Full Metal Jacket: My Thoughts and Experiances in Southern Vietnam
Can Tho Travel Blog› entry 1 of 6 › view all entries
October 1st, 2008 – by: clieb
Simply put, Southern Vietnam can be compared to a freeway: a system of organized chaos, where so much can go wrong but usually doesn't. Near-death road collisions, strong yet tempered nationalism, and police-distributed marijuana all await the traveler who has a need for a little adventure.
I arrived in HCMC at around late Sept 30. My first impressions of Saigon was the endless quantity of mopeds, slicing their way down streets, alleys, dangerously tiny gaps between moving vehicles. Perhaps nine of ten moter vehicles you will experience in Saigon are mopeds, a understandable figure when you account both Vietnamese GDP and cultural acceptability.
The city is mostly clean, with some big rats, uneven sidewalks, and trash to shake spice up. Day is dominated by the roar of the bikes, while nights are more shady but not to the point of uncomfortable.
Being an American is usually a experience abroad, sometimes good, usually not, as our foreign policy arrived far before we did.
Our group's last main activity in Saigon was the former presidential palace, site of the infamous storming by Northern Vietnamese tanks in 1975. The tanks are still there, immortalized in a nearby grass patch. The palace has been well preserved, and was presented as some sort of war prize, to be shown off to the world.
With Saigon said and done for the most part, our next destination was the Cu Chi tunnels, closer to the Cambodian border. A few entrances of the remaining tunnels were shown, although we can only gasp at their small size and were not permitted to enter. Later we were shown traps for used against the troops, from spikes rigged to swing from an opened door, to spikes hidden under a rotating wooden surface that was covered in leaves.
Here, part of a huge Vietcong tunnel complex is shown off, along with primitive yet deadly traps used against American troops. Most of the original tunnels have since caved in, and the only authentic remains are a few entrances. There are re-created tunnels that guided tours go through, and these should be experienced by all who can. A Vietcong tunnel is a Vietcong tunnel, until you experience walking though one. It is dark and claustrophobic down there, and all but the shortest will at least have to squat pretty fully. A few minutes down there will give anyone new appreciation for daylight, not to mention personal space.
You can also try the firing range there, shock full of Vietnam War leftovers. For the firing range, we were given the option of an M-16, M-60 (Rambo), and the AK-47. I chose the AK cause it's now involved in largely evey conflict today, a regular for terrorists, freedom fighters, and communists. The gun is loud as hell, to the point you wince with every shot. I only got 10 rounds, but they were enough get a feeling for the weapon.
After returning to Saigon, the beaches we calling. There are no freeways in Southern Vietnam, as far I ever saw, only one-lane roads that stretch to infinity.
Mui Ne, our beach destination, was amazing. It felt more like Oregon or Mexico, with dry heat, sand dunes, and taller vegetation. Being college students, we told our bus driver we were staying at the Pogo Bar, in contrast to every other passenger who named one resort or another. That earned us some funny looks, they not knowing we had a friend waiting at the bar who would serve as our local guide.
This was my favorite part of the trip. The ride was perhaps 45 minutes long, with perfect weather and ridiculous ocean-side scenery, all while racing the sun to get to the dunes before it's time expiration. The roar of the engine, the mostly-empty highway, the scenes of small towns and winding coast lines, perhaps led to my favorite experience thus far in Asia entirely. The dunes were great, and we ended up jumping off a step ledge followed by plenty of barrel-rolls. Sometime during this I lost my moped keys, and you don't find keys in sand dunes. We we got back, a local family pried open the compartment to get my belongings, and showed me the basics of hot-wiring a moped.
This was a special happening, as I was given the chance to communicate (as best as I could) with two locals about their lives. The most interesting thing I learned was the driver of the jeep we were renting like to smoke weed with his family on a family fishing vessel, then most likely suggested I should try it some time. I told him thanks but no thanks. Later on, I learned from our local friend the best weed in town is obtained from the police, of all people. That night the seven of us had dinner at a fresh seafood restaurant, each getting their own meal.
While were there, after getting a massage, we chatted it up with a woman who had once lived in Montana. She was originally from Vietnam, she told us, and now ran the little massage parlor, for an interesting reason. Often, young, poor girls in Southern Vietnam, if unable to acquire a solicit-able skill, such as massage techniques, will be forced to resort to prostitution. The goal of this parlor, the woman told us, was to provide a sanctuary for women in that predicament. She had worked as a prostitute herself, during the war, and stated she was doing her part to make sure these young girls would never have to experience what she did.
To save time, my group decided to consolidate riding the bus and sleeping into one activity, departing Mui' Ne' at 2am. Around 6:30 we arrived in Saigon, and immediately book another bus ride to the Mekong Delta. The delta is huge, with many slivers of rivers going here and there. Here life was a little more traditional than Saigon, and more authentic/ less Westernized than Mui Ne. We took river cruise, eventually making our way to a home-stay, which was half hotel and half living with a local family. Our home-say location was awesome, far removed from anything tourist-related, filled with friendly locals living simple lives. People in the Delta are friendly and easy-going, more resembling a continuous family than a neighborhood.
With a 6AM flight dominating our horizon, we decided to once again say no to sleep, and found our way to a spa bearing the reccomendation of a local. This spa was amazing. Showers, saunas, hot tubs, facials, pedicures, manicures, haircuts, shaves, and massages are all provided. For the first time, I found my face covered with cucumbers, which was the highlight until I was later man-handled by a masseuse. She perhaps weighted half of me, yet dominated my body in ways I could never expect. Big things come in small packages.
The Vietnamese, at least in the South, are quite friendly, and hold no visible animosity toward Americans for the ordeals of the past.
Vietnam has a long history of foreign invasion/intervention, first with the Chinese, followed by the French and Americans. The Vietnamese are proud to be calling their own shots now, and the new generations are thankful for the opportunities available to them when compared to their parents. That being said, the visible scars of Western exploitation can be still seen today, on the face of a country still healing. Walk into the right 'bar', and you'll see what I mean.
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