Monday 27 August 2012

A Tale of Two Tours: Part 1 - The Cu Chi Tunnels

13th August 2012

Just 30 miles north-west of Saigon lie the (in)famous Cu Chi tunnels. According to our guide, pronounce Cu Chi with the wrong inflection and it sounds like ‘penis’ (or one of its cruder cousins.) Writing it is fine though.

The tunnels were the one of the distributed strongholds of the Vietcong resistance in South Vietnam during the war. They are spread out over dozens of square miles and stretch to over 250km in length. Vietnamese people literally spent years living underground in places like these.

We booked a cheapo half-day tour through our guesthouse. Saving money comes at a cost though – it took almost 90 minutes from when we got on the bus to actually get going, mainly because of the number of pickups the bus had to complete in the city. Not to worry, by midday we were there.

The tour started off with a short presentation on some of the history plus a bit on how the tunnels worked in practice – ventilation, number of levels, booby traps etc.

Cu Chi tunnels presentation
This was lent an air of authority as it was presented by a Vietnamese veteran, although slightly strangely, he was working on the American side so, as he ran patrols up the Mekong, the Vietcong in the tunnels were enemies.

Lecture over, time for the tour. How did the Vietcong get in and out?

Nothing to see here...
What the...?
That hole is barely wider than my hips (no comment on whether my stomach fits.) A bit further on, a quick reminder to watch where you step.

Nothing to see here, either...
And then a few more innovative ways to ruin an American soldier’s day.

Goodbye knees
Goodbye torso
Goodby world
Finally it was time for the highlight, a trip down the tunnels themselves.

This isn't the entrance
This is the entrance
This stretch of tunnel is 100m long with exits every 20m should it all get too much. It gets progressively narrower as you go along until there’s only space to crawl. It’s hot, humid, cramped and dirty – not recommended if you are in any way claustrophobic. I’m not particularly, but 20m was plenty for me. I emerged drenched in sweat with grazed knuckles and bruised knees. A few of the younger, skinnier members of our group made it all the way, emerging from the other end looking extremely bedraggled.

This was only a tiny taster of what it must have been like. This tunnel has been specially rebuilt to make it easier for tourists. As such it’s better ventilated, well sealed, illuminated in places and also it’s only a level 1 tunnel or about 3 metres underground. The real tunnels are way longer (remember 250km+ total length), often deeper (8-10m for level 2 tunnels) and sometimes as deep as 20m (for the level 3 hideouts.) The deeper they get, the more cramped and humid it gets. I managed about two minutes before I’d had enough. Actually living down there doesn’t bear thinking about, but I suppose, at the time they had little choice.

But this is a tourist spot, so they don’t let you get too thoughtful. Time for some fun. Want to sit on a rusty old tank? Alrighty, then.

I'm 5 years old again
And just to press the point that war can be fun, there was also a firing range where you can let loose with anything from an AK-47 to a machine gun. The pacifist in me said, “No!” The adolescent in me shouted, “YES!” The miser in me won the argument – at a dollar a bullet, the adolescent would have forced an early trip home with the budget in tatters.

I had a corn-on-the-cob instead.

That was it, back on the bus and back to the hotel 7.5 hours from when we left. Not bad for a half-day tour. The Cu Chi tunnels: a must see if you’re ever in Saigon.

Next up, the Mekong Delta tour.

Current location: Siem Reap until 30th August
Next stop: Bangkok

Friday 24 August 2012

Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City and the Reunification Palace

11th-15th July 2012

The original plan was to get a train from Nha Trang to Saigon, but due to them being completely booked up, we arrived in Saigon via aeroplane from Nha Trang. That was us trying to get a ticket 7 days in advance! From the airport we caught a taxi into town and as per, the driver tried to screw us out of a few extra dollars. Business as usual!

As you probably already know, Ho Chi Minh City is the city’s official name but most people still call it Saigon. So the title of this post is a scam too and you fell for it – two things for the price of three! Now you know how I feel.

Our hotel was right in the middle of the ‘Backpacker District’ which consists of the streets and alleys around Pham Ngu Lao street. This meant loads of good places for food and cheap beer.

Drinking cheap beer on Bui Vien street, Saigon
Saigon alleys
View from our hotel
It’s about time I mentioned the Vietnamese Pho too.

Pho is a noodle soup made with a beef stock, rice noodles, to which are added thinly sliced onions, beansprouts, a few chillies to taste, a dash of pepper, slices of beef, chicken or tofu and a then a huge handful of fresh leaves and herbs including mint, Thai basil, rice paddy herb, thorny coriander and others (see here for a Vietnamese herb primer.) The result is healthy, filling and, when it’s good, absolutely delicious. It is truly a flavour explosion! The best we had in Saigon was at Quan Pho Quyn on Pham Ngo Lao street. This is one dish I’m really going to miss when we leave Vietnam.

A delicious bowl of Pho for breakfast
Although we had been warned about the traffic in Saigon, to be honest it was no worse than Hanoi and because the streets are generally wider, in some ways it was better. Traffic signals seemed to be more widely obeyed too, which meant sights like this at every junction.

3... 2... 1... Wait for it...
Elsewhere in the city, there’s the War Museum (closed when we passed by), a nice park or two, Notre Dame (not the Paris one) and the Reunification Palace.

Notre Dame
A hedge dragon
Where did I park my Chinook?
Reunification Palace
The pick of the lot was the Reunification palace. The former home and headquarters of the South Vietnamese president during the war, it has been maintained pretty much how it was which means the decor is marvellously retro.

Banqueting hall
Board room (with shark pool underneath, I think)
Drawing room
Zen roof garden
Library (there really was a secret door!)
Piano and billards
Retro bar
Rebels at the gates? Time for a swift exit.
View from the roof
It was already a bit like the headquarters of an evil dictator from a spy movie. And then we got to the basement.

Underneath the palace is a reinforced bunker where the president and his staff would go to direct operations during the war. I’m sure this place was used for the set of an early Bond movie. A lot of the old equipment is still there including Bakelite telephones, huge bits of radio equipment and lots of unidentified things with knobs on.

"Destroy this"
Yellow phone: the President, green phone: the wife
I'd love to hear this plugged into a guitar amp: "Turn the excitation up to 11!"
"I'm So Ronery"
The President's bed
The President's chair: "Get me the Kremlin!"
When I took this photo, the corridor was empty...
Pretty impressive parking
If the pink phone rings, whatever you do, don't answer it...
It was like playing a real-life version of Impossible Mission* on the Commodore 64. I loved that game. I swear, had an electricity-spitting robot come around the corner right then, I would have tried to somersault over it and started searching the furniture for snoozes.


So that was Saigon – pretty cool place which I’d be more than happy to go back to. Next up, a tale of two tours – the Cu Chi tunnels and the Mekong Delta. Stay tuned…

* or more recently for any kids reading: Goldeneye on the N64 – what? it's how old? 15 years?

Current location: Siem Reap until 30th August
Next stop: Bangkok!

Sunday 19 August 2012

Nha Trang

5th-11th August 2012

Finally, it was time to visit a place in Vietnam that doesn't begin with an 'H'. When I said in my last post that the relaxation had to come to end, I lied, starting with the train to Nha Trang. There were no night time sleepers available so we ended up taking a daytime sleeper. A 10 hour train journey has never been so relaxing.

Soft sleeper carriage on the way to Nha Trang
And when we arrived, there was nothing much else to do in but to continue relaxing. Our hotel gave us a room on the 4th floor – a bit of a pain since they had no lift, but all the better because it meant we had a view of the beach.

Nha Trang beach
There were plenty of good restaurants and bars nearby. We had really good Indian food a couple of times in a place called Ganesh and loads of good Vietnamese food, including an even better version of the pomelo salad which came on a giant black-sesame-flavoured prawn cracker. Delicious!

Pomelo salad
For the record, pomelo is a bit like grapefruit – just as juicy but less sour and more sweet.

We also discovered a new fruit – the soursop or custard apple. It looks a bit scary (the best ones to buy should have white spots and be covered in ants apparently) but they’re simple to peel and inside the flesh is pale and juicy with a sweet-sour taste. There are quite a few seeds but they’re fairly large and easy to spit out. They’re pretty good and if you see them, definitely worth trying.

A custard apple, soon to be sued by the black thing on the left
Other than that, there’s not a great deal to do in Nha Trang. I tried to take another cookery course but was scuppered this time by late cancellations from the rest of the class. The beach was a two-minute walk away and really quiet until about 4.30pm when the Vietnamese arrive. Even then, most Spanish and French beaches I’ve seen are much busier. Unfortunately, the experience was slightly spoiled by the high volume of litter floating in the sea. Compared to the beach in Hoi An, it was pretty nasty. Nothing spoils a nice swim more than a plastic bag full of dirty tissues round your legs (other than a jellyfish I suppose – none of those in Nha Trang luckily.)

Aside from a couple of walks up and down the promenade, that was it. Across the bay lies Vinpearl island, home to the Vinpearl theme park. The only way to get there is via a giant cable-car and although I do love a giant cable-car ride, I resisted this time.

They say the devil makes work for idle hands so one slow afternoon I got fed up with my patchy beard and sculpted it into this follicular masterpiece.


All I need now is a couple of tattoos (forehead and knuckles, I think) and the prison look will be complete.

Hopefully there’ll be more to report from Saigon (hint: there will be…) so watch out for my next post in the next couple of days.

Current location: Phnom Penh until 23rd August
Next stop: Siem Reap

Saturday 18 August 2012

Hoi An

31st July - 5th August

Since arriving in Asia, we’d been keeping up a pretty hectic pace. The sheer distances involved make sure of that. So, as we arrived in Hoi An, it was time to take things a little easier.

It’s only 100km or so from Hue to Hoi An. We resisted numerous attempts to persuade us to take the trip by motorbike and got the train to Danang followed by a short bus ride on to Hoi An. The train part was very memorable, winding through hills and over viaducts, with fabulous sea views all along the route.

Mmmm, wood effect plastic veneer, nice
View from the train
Another view from the train
So far so good. Next up, getting the bus to Hoi An. For this bit, we hooked up with another British couple, Stuart and Jess (or Jen?) who were going the same way. Our research told us where to get the bus and that it would cost between 15,000 and 18,000 Dong. Cue yet another Vietnamese scam. *Sigh*

Basically, this con involved the conductor (if you can call him that) demanding 50,000 Dong instead of 15,000 for the trip. So far, so expected – our research said we should just be firm, refuse and insist on paying the correct fare. In a new twist however, as spotted by Stuart, he roped the other locals on the bus into the trick. He would make a big show of receiving a 50,000 Dong note from them, and then, when he thought we weren’t looking, slip the note back to them and charge them the normal fare (well spotted by Stuart.)

This was all very entertaining until, when he realised that we weren’t going to pay up, his accomplice (the trainee conductor presumably) made a big, noisy show of threatening to throw our luggage off the already moving bus. Again, the rest of the locals on the bus thought this was just fine. Not so funny. Eventually he accepted 25,000 Dong each – mysteriously half of the original asking price.

After two months travelling using public transport in China, nothing like this ever happened. After two weeks in Vietnam, these two idiots could not have made us feel less welcome in their country. The shame of it all is that most Vietnamese are amazingly friendly, some of the warmest people we've met while travelling. But the actions of a self-serving minority are not helping the country’s reputation.

For the record, if you’re ever getting the public bus from Danang to Hoi An, here are the two jokers to look out for. Pinky (the trainee) is on the left with the cap and Perky (the conductor) is on the right in the yellow T-shirt. The rest of their unofficial posse are behind them.

This would never happen in Japan...
Putting things into perspective, overall this was just a tiny blip in what has been a great trip through Vietnam so far and we got back on track as soon as we arrived in Hoi An.

Everyone we met before we left Scotland and during our travels have all raved about Hoi An. And rightly so, for it is lovely. A maze of bustling streets are nestled next to a quiet river. There only seems to be two types of shop: restaurants and tailors. Unfortunately, there are so many, it’s hard to tell the good from the bad. We weren’t in the market for a bespoke suit so we just had to work out the restaurants. Luckily, Hoi An is a bit of a foodie town so it’s hard to go wrong. We found this little place next to the river for a snack and some Bia Hoi.

"Oi! No photos!"
Only 12p a glass
We also ate in a lovely restaurant called Dao Tien. Most restaurants offer some kinds of cooking class and I tried to get on courses at both of these restaurants but alas, as I was the only potential student, they both cancelled. Hmpf.

In our five days there we did very little apart from pootle around the streets and eat great food. I had my first pomelo salad at one place – now my favourite salad replacing the one that comes with a beefburger and chips in UK pubs. Every month they also celebrate the Full Moon Festival where the street lights are turned off and the town is decked in hanging lanterns. A few streets are freed from cars and motorbikes and the locals wear traditional dress, recite poetry, perform scenes from ancient operas. Although we didn’t see much poetry or opera going on, with the lanterns and the peace and quiet from the lack of motorbikes, it was all very romantic.

Normal bridge in Hoi An
Japanese bridge in Hoi An
Full Moon Festival
Lovely lanterns
Our hotel was about 1km out of the main part of town and about 3km the other way is the sea. To get there, it’s an easy and picturesque 20 minute ride on hired bikes. Unbelievably, this was our first chance on this trip to get in the sea, so we did!

Yes, I am holding my breath 
Finally, the relaxation had to come to and end and it was time to leave. Rather than brave public transport again, we arranged a taxi back to Danang and then onwards by train to Nha Trang.

Seeing as I’m now a good two weeks behind in my blogging duties (and in a different country), I promise to post the rest of our Vietnamese adventures in the next couple of days, so stay tuned!

Current location: Phnom Penh until 23rd August
Next stop: Siem Reap