(Day 318 to 322)
05.10.2010 - 09.10.2010
Once off the ferry from Phu Quoc, we wanted to get a bus further into the delta where we would travel around independently although most people take tours of the delta over a few days from Ho Chi Minh City. The next bus to where we wanted to go was in 3.5 hours so we changed our plans and headed for Ho Chi Minh City. Although the city was officially renamed in 1976, the centre is still commonly called Saigon.
As mentioned briefly in our previous post, we now have to get around using moto-taxis or locally known simply as Hondas, rather than the safer tuk-tuks we got quite used to. This being the cheapest means to get around, the streets are teeming with bikes everywhere you look, and no rules apply here. They drive fairly crazily to be honest, by this I don’t mean speed, its just the way they cut in front of each other, go down the road the wrong way and so on – all they have to do is hoot so the guys ahead know they are coming. Sometimes I just stop looking and stare at the top of buildings, the sky, birds etc and I figure if an accident happens at least I’ll die unknowing and happy!! I have thought of filming a ride but each time its like my fingers have a mind of their own, white knuckles and all, and refuse to leave the handle.. I’ll try again in the next city. If I’m more confident. Or maybe I’ll give it to Martin. We also tried cyclo-thingies like below, but they dropped us, unsuspecting, about 1km away from where we wanted to go! We're slowly getting used to this..
It’s a cool busy town with an amazing beat, a “pulse that’s on steroids”. Where we were based is obviously the backpackers area, and the bars, travel agents and restaurants border the roads, all illuminated with huge neon signs. Nevertheless we did some exploring and a few days sufficed to see the main bits before getting out.
We spent a few hours at the main market called Cho Benh Thanh where Martin got a few things for a change, then walked around a posher area for richer tourists, with nice clean streets and swanky restaurants. On another day we visited the Independence Palace, or Reunification Palace, where on the 30th April 1975, a North Vietnamese tank stormed through the palace gates and this is when Saigon finally fell.
Our most important day was spent at the Cu Chi Tunnels just outside the city, were we first watched a very anti American video (This was quite funny really, simply in how it was so obvious). Set around 35km from central Ho Chi Minh City, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a huge network of underground tunnels and apparently the total space covered by them stretched for over 250km from Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border.
From what I understood, they were used enormously by the Viet Congs (the guerrilla forces who were opposed to the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem whom America was backing since 1950) during the Vietnam war but they were in place since before that time and used in previous wars against the French too. They just simply added and extended it as the troubled years went by. They would hide in there when the enemy approached. It was a really interesting visit.
The tunnels were more than just a way to get from one place to another undetected. There were medical centres, meeting rooms, theatres, storage rooms, sleeping quarters and even kitchens build within the tunnels. The kitchens in particular were a problem as the smoke from the cooking needed to be handled so not to suffocating the Vietnamese and not giving away the position above ground. The guerrillas made use of some cleaver but gruesome non explosive booby traps. (Below photo is Martin shooting an AK47)
The US tried first to attack the tunnels by sending soldiers down to fight their way through. These soldiers were disadvantaged because of their size and not knowing the territory, the casualty rate was extremely high. Next, the generals decided to attack the tunnels from the air. First defoliating large sections of land then bombarding it with heavy bombs, including weaponry specifically designed to collapse the tunnels. Through all this the tunnel networks survived. It wasn't until the American carpet-bombed the area with B52s that large sections of the tunnels were finally destroyed.
Following the tunnels visit, we headed to the War museum to witness the horrors of yet another pointless war. Very sad to see the disaster caused to the environment, the Vietnamese people and the future generations to come because of the effects of Agent Orange –the code name for one of the herbicides and defoliants used by the U.S. military as part of its warfare program. The goal was to deprive the guerrillas of cover; and to destroying the ability of peasants to support themselves in the countryside, making them flee to the U.S. dominated cities, this would deprive the guerrillas of their rural support base and food supply. The use of Agent Orange not only affected people living in the areas or the military on both sides of the war, but also the generations to follow. It was a very shocking but interesting visit non the less. Our time here and at the Genocide museum in Cambodia have really hammered home how cruel the world really can bend what lengths some people go to, to get what they want.
Towards the end of our stay we took a tour to the Mekong Delta.