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We wanted to celebrate our 10 year anniversary with a holiday we'd never forget - we reckon 6 months of travelling the world (from trekking on the Inca Trail and through the Amazon to riding an elephant in Thailand) should just about cover it!

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Saigon and the Cu Chi Tunnels

The first thing that struck us when we arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) was the motorbikes. Literally. Well, almost.Crossing the road after piling off the long-distance bus from Cambodia, we were almost run over by the spider's web of motorbikes that criss-crossed the main roads. Indeed, we were so overwhelmed that when a Vietnamese man with a taxi beckoned to us to get in we couldn't wait to escape the chaos all around us and jumped in. Having been travelling for almost five months now, I knew to agree a price beforehand, but he insisted that he had a meter so we clambered in. What he didn't say, however, was that his crafty little hands had been tampering with the aforementioned meter and within a few minutes it was reading 100,000 dong. Which is about 4 quid. Not as scary as it sounds in Dong I know , but a complete rip-off nonetheless. I started pulling him up on his dodgy money-making scheme, gesticulating wildly, and asked him to turn off the meter. Suddenly, he developed a classic case of selective hearing and went completely deaf. "Stop the car, we're getting out here, " I shrieked in his earhole, the meter now on 210,000 dong. As we'd only been in the car for 5 minutes, I reckon he had his meter set to "London black cab." I argued the price but he was having none of it, so I chucked a 200,000 dong note at him resentfully and we huffed out of the cab, dragging our rucksacks, daysacks, books and a handbag with us off into the humid evening. We weren't even at our chosen hotel. Upon finally finding accommodation that wasn't on the 4th floor of a block with no lifts, we checked in and collapsed. Out of interest, I asked the guy on reception how much a taxi should have cost: "about 20,000 dong max...". Oh well...
I went to the cashpoint to get some money out. All the options were in the millions. I randomly selected 3 million (about 120 quid) and feeling like millionaires, we set off to explore the city and have a few drinks.
No sooner had we left our hostel than we bumped into 2 lads from Leeds who we'd met a few days earlier in Cambodia, at the shooting range. They'd recognised me from the dreaded "Ibiza Uncovered," (my second recognition in 2 days due to Sky's current reruns) and we'd got talking. Calling us over to join them, we ordered some drinks. And some more."One for the road?". "Why not?". By 1am we'd ploughed our way through the cocktail menu and were staring in amazement at the strange scene playing out in the street in front of us:
Two bikes had crashed into each other. Both passengers were a bit dazed, then suddenly one of the motorcyclists jumped up off the floor and started punching the other guy who'd just picked himself up. He knocked him clean out. Then ensued a huge fight, with bikes swerving, people rubber-necking and near-misses taking place. It was a crazy sight.
Forget New York, Saigon is a city that never sleeps. Watching the action on the streets is like watching a movie on fast-forward..even more frantic than the hectic scenes we witnessed in Cambodia. There are so many bikes on the road that motorists start riding on the pavement too. Pedestrians scatter like skittles trying to avoid becoming another statistic. Honking your horn is not something you do occasionally if someone cuts you up - in Vietnam it's essential, like breathing. A policeman who's supposed to be directing traffic stands helplessy with his arms by his side, baton dangling, in the middle of the road whilst everyone completely ignores him.
The sound is deafening. I'm sure it's chaotic anyway, but combine that with the fact that it's currently Chinese New Year and Vietnamese New Year (called Tet) here and it's a recipe for a heart attack. Crossing the road you just have to close your eyes and hope for the best. Freeze in a panic (like I did) and you're more likely to get mown down. In the last week, we've witnessed 4 accidents (we were the victims in one of them.)
After drinking the bar dry, we all agreed to meet up the following morning to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, a rabbit warren constructed by the Vietnamese in order to avoid the bombs dropped by the Americans during the Vietnam War.
Obviously, when the morning came around we were all nursing a mild hangover and weren't really relishing the prospect of crawling around on hands and knees in hot, dirty underground tunnels. We met up with Richard and Danny, resolving to do the tour the following day instead. Liam and I then went off in search of food and found a great place with a cinema upstairs and decided that a cool drink and a darkened room was just the place to recover from the previous night's frivolities. The fact that there was a film on too was just a bonus. We emerged, blinking in the bright sunlight, a few hours later having watched Slumdog Millionaire feeling much better and continued our sight-seeing.
The next morning we set off bright and early for our tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. Having hit it hard on the cheap booze again, The Northerners were nowhere to be seen. Lightweights.
Luckily, I had the tickets so Liam and I joined the tour on our own and set off for the Cu Chi tunnels, stopping on the way to visit an art factory, where people who had been disabled by the chemicals dropped on Vietnam by America during the war. The chemical, called Agent Orange, was a herbicide meant to defoliate the countryside and wipe out al the food and vegetation. It also had the effect of disabling thousands of people and causing birth defects in their children.We watched them work painstakingly with tweezers, applying tiny fragments of broken eggshell to decorative artworks, then laquering them, with impressive results.
A few hours later we arrived at the tunnels. Our guide was an eccentric Vietnamese veteran of war - a skinny little old man with a huge personality, which made the tour all the more interesting. He showed us various booby traps that the Vietnamese set for the Americans, such as a grass-covered trap door that gives way to reveal deadly pointed shards of bamboo. He showed us huge craters left by B-52's, old bombshells, tanks and other remnants of war. Then came the piece de la resistance..the tunnels themselves.
The Cu Chi tunnels are a complex network of tunnels that run over 3 levels underground - around 4, 8 and 12 metres deep. As they get deeper, so the tunnels get smaller, so that even the Vietnamese, who are tiny, had trouble squeezing through. These tunnels became home to thousands of Vietnamese during the war - people lived underground, eating, sleeping and working here. People were married underground, there were honeymoon suites, a maternity hospital, kitchens and armouries. The tunnels continue for over 250 Kilometres, stretching from Saigon to the Cambodian border.
Much to the frustation of the Americans, the tunnels were undetectable from the surface and the American soldiers used sniffer dogs to try and find the entrances to these warrens, located deep in the forest. The main entrance was in fact underwater, so the Vetnamese would swim to the surface at night to wash in the river and clean their clothes. Since the Americans didn't fight at night, they did so in safety.
The Viet Cong soldiers even tunnelled their way directly into the Americans' barracks, stealing their weapons in the dead of night. Our guide explained that as the Vietnamese army couldn't afford such expensive guns that as well as stealing them from the Americans, they also drew on other natural ways to defeat their enemy, such as positioning beehives, boobytraps and scorpions where they knew they would cause maximum damage.
Soon it was time for us to go down into the tunnels. I wasn't feeling too keen on this seeing as it was about 30 degrees, humid and dark in there, but knew it was essential in order to really understand how they worked. We had to crawl on our hands and knees - me in a nice silk dress, the rest of the group in shorts and t-shirts.
After only a few minutes we felt claustrophobic and hot as the tunnels were so narrow. And these were the tunnels that had actually been widened for tourists. Fortunately, there were evenly-spaced "emergency exits" that led up to ground level, which I took advantage of after about 60 metres.
Following the tour we went back to Saigon city and spent the next day or so sampling the local food (though not the cockroaches, as one of the Northern boys did), drinks and generally getting into the spirit of the Tet (Vietnamese New Year) and Chinese New Year celebrations.
We agreed it would be great to celebrate Tet at the beach concert in Nha Trang rather than the smoggy city so booked ourselves onto the sleeper bus out of the city on Saturday, ready for the festival on Sunday night...

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