After Da Lat came Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City in official circles. We arrived a few days before Tet – Vietnamese New Year – and were treated to a rare occurrence within – peace and quiet.
Well, let’s not be hasty. The city was still lively & vibrant around the backpacker hub but for a city with something like 10 million people and 8 million motorbikes the place was practically deserted. In the run-up to Tet and indeed for up to a fortnight afterwards the major cities empty with a huge migration of people back to their family homes in the countryside.
We were in town to round off ‘Nam with visits to a couple of the key sights focussing on the American War. The first of these was the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is an extensive multi-level network of underground secret tunnels used by the resistance fighters to avoid, hunt and kill American forces throughout the war. For a long time the invading forces were stumped by the apparent ability of Charlie to appear out of thin air at will and disappear again without trace. Even when the tunnels were eventually discovered attempts at dealing with them met with little success.
For a start they are tiny. No typical American soldier could get in them – they eventually assembled a team of the smallest soldiers for this purpose. Attempts to flood them failed as they were linked to waterways and gassing them met with only limited success due to the vastness of the network.
I managed to squeeze into one of the typical entrances and close it on top of me, dropping for a few moments into total darkness – an interesting experience considering that I’m typically quite claustrophobic. I also traversed 150 metres of [most likely widened for tourists] tunnel in the darkness, at points forced to pull myself along on my hands. It was almost unbearably hot down there – how anyone could virtually live as either soldier or civilian in the tiny occasional hollowed out ‘rooms’ is pretty amazing.
We’d opted to do the tunnels as part of a tour and met Jason and Angela from Edinburgh while we were sampling life in the ‘Cong. Having traversed the tunnels Jas and I had our minds firmly focused on sampling some of the hardware employed by both sides during the conflict.
With a tip of the hat to my mate Kev back home [who I’m sure would enjoy rattling off a few rounds with the gear on offer] I lined up the M60 fully automatic machine gun, as did Jas. This thing is huge. At a dollar a bullet it was a short show – I let off a few rounds, Fi sampled a couple before wanting nothing more to do with it, and I rattled off the remainder. In retrospect Jas’s approach was the way to go. He set the gun against his shoulder, lined the sight up with the target and then simply squeezed the trigger and unleashed hell in a rapid burst, ripping through and ending the lives of 3 cows and a stray donkey – I KID! I KID! Paper targets only – no animals were harmed in the making of this entry.
I also tried my hand at a Garang rifle used by the Vietnamese. This was a much more retro, one-shot-at-a-time affair though I’m fairly sure that was more to do with the condition of the gun – they were all knackered, locking up at every opportunity. Still, it’s oddly cathartic. I don’t seem to have any problem disassociating a guns role as an instrument of death from a guns role as a precision instrument for target practice. And I do enjoy target practice.
After we’d done there the four of us ignored prevailing rumours that the War Remnants Museum was closed for Tet and got dropped off there on our way back from the tunnels. This proved a sensible judgement call as the rumours were rubbish and the place was open after all. The courtyard was full of artillery, helicopters, tanks and planes and the inside was filled with graphic and moving exhibitions on the devastation wreaked during the war. Interestingly the whole day played in sharp contrast to Japan’s diplomatic Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, presenting a wholly one-sided view and an astonishing amount of anti-American propaganda. That said, even if you stripped away the unnecessary propaganda it’s still pretty difficult to see a strong enough case for the invasion and even less justification for the science projects that were conducted in terms of chemical warfare and new weaponry tests. I confess to my lack of exposure to the American case for war though so can’t help but have an unbalanced view.
So vast and engrossing was the museum that we managed to lose Jason & Angela, but not before we thankfully managed to pass on our contact details. Their adventure is spectacular and can be read about at [http://www.east2west196.blogspot.com/] – an example of how to keep a great blog up-to-date!
The next day – Tet itself – saw a mammoth journey out of Vietnam, into Cambodia, and south to Sihanoukville via the capital Phnom Penh. We enjoyed the journey with fellow travellers Nick & Dave, and also met another wonderful chap – Mark – originally from California but these days residing in Saigon running a photography business. I probably bored the guy half to death with inane photography questions but I really enjoyed talking to a professional about how he approached different situations. Notably he was en route to the Angkor temples – one of the world’s greatest sights – armed with only a 50mm lens for his camera. This lends weight – if you’ll pardon the pun – to my ever-growing belief that I am carrying far too much camera gear. Bloody scouts and their ‘Be Prepared!’ mantra. Should be ‘Pack light and deal with it’.
Nick and Dave’s adventures will probably involve a TV & Book deal one day suffice to say they had solid advice for our onward journey that was greatly appreciated.
We reached Phnom Penh with no onward ticket booked but with a fervent desire to move on to Sihanoukville a.s.a.p. After a few hiccups and a run-in with some overly keen baggage ‘helpers’ we found an agent and scored tickets for a bus a few hours later. It came as some surprise to see a gang of monkeys traversing the streets and I was fascinated to watch one of them partake in the bus agents green tea, When I asked another group of western travellers if monkey antics ever got old they slowly but simultaneously nodded their heads, a collective look of fear adorning their faces. I dread to think what primate abuse they’d endured but we had no such trouble.
Tootling down through the countryside toward our final destination of the day the gulf in wealth between Cambodia and Vietnam was evident all around. Cambodia is many years behind in terms of economic development, but you can thank the Khmer Rouge for that travesty [more on those sods later]. Wood huts and shanty style corrugated dwellings scattered along the roadside made for a marked difference to what we’d seen back in ‘Nam [! – glorious use of a phrase that will never get old!].
As we rolled into Sihanoukville and boarded a tuk-tuk for our last few kilometres the excitement was growing to fever pitch despite our exhaustion. A few minutes later we heard the holler of familiar voices as we blatantly over-shot our destination. Leaping from our redirected tuk-tuk we’d finally made it.
After 104 days on the road we’d finally reconnected with fellow Miltonian travellers Rob & Gilly!
And there was much rejoicing.