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Clare’s Travel Diary

Wednesday, 04 Jun 2008

Location: Saigon, Vietnam

MapYes so, here we are again!

The Re-unification Palace - kind of a strange monument but fascinating, it included a gambling room (mini casino) and cinema on the top floor along with loads of banqueting and reception rooms, not to mention bunkers and radio stations in the basement. We also visited, the incredibly well put together War Remnants museum which was thankfully free of Propaganda style annotations to pictures and very sensitively, though harrowingly showed the lasting effects of war on the population at large. These sorts of museums are difficult to visit but invaluable to understand what the War meant to the various groups of people caught up in it. In South Vietnam the effects of the war seem closer than in the North and many of the tourist attractions are linked to it. Today we visited the Cu Chi tunnel system which is similar to the Vinh Moc tunnels but they are a much larger system which were used primarily for fighting, rather than accomodation.

The tunnels were started in the French Colonial times (pre- WWII) and extended through the French and American Wars to reach their height during the late 60's reaching from Saigon to the Cambodian border and with branches inside the American bases themselves and running to the Saigon river for escape should the tunnels be infiltrated. Our guide was a Saigon born Vietnamese who had fought for the Americans against the Viet Cong and then stayed on after the war. This meant he was sent to a 're-education' camp run by the victorious Communist government out in the jungle for 4 years to be indoctrinated into Marxism and Leninisn etc. and returned to Saigon in 1979 penniless. A very, very interesting, but mixed up man.

The tunnels are one of the star attractions in South Vietnam and the day is fascinating, its easy to forget its linked to so much destruction and sorrow. The ingenuity of the Viet Cong in building and defending the system, such as how to hide cooking smoke, create sniper holes and booby traps and cover up the massive earthworks which building the tunnels created was amazing. The highlight is the 160m section of the tunnels which you crawl/scramble through. The tunnel is between 1.2m-1.4m high and 50cm-80cm wide. At one point you have to slide down on your bum and there are only dim lights every 10m or so. Its tough going and we were only down there about 15 minutes. Its a sobering thought though, the full might of the American war machine made little impact on the guerilla methods of the Viet Cong - we seem to be repeating past mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan the situation there sounds mightily familiar having learned more about this conflict.

So we are nearly finished in Saigon, tomorrow we start working through the Mekong Delta on the way to Cambodia and Phnom Penh but I don't think I've spoken about our journey south from Hue to get here.

From Hue we did a short hop south to Hoi An - a port which reached its height at the turn of the last century and is a bit of a Chinese - Vietnamese melting pot. Its UNESCO Heritage listed which means rich tourists and expensive restaurants, but it also means genuinely well preserved buildings, musuems and cultural sites. We liked it, though the drainage replacement works and the soaring temperatures did try us a bit! Culture aside, the other attraction is the rows of tailor shops who can whip you up a custom suit or copy any dress design you ask for a paltry sum. I got some clothes altered and a dress made for a bargainous 12.50GBP. I stopped short of getting a winter coat made, though the temptation was great, the 40 degree heat made the thought of even trying it on just too outlandish to contemplate!

We used Hoi An as a base to explore My Son (pronounced Mee-ee Son - the guide was very insistent) an ancient capital of the Cham people who ruled the area of South Vietnam in the 4th-6th Centuries. They were eventually defeated by the Khmers of Angkor Wat fame and the ruins are similar in design and devotion (Hindu) so it was interesting to see these ruins before going to Cambodia. The site itself is lovely, way out in the jungle and is quite small and overgrown as much of it was destroyed by bombs in the war, plus it was hotter than I thought possible that day, but it was still one of my favorite bits of Vietnam. All bodes well for days of wandering round temple ruins in the scorching sun at Angkor!

From Hoi An we headed for the beach at Nha Trang a big sprawling resort towards the souht of Vietnam. It does what it says on the tin. The beach is lovely, the diving good and the nightllife as you might expect. We partook of all, got a bit burned, had a great day of diving with Rainbow Divers (highly recommended to anyone coming out here) and had a few too many 'buckets/goldfish bowls' (cheap Cocktails served in big glass jars with straws). We did find time for some culture, hired bikes and headed out the Pagoda with the monumentally large white Buddha, as well as dropping by the restored Cham temples on the outskirts of town. These were very simlar to the ruins we saw in My Son so it was strange to see them restored and the temples in use when the My Son ruins are so in the jungle and overgrown. The biggest remaining population of Cham people in Vietnam live around Nha Trang but these days they are Muslim rather than Hindu like their ancestors who built My Son.

Our dinner in Nha Trang was however surely one of the best yet. We followed a guide book recommendation to the local part of town and found a bustling resturant full of Vietnamese families eating together. The speciality is Sea-food and the restaurant gives you a mini BBQ on your table which you use to cook the food you buy. We had Giant Prawns, Squid and Eel washed down with Saigon beer and dined like kings! The atmosphere was great and everyone seemed delighted that some westerners had ventured out that far. It was easily one of our best meals yet!

Our final day in Nha Trang we spent on a boat crammed full of Vietnamese holidaying families and bemused western backpackers going round the snorkelling spots off the islands and generally being loud. Its a bizarre concept that a nation of people who don't seem to like swimming, get travel sick on any mode of transport and obsessively cover themselves in the sun to avoid getting tanned would want to go on a Boat trip all day to snorkelling sites. Yet the boat was full and at each site the westerners would dive in while the Vietnamese sheltered under the sun shade on the boat. After lunch however, I realised the draw - on board Karaoke! Ah yes, they do love their Karaoke and let me tell you, need little, if any encouragement to stand up there and belt out a number - actual talent being of course, purely optional. All in all it was actually a pretty fun day, and we did all slowly break down the Vietnamese/westerners barrier, though none of us got up to sing and none of them got in to swim!

So thats the story of our journey south... that night we got on the bus to Nha Trang and the rest as they say... well actually its written above but you know what I mean!

I'm going to sign off now as I've had to re-write this entry countless times due to the various computers I've tried to use just failing on me and I don't want to tempt fate further. I'll try and upload some more pictures soon and tell you how the trip through the Delta goes.