chi chi tunnels
Before my volunteer time I wanted to spend a few days in Saigon or Hanoi. I decided on Saigon as I was told that Hanoi would be freezing at that time of year. I arrived at night and caught a taxi to the hotel I'd pre-booked in the tourist area. I have travelled in India and China but never have I seen traffic as bad as Saigon at peak hour. My taxi driver had to take my hand and lead me across the road. It didn't help that I had 40kg of luggage not to mention the extra large yellow duck I was carrying around. Normally I travel light but because I'd been told to bring clothes and toys for the kids I'd used all my baggage allowance (luckily Vietnam airlines have a 30kg limit). Note to future Tuy Hoa volunteers baby clothes aren't that useful for the placement. There was really nothing I brought over that could not have been bought cheaper in Saigon, except for the dot-to-dot books and the simple English books.
Although I felt completely stupid lugging the large bag up stairs and on the trains all the Vietnamese people I met were very understanding and helped me constantly.
I had a few days in Saigon and spent them doing a cu-chi tunnel half day tour (with TK brothers who had quite good guides), one day mekong delta tour and visiting the war museum, history museum and water puppet show. I wouldn't really recommend the history museum unless you had nothing better to do but everything else was wonderful.
The tunnel tour was great we got to go down one of the unlit, unwidened ones that haven't been modified for tourists. It was pitch black and there are forks, you slide down and navigate using your feet. I think the only thing that stopped me panicking was the little boy behind me who was panicking forcing me to be calm for his sake.
guard dogs on the mekong delta
I could not have spent much longer than a few minutes down there (it felt like forever) and I can not understand how the Viet Cong (from what I've read they don't mind being called that now, although they weren't all communists) lived down there, went through even smaller areas and coped with all the smells that would have been there constantly. I would have gone insane. We also went through some longer areas that were lit and widened but still quite scary. There are also lots of displays of traps they used for the American (and Australian etc) soldiers, which are interesting. The whole touristy atmosphere of the place sort of detracts from the realisation that these traps destroyed lives and were dreaded by the soldiers. Its strange to think that 35 years ago visiting Americans were being targeted by traps they were now looking at as tourist sites.
coconut candy being made
Its really worth seeing. There is also a firing range but I'm not a big fan of guns and didn't really want to fire one. The tour also stops of at laquer workshop where victims of Agent Orange (that is people born with birth defects such as distorted limbs) make beautiful laquered (spelling?) objects. Its interesting to see the things being made, although I couldn't understand what was being said as I'm really bad with accents.
The one-day Mekong delta tour was nice. Having been to Cambodia, Laos and North Thailand, I'd sort of seen the scenery before. However, its always nice to be out on a boat and we went on several different sized boats. Its great to watch the water traffic, barges transporting earth and the ferries with cars and people. We visited places making coconut candy and such and saw some folk singing, all very touristy but a nice laid back introduction to Vietnam.
snake wine to improve virility
The war museum (or war-crimes I think its meant to be called) was interesting. Actually a bit scary as it talks alot about dioxin the chemical that contaminated Agent Orange (the defoliant the American Army used to clear the jungle and make it harder for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese) and how deadly just a small amount is and I kept remembering that I have some dioxin in the freezer at work. Its an interesting place and also gives you some idea of the mixture of feelings German people must feel walking around Holocaust museums, although that is probably not a good comparison. The oddest thing was an older high school boy wanting to have his photo taken with me in the museum. This happened throughout my time in Vietnam and its odd but fine, but it was extra strange to have the photo taken in front of a showcase of the effects of Agent Orange on the local environment and fetuses.
bad photo of water puppets
My favourite Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh) site was the water puppet show. I was early and spent some time looking around at the local fair with rides, shooting galleries and displays of massaging chairs and such and watching some teenagers at a modern dance school practising. The wooden puppets are great, beautiful and colourful. There are several sketches and many of them are funny. My favourites were the animals ones, the lions playing with the ball, the tiger hunting the ducks and the dragons squirting water around. I haven't seen a puppet show like it anywhere else. The puppeteers are behind a curtain and all the puppets are in a big pool of water and they have arms, legs, and/or heads that move around and amazingly manage to convey emotions.
Then it was time to catch the overnight train up to Da Nang
view from train
I'd been scared about booking the train but the Vietnam Trains office on the main tourist street (Pham Ngu Lao) made it really easy. I got a first class soft sleeper. These are a bit dearer than second class but there are only 4 berths per cabin instead of 6 so that you can actually sit up on your bed instead of having to bend or stay constantly lying down. The trains are fine, although you have to know what time you are getting off the train because they don't announce stations when they stop at them. Its also good to stock up on snacks because the food is a bit hit and miss. You need to have extra food for the people in your cabin because they often insist you have some of theirs. I'd be careful of not getting a sleeper though. Later when we took a 2 hour trip from Nha Trang
to Tuy Hoa in a different carriage the soundtrack (Vietnamese dubbing of a Hillary Duff movie) for the TV was so loud I don't know how all the long haul passengers around us were managing to sleep.
view from train