Full Metal Jacket: My Thoughts and Experiances in Southern Vietnam

Can Tho Travel Blog

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One of my most stirring moments in Saigon occurred in the oldest Western-orientated section of Saigon. Here, among the shrines to past colonialism and Western exploitation, I walked into what appeared to be another bar, only to discover a decoration of scantily-dressed young women, perhaps 15 in all. They perked up immediately, as if by muscle memory, and immediately began projecting their invisible power and charm over the surprised traveling ATMs. After several seconds of careful deliberation, my buddy and I concluded that this was no bar in the regards we expected, and overpowered our instincts in a quick escape through the door we came through. Our escape was something similar to a movie, two guys retreating through a door, with a horde of prostitutes attempting to swarm up like attractive, sweet zombies.
Welcome to Vietnam.

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.
They will roar by you everywhere: roads, sidewalks, and all places in between. Once on foot, mopeds also pose a unique challenge to the street-crosser too. With few stop lights, traffic is less dominated by waves, and more by a constant stream, meaning a empty street is usually not worth waiting for. To compensate for this obstacle, you simply walk across the street slowly and predictably, letting drivers see and anticipate your movements, and go around. You will feel a little like Moses, as a Red Sea of human and machine will divide up by your presence.    
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.
We were always targets of soliciting, whether it was copied travel books, gum, taxis, marijuana, and, a personal first, prostitutes on bikes. At one point, a buddy and I were walking back to our hotel near midnight, only to be engulfed in several bikes being ridden the working women of the night. Some sellers would move on after you signaled you were not interested, but many would latch onto you for a bit, chanting their pre-meditated lines of understandable but rough English. This kind of attention peaked at the large city market, an area dominated by travel companies and Western backpackers. Some times I wanted to be appear local just so they would leave me alone, although everyone experiences this feeling regardless of destination.

Being an American is usually a experience abroad, sometimes good, usually not, as our foreign policy arrived far before we did.
I knew I would experience anti-American sentiment in Vietnam, understandably so, but I also wanted to keep a open mind, and see the conflict as much as I could from the local perspective. In HCMC, we visited the War Remnants Museum, formally known as the Chinese and American War Crimes Museum. Here, you will get a filtered, yet raw glimpse into the Vietnam War, and any pleasant feelings you bring here will be quickly crushed. Images of humanity's terrible capabilities are brought into full view here, from torture to agent orange. Some pictures made me stop, some made me stare, some will make you want to cry, some will make you want to throw up. War has no glory here. I will not defend the American goals behind the war, but I will say only the atrocities committed by American and Southern Vietnamese troops are on display, an obvious filter one should expect from a government that keeps an eye on what is said.
Regardless, even the most die-hard American patriot would exit somber and saddened, with perhaps a side of shame.    

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.
You would walk on it, and unless your feet walked over the exact middle, the door would swing down and you would drop into a perhaps 10 ft pit with some metal rods.

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.
I'm about 5'10'', and my shoulder/head were constantly battling the edges. Keep in mind these re-created tunnels are twice as large as the originals. 

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.
Towns are unique too, as they don't usually don't form circularly, instead following the main road, so you can drive very far and be constantly be surrounded by long stretches of urbanization. The bus drivers constantly honk to warn mopeds of their impending passing, several times nearly hitting them, and you're constantly going around big, slower trucks too. Its a slow process.

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.
After settling into beach-side bungalows ($7.5 a night), mopeds were quickly rented, and following our friend, headed to the White Sand Dunes.

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.
The were incredibly quick, just watching them work was experience by itself. While I did get my moped going, we soon discovered my tire was flat anyway (Goddammit!), and I was forced to hide the bike, ride back with a buddy on his, and then ride back with the moped owner.

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.
On top of that, we ordered two plates of spring roles, fresh fruit drinks, a small bottle of vodka, and some beers. Total price: about $10 each.
Mui' Ne' is definitely a special place.

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.
Teasing alligators with raw meat. This was so much fun
Children adored us and even the adults seemed friendly enough With tons of old wooden junks plotting the rivers and canals, a traditional lifestyle seems to continue here despite modernization's eternal pressures. 

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.
They have claimed to move on from the war, and I believe it. As for the North, I've heard they harbor more resentment, but not considerably more. There are no McDonalds, Starbucks, or seven-elevens in Vietnam, but there is KFC. And don't tell my Hong Kong girlfriend, but Vietnamese girls are quite cute.

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.
Out homestay location in the middle of the delta


 



          
livinginhcmcDotCom says:
"police-distributed marijuana"??! You really should explain this a little more. I've been coming to VN since 1996 and living in HCMC for 8 years, and I've never heard of such a thing. Do tell...
my blog: livinginsaigonvietnam.blogspot.com
Posted on: Dec 08, 2008
rotorhead85 says:
Nice read - well done, thanks!
Posted on: Dec 05, 2008
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Teasing alligators with raw meat. …
Teasing alligators with raw meat.…
Out homestay location in the middl…
Out homestay location in the midd…
Off for our river cruise
Off for our river cruise
Can Tho
photo by: alanmica