Good-bye Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog

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Last supper

I could’ve eaten a duck embryo but I chickened out!  I grabbed the train out of Nha Trang that was only running an hour late and found my seat among the locals.  At one point a food cart came through the coach and the guy next to me asked for something off the cart.  The gal opened up this big thermos and steam rose out.  She plucked out this egg-looking thing, squished it open and juices shot out, and then I saw something thud into a waiting cup. I knew immediately what it was • duck embryos!  I gasped at the sight and gaped inside the guy’s cup as he paid.  The two gals in front of me also ordered some up.  My face didn’t hide my disgust.  As the locals snickered at me, the lady grabbed an ear of corn and shoved it at me, as if saying, you can eat this.  I declined and off she went.  Later I kicked myself for not giving it a try, thinking next time she comes by I will.  However, the next time it didn’t appear any tastier, so I settled into the book I bought on the street called War of Sorrows, written by a North Vietnamese fighter in the war.

Our guide is standing over a tunnel entrance, completely hidden from all of us at that point.
  While I read this perspective, a documentary was playing about the war.  I wondered what it had to say, although the locals all were drifting to sleep, uninterested themselves.

Upon arriving in Saigon, it was about 11 p.m., so I negotiated for a motortaxi and headed toward the tourist hotel area of town.  After climbing up and down stairs, generating a gallon of sweat, in various hotels, checking out rooms, I settled on a place for the night. Day one I set out with an actual agenda of things to see.  It had been a while since I actually took in some sights.  First up was the War Remnants Museum.  It houses many pictures and stories from the war, along with tanks, planes, guns, and a replica of a jail of torture.

There it is!
  A little gruesome for a day’s start, but I heard this is a must see in Saigon.

This museum was very sobering, almost bringing me to tears at one point.  The photographs are some of the most startling ones of war I have ever seen.  There are some famous ones in there, including the little naked girl running, a victim of napalm, and some ones that you want to turn away from but can’t.  At one point I was looking at a photo of a U.S. soldier, holding the remains of a corpse, part of a head and torso.  It said the soldier was with the 25th Infantry Division. I looked over and there was a group of older gentlemen, apparently American, and one had a hat on that said 25th ID.  He noticed the photo and quickly took off his cap while his companion, also an apparent Vietnam Vet, gestured like he was the guy in the picture.

Looks like a tight fit.
  The one with the hat just strode off.  I recalled what Scott had told us back in Hoi An, that many vets come here and tour the museums, only to get enraged more.  They refuse to even talk to the Vietnamese, instead sticking together and not moving forward. 

From there I took in a documentary about Agent Orange victims.  They even had jars of fetuses that were deformed by Agent Orange.  The most heart-stopping photos are on display together - a series of pictures taken by journalists at the front lines.  One was of a female journalist, lying face down with a Chaplain over her, administering last rites.  Sadly all the photojournalists featured are dead. 

I left there in a daze with the harsh realities of war swirling around in my head.

I had to get helped out of there by Colin.
  It was by then noon, with museums closing for lunch, so I headed to a park to sit and debrief a little. I grabbed a whole pineapple for lunch (a mere 25 cents! • it’s been an addiction for me) and then headed for a shaded park.  A local approached me, asking if he could chat with me in English for practice.  So we sat and talked for a few minutes, just about the basics, name, what you do and how long I’ve been here.  I was glad I could have this conversation, knowing what was happening some 30 years ago and realizing how things have changed.  I then strolled onto the post office to mail some postcards.  This place was a marvel itself. 

The afternoon was spent at the Reunification Palace, the former presidential palace where in April 1975, Saigon surrendered.

Colin squeezing in there.
  Rooms where important things happened are kept as if not a day has passed.  The most interesting part was the basement where the war room and communications center are located.  You can actually see the maps on the wall that were used to plot and plan against the enemy! 

I had enough of war for the day, so I sweated my butt off walking back to the hotel, passing the countless offers for a taxi.  This place is like Hanoi only a little crazier.  I lazed in the a/c before regrouping with my team for dinner that night. Everyone left Nha Trang for Saigon but via different modes of transport. I was the only one that opted for the train, but the bus and plane rides sounded uneventful to me and I longed to actually see how the locals travel.

The next morning, for those of us remaining, we set off to see the Cu Chi tunnels, a tunnel network originally used by the Viet Minh against the French but then expanded and used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam/American war.

Replica of a hidden trap.
  There are about 250 kilometers of tunnels stretching from Saigon to Cambodia, much of which was destroyed by bombing.  There are three levels to the tunnels, and at one point it housed about 16,000 people, with only 6,000 surviving the war.  Enough of statistics though.  After a quick detour to witness victims of Agent Orange making handicrafts, we set off to a place near the village of Ben Dinh.  

Before actually entering the tunnels, we were shown this propaganda video.  Very bizarre.  It had footage from the 1960s set to very upbeat music showing Viet Cong troops shooting and getting awarded stars for killing the Americans!  Yippee!  Apparently it’s been toned down.

Entrance to one tunnel.
 

From there we set off into the jungle to see some displays, including one that demonstrated the artful ways of killing the enemy through various booby traps hidden in the earth.  We were also shown a hidden entrance to the tunnel only 34 cms wide.  Some of us small enough could jump down in there and get a picture.  Luckily my weight gain on the trip has kept me within those limits, but I couldn’t get my arse out of there, so Colin came to my rescue.  One thing is for sure, these tunnels are small!    

A few times as we walked through the jungle to each display, I just stopped and gazed out into the forest.  I tried to imagine what this place was like over 30 years ago when all the bombing and fighting was happening.

A little self-portrait inside the tunnel. I couldn't wait to get out of there!
  Now it is filled with tourists, licking ice cream cones and ogling death traps and posing in front of bomb craters.  It was pretty surreal.

After all the build up, including the opportunity to shoot an AK-47 (I opted out being too cheap but Colin gave it a go), we went to the part of the tunnel they widened to fit us well-fed tourists underground.  We were told this part was about 90 meters long, but every 30 meters was an escape route for those who needed out of there.  We high-fived ourselves, daring all of us to make it, and down we went.  At first it wasn’t so bad, but after a while, the heat was starting to choke me.  You had to walk bent over to fit.  Past the first escape route I turned around, calling for Becks, but she’d already made her escape.  I kept trudging on, losing one more in my group, but Colin, Dan and I made it through to the end, soaking with sweat and glad it was over.

Becks horsing around on a tank.
  About 10-15 minutes down there was all I could take.  You had a new appreciation for the lives of the VC, but I imagine the alternative, facing the enemy and getting bombed, made the tunnels a safe haven.

I chose to spend the rest of the afternoon in my room, shutting out Saigon and everything else from my air-conditioned room.  That night the remaining few met up for dinner, including me and basically the flight crew.  We chose a spot right on the sidewalk overlooking the hustle and bustle of Saigon, drinking 333 beers and marveling at the locals. 

In the morning I caught my bus out to Phnom Penh, watching videos of 80s hits on the video screen aboard the bus.

Demonstration of various traps set against the enemy. Pretty gruesome.
  It was a strange way to bid farewell to Vietnam.  I felt much better about my whole trip here after my last few days.  I don’t feel like I’ve really been somewhere until I learn some of its history and talk to some of its people, and I was able to finish out my time there doing both.

I’m actually sitting in Phnom Penh as I type this, wanting to close one chapter before starting the next.  Let me tell you though, I think Cambodia is going to be a trip and I can’t wait to find out.

 

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Last supper
Last supper
Our guide is standing over a tunne…
Our guide is standing over a tunn…
There it is!
There it is!
Looks like a tight fit.
Looks like a tight fit.
I had to get helped out of there b…
I had to get helped out of there …
Colin squeezing in there.
Colin squeezing in there.
Replica of a hidden trap.
Replica of a hidden trap.
Entrance to one tunnel.
Entrance to one tunnel.
A little self-portrait inside the …
A little self-portrait inside the…
Becks horsing around on a tank.
Becks horsing around on a tank.
Demonstration of various traps set…
Demonstration of various traps se…
Dan inside the tunnel.
Dan inside the tunnel.
Dan posing at one display
Dan posing at one display
Showing us the shoes worn by the V…
Showing us the shoes worn by the …
Last night in Saigon
Last night in Saigon
War room in the palace
War room in the palace
Using egg shells to depict scenes
Using egg shells to depict scenes
map of the tunnel network
map of the tunnel network
A lady making rice paper
A lady making rice paper