I have just boarded the bus in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam headed for Phnom Phen in Cambodia. It is 8.15am and the man on the bus has said it should arrive by about 3.30pm. It’s a little longer than the 6 hours the journey is advertised as.
Ho Chi Minh has been an interesting place. Formerly known as Saigon, (and still called this by a lot of people in Vietnam) the place is steeped in history. I arrived here at about 5.45am a few days ago. I made my way to the Hideout Hostel and waited to be checked in at 6am. Whilst I was waiting, I watched the remainder of the documentary I’d mentioned in my previous post about Gil Scott-Heron. It’s called ‘Gil Scott-Heron in Black Wax.’ It’s worth a watch if you’ve not seen it.
At 6am, I checked in and booked a tour for that morning at 8am to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is a tourist attraction where you can experience the tunnels the Vietcong built and operated out ofduring the war with America. In the meantime, I headed to a bakery called ‘ABC Bakery’ a few doors up from my hostel to get something to eat.
I then headed to the nearby bus station escorted by our tour guide with a few other people from my hostel for the trip. On the way round to the station, a couple of Vietnamese fellas caught my eye, because one had a vest on with the slogan ‘PERVERT 17.’ I wondered what the 17 was about? Is it his age? The number of people he has ‘perved’ at or just a random number with a random slogan? I suppose I will never know and there wasn’t time to engage in a conversation to see where he was coming from. 17 used to be my football shirt number when I played for Bebington Rovers (and got the Golden Boot in the first year…..). That year, Totty won Manager’s Player of the Year. His dad, Loz was the manager. Totty will dispute this.
On the bus to the tunnels, our tour guide told us that there is 10 million people who live in Saigon and over 6 million motorbikes on the roads here. This is believable. The traffic here is crazy and you don’t wait to cross over, because you’d be waiting a long time. Instead, you walk out, dodge the traffic coming in all directions and stay vigilant. The bikes do slow down and work around you and unlike in England if you headed out into ensuing traffic, it is expected by the locals that you cross in this manner. Jaywalkers would appreciate this Place.
The tour guide told us the plan for the day and disclosed some interesting statistics about the war with America. He said that during that time over 550,000 tons of bombs were dropped and that over 16,000 people lived in the tunnels. It was only the first of three levels which was open to the tourists as the other two levels were further down underground and therefore, too dangerous to see. During the war, babies were obviously born underground and some didn’t see daylight until they were 6 or 7 years old. He was young man, the tour guide and I liked his philosophy. He said he had no hatred towards people from the nations that had attacked Vietnam but said it was the leaders of the nations who were bad in his eyes. He said people in the war fought for nothing and there was no winners or losers.
He went on to say that in the war, the tunnels covered over 200 kilometres within Vietnam, but the part we were going to see was 100 metres in distance and 1 metre in height. He played a video, which was difficult to hear, so I put my headphones on and listened to some music and fell asleep.
About an hour into the journey, we stopped for a comfort break. There was a shop where we stopped at where people were working making pictures. They were fascinating. They were using egg shells and then hand painting the pictures, before submerging them into a liquid to give them a glossy finish. Haha, reading that back, I realise how my artistic knowledge is compromised and I hope I don’t offend any artists with my lack of terminology. Glossy is what it was to me. Here’s a picture of one of the men at work.
It would have been great to buy some of the pictures and other little artefacts on sale here, but money and space in my bag meant I had to admire them temporarily. I couldn’t justify buying some and having them transported home, like I did without a second thought for a loud three piece pink suit.
We arrived at the tunnels and made our way through what was like a forest/jungle. Our tour guide stopped us at certain points to show us the different types of traps used by the Vietcong on the American soldiers. Here’s one which was camouflaged into the ground and when stood on spins and opens, revealing spikes which would injure the opponent.
We then came across a small entrance to one of the tunnels. Again camouflaged into the ground, we had the opportunity to get in and have a go. The idea was you raise the lid above your head, bend your knees and disappear underground. The tour guide asked if anyone wanted a go. One girl amongst the group was the first. Then a man with a larger frame came over to volunteer, but the guide said he might be too big. He then says ‘Anyone else?’ I piped up and said I would like to try, not just for the experience but to also see if he judged me as ‘big’ or capable of getting in. I was expecting him to say I was too big, in a similar fashion to how a Turkish man once did in Icmeler, when trying to convince me to buy clothes from his shops. It was a few years ago when I was carrying more weight and he called my mate Nick over to his shop to look at football shirts. He looked at me and said ‘We have elephant size too.’ Great sales technique. If you want to be reminded of any body insecurities, go to Turkey where shop assistants will happily point them out to you with the curiosity and innocence of a child. He was sort of right anyway. I was a lot bigger then. Icmeler, a wonderful place with good and bad memories. This not being one of my favourite. Anyway, back to tunnels. Cautious that I may be rejected, I was surprised when your man says ‘Go ahead Sir…..’ Result…..get in. It was as though he didn’t even debate in his own head if I’d fit. He just knew. It was a straight up seal of approval. Here’s a picture of me just before descending. I’m sure those who went down in the times of the war were not grinning as much as I was.
There was very little space once I’d bent my knees. I literally just about fitted. We moved on through the forest and went into a replica of a workshop which used to take place in the tunnels. It was positioned in a bunker. We then came to the shooting range. Here you could buy bullets for a variety of guns including an AK47 and shoot at targets. The bullets cost 40,000 Vietnamese each, but you had to buy a minimum of 10 bullets, so it would cost at least 400,000, which is about 12 quid. It was really noisy. Bullets fired every couple of seconds. I decided against firing the guns because I’m a left leaning liberal pacifist.
At some point on the tour, the guide said that Vietnam now buy their weapons from the US and Israel and that relations have improved. We will bomb you, we will fight and kill each other and damage the lives of thousands for many years to come, then we will shake hands, pretend to be friends and exchange weaponary. I thought how corrupt and fucked the world is at some levels. Even today, governments who supposedly condemn certain ideologies of other regimes, trade arms with those very people. It’s like a big game of chess to them and we, the citizens are the pawns. Young men and women’s lives are disposable to these people. A conveyer belt of ambitious hopefuls, trained and shipped out to put their lives on the line for the financial gain of a few, but it’s disguised and marketed as an opportunity of a lifetime to protect the country and become a better person. ‘Army…..Be The Best.’ That’s the advert isn’t it? ‘Look, you can have a career were we give you a gun and tell you who to kill. We will tell you who your enemy is. You won’t know them, but we will make sure you know of them. And you will follow our orders.’ It’s heartbreaking, even today, the amount of people who come out of the forces and are completely isolated in society. The majority of London’s homeless population, is said to be ex-service men and women. People are scarred mentally and physically for life, for a cause they may not believe in, understand, or can even change. It’s all a game. I saw evidence of similar stories at the museum, which I will talk about later.
After being at the shooting range, we made our way to the entrance of the 100 metre tunnel. Some people decided against going in. The tour guide advised anyone with bad knees, a bad back or heart conditions not to go in. Thankfully, all those parts of me are in working order so I queued to experience it. Here’s a few pictures of being in the tunnels.
I knew the bear crawls I do back home would come in handy at some point, other than to keep me fit and healthy. The tunnels were just wide enough for me to fit in and I was crouched the whole time round, obviously, because I’m not 1 metre in height. There were exits at 20 metres, 40 metres and 60 metres. Past that, you were committed to the whole stretch. I went the whole way. There was some parts along the way where you could stretch out when the level dropped or went higher. You had to use your arms to push yourself up the next level and crouch rapidly to continue along. To think people spent years down here is horrendous. We were told that the US army would use dogs to go and sniff out the opposition down the tunnels. In response to this, the Vietcong would take the uniforms of the captured/dead US soldiers and put them around the tunnel entrances. The smell of the US uniforms was so familiar to the dogs that when sniffing they would not recognise this as different and therefore the target and subsequently move on without detecting the tunnel entrances. Clever Vietcong.
Getting out of the tunnels, literally was a breath of fresh air. Sweat beads dripped down my forehead. My legs still feel the ache slightly from the crouching. We were then treated to some food. A dish which was cooked during the war time. It was like a potato, but not a potato, quite chewy with a salt and pepper dip. It wasn’t really that tasty. The guide said that during the war, the Vietcong would cook once daily, early in the morning. They had to build chimney like ventilations. This was another opportunity to trick the US forces. They created tunnels for the smoke off the cooking which would come out metres away from where the kitchens were. This meant that if the US seen the smoke from the cooking and bombed that area, they were only bombing the ventilation and not the kitchen. Clever Vietcong.
We then headed back to the bus for the 2 hour return journey to the city. The bus stopped at the War Remnants Museum for anyone wanting to pay and see that. I’d spoken to a few people about this, who had been. All had said it was heavy going. I got off at the museum and headed in. Within the grounds were some tanks, planes and helicopters used during the war. Here’s one of an American Chinook.
The ground floor showed various pictures. Some were of forces and armed ships in the tranquil settings of Ha Long Bay. There was other pictures of Vietnamese and American leaders in recent times. Here’s one of Barack Obama and Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Tong in the USA in 2015.
There were pictures of American men burning their conscription cards so they could not be called for and photographs of people protesting and urging men to potentially face prison rather than agree to go to war. Imagine that…..being sent to prison for refusing to participate in this caper.
Further on there was many displays from countries all around the world in support of Vietnam and denouncing the actions of America. Countries from all continents rallying behind the Vietnamese. Here’s some artefacts from Cuba and one below from Palestine.
Ask yourself, is it any different today? I don’t want this post to be misinterpreted as anti-US. The orders and actions of British governments and many others around the world have been and still are criminal. The point I am making is we are sold a lie. We are led to believe that the people who govern us have our best interests at heart. I believe the truth to be very different to that.
The next floor of the museum was devastating. There was a whole section of photographs and accounts from people who were and still are affected by Agent Orange. This was a chemical which was used to destroy the land of Vietnam and had devastating consequences for anyone who came into contact with it directly, through childbirth or even through feeding on breast milk. There are people still born today around the world who have serious deformities as a result of this chemical utilised by the US forces. There was a letter displayed, written by a Vietnamese woman to US President Barack Obama. It acknowledged comments he made in a speech about his love for his daughters and asking him to further acknowledge and support those whose sons and daughters are affected to this day by the actions of the war here. The pictures were absolutely horrendous. At certain points I had tears in my eyes. I scanned the room and seen other people equally horrified by the actions of humans against each other.
I can’t remember if it was on this floor or another in the museum, I heard an American man say ‘They’re only showing one side of this shit.’ The museum is obviously based in Vietnam. The war took place on this land. I think his national pride was hurt and he felt the whole museum was an attack on the USA. Regardless of which country you were born in, the whole thing is hideous. If someone gives an order to drop chemicals and bombs knowing people are going to suffer as they do, then they need to be accountable for that, regardless of whether they’re form ‘The Land of the Free’ or Narnia. Let’s remember that countries and borders are just man-made also. Some bizarre folk in days gone by have sat down and said ‘This bit’s ours, that bit’s yours. Sometimes, we will want some of your bit and we will come and take it off you. If you don’t let us, we will use force and kill you and anyone who tries to stop us. Is this OK?’ And everyone’s sort of went ‘Yeah OK, let’s see how that pans out.’ I find it bizarre how we’re conditioned to distance ourselves from each other depending on which part of the planet we were born in. In the west, we are no more superior to our brothers and sisters elsewhere. Our media will tell us to fear this group or that group, or blame our troubles on those on benefits or immigrants, all the while taking the attention away from the real crooks, at the top, so they can get on with their games. ‘OH IT’S MUCH MORE COMPLEX THAN THAT MATT?’ Is it? Or are we led to believe it is? Let’s just stop fucking killing each other.
One Love. Things CAN change.
Socio-political rant over.
That evening, I met up with the lads from France (notice, how I’m grouping together 4 other people I have met by the place of their birth, like a big hypocrite) and went to a few bars with them. We played pool (I won…..1-0 to England) and chatted and laughed. It was a good night. I finally lay my head down at about 1.45am. Party animal.
The next day I just wanted to chill. I sat off in a restaurant for a few hours, trying to work out a route around the islands of southern Thailand, where I will head to after my stay in Cambodia. I had to go and change some cash to US dollars for my visa in Cambodia. They operate in US dollars over there and everything you buy is paid for in dollars, but you can be given Cambodian Riel money as change. Apparently it’s difficult to spend the local money there though. Figure that out.
I decided to have a walk around the city and headed up to see the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. A lovely building with a statue of Our Lady outside. Apparently, in 2005, there was a report that tears flowed from the right eye of the statue. The top clergy of the Catholic Church in Vietnam couldn’t confirm this, but massive crowds flocked there for days after. Here’s a picture of the building and the statue.
The back of the Cathedral was open for tourists and then there were benches which were sectioned off by a gate, for people to pray only. I went up to the gate and the woman asked me did I want to pray. I said ‘Yes’ and she let me in. I enjoy quiet time in any space and don’t feel I need to go to a church to have this. However if I am in a church I do try to utilise the quiet space to pray/meditate. When she opened the gate, she explained that the Stations of the Cross was taking place at the front of the Cathrdeal and I had to sit at the back. I made my way a few rows in and she called me. ‘Sir,’ she said and gestured towards the back row. There was other people on the back row so I wanted to sit a few rows up. She nodded and allowed me to sit where I wanted when I pointed to a bench further up. There’s a saying I’ve heard that I think my Grandad Bill used to use of ‘No seat is reserved in a pub or a church.’ Not sure who to credit it to originally, but I like the sentiment. Try telling that to a local in a pub, who sits in the same seat day in day out. Or a little old dear in a church who’s been going everyday for 109 years and must sit next to the radiator, even in August. Haha, churches and pubs. Two establishments where conflict is bound to happen, in very different forms with a varying degree of subtlety.
The surrounding area of the Cathdral was lovely. It felt like the ‘upmarket’ part of Saigon. Fashion shops, coffee shops and restaurants lined the streets. Here’s a picture of a statue of Ho Chi Minh.
There was a theatre nearby aso and this rather grand building which was Saigon Central Post Office. Quite a place to cash your Giro, pay your leccy or purchase helium balloons.
On the way back to the hostel, I went into a little shop which sold books and posters amongst other arts and crafts stuff. They had movie posters of hundreds of films, as well as of musicians and some Communist posters. Here’s one for the film ‘Good Morning Vietnam,’ starring Robin Williams and one of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Child.’
I headed back, stopping for a coffee at one of Ho Chi Minh’s quirky coffee shops. There was a. seated area as well as a platform with just tables, where you could sit on the floor.
If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you may have seen a video I posted from the coffee shop. When I arrived there was no music on. People were working away on laptops, others were reading. The only sounds I could hear was the clattering of dishes from the kitchen and the trickling of water from the fountain in the corner. It was peaceful. Then the music came on. Amongst other tunes was 2Unlimited’s ‘No No,’ as well as the Macarena and then ‘I Want It That Way,’ by the Backstreet Boys. I will treat you to a mime of that later when I have wifi.
I got something to eat and then headed for the hostel, via the massage parlour. I’d been walking all day, so treated myself to a foot massage. As the lady finished she asked me to sit on the stool in front and started to massage my neck and shoulders. I needed more of that, so extended my stay for an hour for a back, neck and shoulder massage. After she had finished that she asked for a tip. That’s OK. We headed downstairs to pay and the woman on the till handed me a piece of paper with the price of tips on. Haha. Upstairs the lady who had massaged me said ’10 dollar tip.’ That was nearly the same price as the massage (11 dollars). Downstairs, now at the till, I look at the piece of paper. There are two tip options. Very Good (10 dollars) and Good (9 dollars). Haha. It amused me but infuriated me at the same time. My experience of tipping is it is up to the customer how much they tip. I’m aware there are some expectations and unwritten rules within the tipping business, but I’d never seen a tipping price list. When I worked in a pub, it was a general rule that if someone said ‘And your own,’ you took 20p. This may differ between place to place. Evidently it does here in Vietnam. There was no other options either. Where was the prices for ‘Satifactory,’ ‘Poor’ and ‘Dreadful?’ They were obviously confident in this establishment that they were nothing short of ‘Good’ at 9 dollars. I gave the 10 dollars tip, not wanting to seem like an ‘arl arse.’ As if you’d ask for the dollar change if opting for the second option. I went back to the hostel and went to bed.
One other picture I want to share with you is this one I saw in a toilet. First question is obviously ‘Why would you do this anyway?’ But with the amount of piss that finds itself on some of the floors here, maybe people started to do this and it got out of hand. The little man looks petrified of all the wee coming towards his feet..
Sorry, last one. This was a barbers station near the Cathedral. Brilliant.
This morning, like I said at the top of the post I have boarded the bus for Cambodia. In the process of writing this post, we have crossed the border. Upon boarding the coach, we handed our passports over to a man along with $35. I had read of scams of people having to pay on the coach and again at the border, so I clarified this when the chap was talking to another two girls. At the border, we had to get off and enter a huge warehouse-type building. Here we were given 2 documents. Back on the bus for about 5 minutes and off again to go through passport control, where scans were taken of our hands and thumbs. I’m now on the database, so I must behave whilst here. We got back on and then 10 minutes later, off again at a little cafe. There was food on sale and other than instant noodles at 20,000 Vietnamese Dong, the cheapest meal was 40,000 Dong. I had 37,000 and asked if I could get something for this. I was waved away. So I went to the nearby lady and got an Aloe Vera drink and a packet of Oreo’s. I have 2,000 Dong left. In the words of Alan Partridge; ‘Needless to say, I had the last laugh.’
It is now 11.55am, and we are due to get into Phom Pehn at 3.30pm. I will update the blog in a few days. My plans whilst here, are to go to the killing fields and to see Angkor Wat.
I hope you have enjoyed the post and that you’ve picked up some nuggets of information which could come in handy at a pub quiz sometime in the future. Thank you for your continued interest and I look forward to reading your comment if you make any.