas.

On the first day I went to the reunification palace, the old home for the anti Communist South Vietnamese government. It was the place that marked the end of the war as the North’s tanks crashed through the gates. The palace itself is not that interesting. I guess it’s not as grand as I was expecting which is not all that surprising considering it was bombed in 1962 and had to be rebuilt. Inside you see the presidential office as well as the war room and communication room full of gigantic archaic machines that they used to communicate with the USA. It was nice to see, and the free guide was especially useful in gaining a more detailed understanding.

In the afternoon I went to the War Remnants Museum, a building that distresses many and leads to a fair bit of criticism as to its propagandist tone. It’s hard to argue with either. Some people were visible upset as the imagery has not been filtered. Three images stand out in my memory. One of three American soldiers stood next to a series of bodies that they are supposed to have beheaded. Another is of one American holding the head and neck of a Vietnamese local, whilst another holds the legs to the camera. The body was apparently blown to smithereens by a grenade. The last is a tank full of deformed baby fetuses, claimed to be the result of chemical weapons used by America. There are hundreds of images which can rival any of those though. Walking around, I was struck with my responses to what I was seeing compared to what I saw in Phonsovan, Laos. There I had been shocked and I suppose angry at what America had done to that country. Yet as I walked around the War Remnants Museum I had a totally different reaction. It wasn’t one of America were evil, it was one of what evil, war can make a person carry out. I felt terribly sorry for everyone in the pictures, both the victims and strangely in many cases the perpetrators. On thinking about the reasons for my different reactions I think it is because in Laos, the blame is clearly pointed at the American governments at the time who kept the war secret and hid it even from the very bombers who were responsible for so much suffering on the ground. The War Remnants Museum however targets the men on the ground and strangely, for me it did not produce the effect that I guess the government would have hoped it to have. Rather the museum is an essential collection of images and artifacts that illustrate the horrendous consequences of going to war.

The following day I joined a tour and went to Cao Dai, the main temple of Caodaiism. I can’t say I understood a lot about the religion, but it is the third most popular in Vietnam and supposedly combines features from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, as well as other religions too. The exterior and interior are beautiful, creating a very Alice in Wonderland feel to the place. It’s bright, it’s a little psychedelic and one of the more impressive temples I have seen on this trip. The followers pray four times a day and one of which fell within the time we were in the temple. You go upstairs where you can look down as people dressed in cult esq gowns enter to pray. Most are dressed completely in white, others in yellow, blue and red. It’s quite interesting and a very striking site although the fact that you are joined up top by a hundred or so other tourists from various tours takes the edge off the experience a little!

In the afternoon we visited the Chi Chi tunnels. In total they spread for some two hundred kilometers and allowed the Viet Kong fighters to move secretly around South Vietnam and attack with surprise. It was a great little trip, where we were shown the deadly traps used to kill American fighters as well as the entrances to the tunnels that the fighters had to fit through. By far the highlight was getting to travel four hundred meters through one of the five star tunnels! Our guide labeled it as a five star tunnel as it was dimly lit, rather than pitch black, and was cleaned daily for snakes and spiders. I had been a little concerned how our guide was going to fit in these incredibly narrow and tiny tunnels and so was relieved when he handed over duty to a smaller and more agile man to lead us, whilst he would meet us at the other end! It was quite an experience as for the ten or so minutes we spent traveling through the tunnels, it was unbearable hot and the space could not get much smaller. My back, thighs and calf muscles hurt a lot when I got out. To imagine spending all day underground and travelling great distance is almost impossible.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable tour for a very cheap price. I get the feeling this will become a feature of my time in Vietnam. Independent travel does not seem so big here, rather in terms of finances and ease tours are the way to do things. Our tour guide was especially entertaining, if not so informative, reciting a number of well practiced jokes to entertain everyone. My favourite one was his justification as to why Vietnam was the best place to be a Buddhist. The reason for it was that if you happened to be bad in a previous life and became an insect or an animal, you wouldn’t have to wait long to be reincarnated and have another crack at life, as you would quickly be eaten no matter what you were. Quite sound reasoning I thought.

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City was a great couple of days. Next I headed to the ‘beach’ and many peoples favourite spots in Vietnam, Mui Ne.

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