Friday 10 April 2015
Left Cái Bè for Ho Chi Minh City formerly Saigon although most Vietnamese still refer to it as this. Checked into the Duc Vuong Hotel mid afternoon. I was itching to get out and explore but what was priority was trying to organise my next 2 weeks travel and accommodation. Fortunately (that’s right!), the hotel was in the middle of renovation so between 9am – 5pm, it was 30% off the bar and food bill in addition to the 3 x 50,000 VND (3 x £1.80) vouchers as a gift from the hotel. So I spent sun down booking flights and accommodation whilst sipping Green Saigon Beer until it got dark and the battery ran out of my laptop. With the combination of discount and vouchers, I paid 4,000 VND (14p) for 5 bottles of beer.
With no power in my laptop, I freshen up and headed out to explore. I headed right out of the hotel along the street and sampled more of the Saigon beer and food. I seemed to have landed on party street. It certainly felt buzzing and really came alive from 9pm onwards.
I settled down for dinner at Viet Restaurant and ordered a Saigon Green beer. Realising they had a happy hour on cocktails, I thought I would have a Long Island Iced Tea too for 45,000 VND (£1.62). The drinks went down a treat along with my spring rolls and eggs pancake with veg.
Watching the world go by, there were plenty of street sellers, offering their various goods to tourists sat drinking and eating. Selling everything from fans, bracelets, lighters, chewing gum to stacks of books…..
Saturday 11 April 2015
The plan today was to see some tourist sights. First on the itinerary though was a couple of shops I spied the night before whilst out drinking that sold some cool t-shirts. A couple purchased, I headed over to Bến Thành Market for a browse. Selling everything from watches, t-shirts, shoes, cloth for making suits, food and ornaments, it was obviously some of these products were imitations. I didn’t really need anything but it was a good experience to weave around the hundreds of stalls as ladies were literally grabbing my arm to buy their polo t-shirt. Just because I had one on, they thought I needed another one to add to my wardrobe. I polite no and I moved onto the next.
Escaping the market empty handed, I walked over to the Saigon Opera House. It was closed so I couldn’t wander around inside unless I wanted to see a 60 minute performance later that evening, so I stood back and admired the view from across the road. Built when France occupied the country in the last century, it certainly had the look of french colonial about it. It also seems to attract wedding couples to have their pictures taken with it in the background.
Next was a brief look at the People’s committee building, which again, had a french style to it before going to the Ho Chi Minh Museum.
At 15,000 VND (54p), I thought it was a fair price. It chartered how Saigon became the city it is today and had a floor dedicated to the revolution. In my opinion, the displays were poorly set out and didn’t quite flow in an informative way. Nonetheless, wedding picture spotting became more fun as I crossed paths with 2 separate couples having their shots done.
Feeling the mid thirty degree heat outside, I wandered over to have a look at the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon Central Post Office just to reaffirm that french influence on the buildings. Again, I couldn’t go into the cathedral as it was closed until 3 so I had a look inside the post office. It was really busy and looked grand with it’s high dome ceilings.
Next on the tourist trail was the Reunification Palace or The Independence Palace. It was here almost 40 years ago on 30 April 1975 that communist tanks drove over the iron gates of the palace for a Viet-Cong soldier to run up the stairs of the building, unfurl the VC flag and declare Vietnam liberated. At 30,000 VND (£1.08) entrance fee, this was worth it. The rooms within the palace are very stately and the route and displays are all set out very well. I must have spent at least an hour here tackling the 3 floors including the concrete bunker. I particularly enjoyed the view of the helipad.
By now, my legs were getting a little tired after being on my feet for 6 hours exploring so I took the opportunity to have a spot of afternoon-ish feed as I’d been too busy sightseeing to have lunch. Settling down in the air conditioned i.d. cafe, this funky place served up some spicy beef noodles and delicious spring rolls. All washed down with a coffee milkshake.
After an hour spent at the cafe, I wandered a mile back to the hotel to relax on the rooftop bar whilst booking a couple more hotels for the end of the month and a trip on a boat (more to follow on this later…). As night fell, I freshened up and had a couple more Saigon Green beers watching a bit of football in a bar.
Sunday 12 April 2015
Adventure time today as I’d booked a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels for $26 (£17.96) through my hotel. Pickup was at 8am sharp where my guide, whose name I could not pronounce (even he said Vietnamese people can’t either as it’s fairly unique) arrived and took me to the minibus. There were 7 of us on the tour which was going to last half a day.
First stop on the tour was to the Vietnam Handicapped Handicraft, so called because of the people making egg shell and mother of pearl art there, had been affected by Agent Orange, the chemicals dropped by the Americans in the area during the Vietnam War. I was guided around the factory and shown how they make paintings using crushed egg shells and egg shell powder, meticulously glued into place. The big up-sell was when the guided tour around the factory finished and the group was encouraged to browse the huge factory shop to buy something. I don’t think anyone actually did!
It was about 8:30am and already in the thirty degree temperature stage, so it was back onto the minibus and aircon on. Half an hour later and I was at the Cu Chi Tunnel site where Vietnamese people dug tunnels to fight against the Americans. I got to jump into a secret entrance just managing to squeeze my broad shoulders down into it before putting the wooden lid on. It wasn’t actually too bad down that particular entrance and quite roomy. However, I was told that entrance had been made bigger for tourists and the real ones were a lot smaller as Vietnamese fighters back then were smaller too.
Moving on, I got to clamber on top of a tank which was bombed by a landmine. It was like being a kid and I loved it. Having to climb off it to let someone else have a go, I was then shown various traps the Vietnamese hand ingeniously created. Some looked quite deadly and you could tell they obviously put some thought into it.
After a demonstration of how the traps worked, another up-sell by my tour guide was the shooting range there. He was trying his best to get me to shoot a M30, Carbine and AK47. I was quite keen until I realised that this wasn’t included in the tour price and I would have to buy bullets at about 35,000 VND each (£1.26) with a minimum bullet purchase of 10 for each gun. I was keen but not that keen so I declined his offer.
Passing a huge crater left by a bomb dropped by a B-52 bomber plane, I got the opportunity to crawl through one of the tunnels that were used during the war. I managed to squat and crawl 40 metres in a 1.2 metre high by 80 cm tunnel before my quad muscles gave up. The actually tunnel was originally 1 metre high by 60 cm but made larger for tourists. Again, this wasn’t too bad since I don’t suffer from claustrophobia but I can imagine those that do, shouldn’t really try this. It was fairly well lit down on the second layer of tunnel that I crawled. I couldn’t crawl along the third layer of tunnel as a lot of it had collapsed. By the time I got out, I was pouring with sweat due to the heat and exercise. I gave up trying to wipe it off as did everyone else in my group.
After walking around some more pits, trenches and bomb craters with wobbly legs, I was offered a chance to try some tapioca dipped into salt and crushed peanuts washed down with Ben Dan Tea. This was the diet for the Vietnamese 4 times a day whilst they were in the tunnels fighting. It was fairly tasteless and starchy. Like a boiled potato but with even less flavour. I could empathise with them after trying it, that you’d get pretty sick of it quickly.
My tour ended with a short video about the Viet-Cong in black and white. It came across a little propaganda with a small dose of Americans been mentioned as bad people a few times, putting it diplomatically. After, it was back on the minibus to cool down and dropped back off at my hotel for about 1:30pm. I did however, manage to get a power nap in whilst we bounced along in the minibus.
The heavens decided to open at around 2:30pm with a vengeance, so I waited until later that day to walk a mile to catch a show at 5pm at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. With an entrance fee of 180,000 VND (£6.48), it was a 50 minute performance of puppets on water controlled by their masters waist deep in water behind a screen. The whole thing was in Vietnamese so I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on, but I thoroughly enjoyed the show. It was quite amazing how they move the puppets around and the colours were a wonder to see…
Having not eaten since breakfast, I then went for some fresh shrimp and pork spring rolls and a stir-fried chicken in lemongrass and chilli washed down with a bottle of Saigon Green beer.
I had 50,000 VND complimentary voucher to use up at my hotel rooftop bar, so I went back and had myself an iced coffee with condensed milk. It was quite strong and very sweet at the same time but tasty….
Monday 13 April 2015
Sleep is for wimps! So up at 7am and upstairs on the 7th floor for breakfast. Tucking into my pork fried noodles and prawns, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one living by that mantra as there was a surprisingly large number of people up too. I soon realised that perhaps these people were booked on an “early start” tour like I was yesterday.
I was out the door at 8am for another mile or so walk to the War Remnants Museum by 8:30am. It must have been already 30C so I was sweating by the time I got there. My quads were definitely a little stiff today after that 40m squat crawl through a Cu Chi Tunnel. The museum today cost 15,000 VND (54p) and was definitely worth the money. Housing planes and tanks from the Vietnam War in the courtyard, the more graphic presentation was inside.
There are 3 floors in this museum dedicated to the Vietnam War and the horrific destruction, torture and aftermath endured by the country. The first floor is “fairly” light in that it talks about the protests against America to stop the war and leave Vietnam, praising and respecting all the countries around the world who demonstrated for peace.
The second floor looked at what happened during the war and how America bombed and killed civilians. It also went into detail about the campaign ‘Agent Orange’ where chemical warfare was used. This presentation was very graphic and didn’t hold back in showing pictures of people tortured and killed during the fighting.
The third floor focused more on people who are currently suffering the aftermath of Agent Orange including deformities as a result of their parents being subjected to chemicals used. What is a shame, that at this current time, Vietnam people are receiving no compensation as a result of Agent Orange although I do believe this is set to change sometime in the future. I have to say that having visited concentration camps (I did say I enjoy dark tourism at times!) Sachsenhausen in Berlin and Auchwitz and Birkenhau in Poland, the pictures here are more graphic and detailed, although all three are just as dark.
Having to tear myself away, I walked back to the hotel to pack my rucksack and check out by 12pm. I couldn’t get a late check out although the hotel were happy to charge me half a day if I wanted to stay in my room longer. Out of principle, I refuse to pay this as it shows that the room is available but an opportunity to make more money by the hotel. I can understand from a business point of view this makes perfect sense, but from a customer point of view the question I ask is “Is this good service, counter productive against creating goodwill and value for money?”. I know it can be done as I received a late check out without asking at Diamond D’Angkor Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
That said, I spent the next 3 hours up on the rooftop bar getting through 2 cans of diet coke in the heat and writing my previous day’s blog before saying goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City and setting off for the airport to my next destination….