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Ho Chi Minh

Written on: Tuesday December 11th, 2007

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

Ho Chi Minh as it's offically had it's name changed to, or Saigon if you're too lazy to prounce 3 syllables is a lot more in your face than the other Vietnamese cities we have travelled through. Walking down the street you are constantly barracked and hastled to buy books, have massages or eat in a particular restaurant. One guy even tried to push heroin on us.

The big tourist draw here in Ho Chi Minh is the trip out of town to see the Chu Chi tunnels, similar to those of Vinh Moc, but a lot smaller as these ones were actually used to fight from, and to ensure a strong Viet Cong presence in the south of Vietnam. Before our visit there though we gave a gander at the Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh. Cao Dai is a fairly new religion, a combo of Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, a bit of a cheat really. The Cathedral itself was unlike any we'd seen before, brightly decorated both inside and outside with colourful dragons and slightly worrying singular eyes all over the place, that appear to peer down tutting with discontent at us human sinners. We arrived just in time for 12pm mass which was a bit of a circus. We were quickly beckoned in to the cathedral, removing our shoes before heading in, then coaxed up stairs to where well over 200 people, just like ourselves were stood taking pictures and chatting away, while below us a plethora of monks sat and bowed in prayer. How though any of the monks could possibly concentrate on leading a pious and enlightened life when greasy, smelly bearded tourists poke cameras in their faces and chatter amongst themselves is quite beyond me.

We were lucky enough to have a great guide with us on this trip, Mr Tung. It was easy to remember his name he told us as it's like the noise of a drum, tungggggg! Who knows what sort of drum this guy has. Anyway, it just so happened that Mr Tung was a member of the Viet Cong during the American War and actually lived and fought from the Chu Chi tunnels. He even had the machine gun wounds across his arm to prove it. The tunnels themselves were minute. Dave and I waited for everbody else to go down and through, then went down all by ourselves just to get a better feel for the place. Whereas you have to duck slightly at the Vinh Moc tunnels, here you literally have to get down on your hands and knees to crawl through. We decided our time in the tunnels was up though when Dave at the lead, crawled in to unlit tunnel, only to be sharply hit in the face by something. I shone my mobile light down the tunnel and saw a group of bats all hanging from the roof. It was definately a good idea to finish the tour there.

There were also a few sightseeing trips around the city we embarked upon, like the Reunification Palace, a really kitch 1960's building untouched from that era where Ngo Dinh Diem hung out after the French departure; and the exceedingly depressing, but poignant War Remnants Museum. This small museum has many military guns, tanks and aircraft on show from the war, but the real value in the museum is found in the photogrpahic gallery they have there entitled 'Requiem'. It shows many photos taken in the thick of the war, and really gives you an insight in the terror, horror, atrocities and completely pointless loss of life that occured. This particular gallery almost seemed more sacred than any of the dozens of temples we have visited throughout our trip. Here there were no apparent staff asking for a donation or encouraging you to light some incense, there were just people in absolute silence, slowly moving between each photo, stunned by each image they saw. The museum also showed the dreadful effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant spray that was dumped in it's droves all over the country during the war. A truly hideous chemical that has disfigured many people and generations to come.

Vienam in summary is a fantastic place to visit, very easy to get to wherever from wherever, with some great people to meet. The problem is getting off the tourist trail, as everybody seems to want to take you somewhere, but wherever it is you get to, there are always other travellers present, unlike China.

The people themselves seem to have an incredible inner strength, or maybe just a reserve to show any emotion on the outside. They would very rarely get angry or show grief, such as with the girl's family in Hoi An, after the motorbike accident, and even in terms of the American War, the people seem to so no hatred or grudge towards any Americans, French or any other nation involved in the country's bloody recent past. Instead they embrace and thrive on proudly showing people around their beautiful land. Mr Tong at the Chu Chi tunnels was a prime example of this, making jokes about jumping out of the tunnels shooting, and about catching people in man-traps. These tunnels 40 years ago were entrenched in the blood of innocent soldiers comdemned to die apparently for what their country stood for. In the end I'm well convinced that their lives were worth considerably more. In 40 years time, who knows, maybe Dave and I will be trapsing round Iraq, being shown by our tour guide Mr Hussein his mortar wounds, while admiring temples that were spared during our own era now.