Vietnam I: (Don’t) Miss Saigon

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The heat is on in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it’s now called) when we arrive, over the border late at night on the five hour ‘Giant Ibis’ bus. It’s an inauspicious start involving bad food at a border café and almost being fleeced by a taxi driver. Once again I find myself grumpy about the whole changing countries thing – I love Cambodia, why on earth do I want to go to Vietnam? Though I’m not quite as grumpy as the lady below, who really didn’t like it when Paul took her picture. DSC03164DSC03208 DSC03209

HCM city is quite a contrast to Phnom Penh – the commercial hub of a commercial country, with high rises, fast motorbikes and luxury malls.

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Vietnam is still a communist country, of course, and it’s odd to see the hammer & sickle flag quite so close to the Burberry store, while the face of ‘Uncle Ho’ beams down at you from a thousand banners.

So we move from Pol Pot to the series of wars that have defined Vietnam’s recent history. We visit the War Remnants Museum, seeing the full might of American machinery that was pitted against the Vietnamese Communists in the 1960s. Huge tanks, Chinooks and jets are ranged around the edges of the museum. “How could they have lost, when they had all this?” Daisy asks. We’re about to find out.

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We take a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong fought the US, hiding in a series of tunnels, sometimes four stories deep. It’s a treat of a trip, by speedboat no less, but the site paid tribute to the fierce determination and ingenuity of the Viet Cong (mainly fighters from the North) and their Southern supporters. The tunnels contained everything from war rooms with long tables, to special kitchens which dispersed the smoke from cooking through a series of pipes, so that the Americans thought it was just mist on the mountains. Our guide showed a series of ingenious traps made of wood, spikes, and natural predators (scorpions and snakes) which took out unwary Americans. “It was best to injure them,” the guide explains. “Then the other soldiers had to look after them, and couldn’t fight”. Pragmatic lot, the Vietnamese.

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Unlike the War Museum, which has (rightly, I think) been criticised for being propaganda personified, our guide to the Cu Chi Tunnels took a more balanced view. “You’re only seeing the Vietnamese side,” she points out. I explain to the girls that where the victors tell the story, the other side doesn’t get a say. Clover is still bemused: “why did America fight in Vietnam in the first place?” she asks.

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You can see how the American lads must have been terrified. Despite defoliating the thick jungle with Agent Orange, the tunnels allowed the Viet Cong to appear practically from nowhere. What with unfriendly terrain, malaria and guerrilla warfare techniques, it was a bitter enough conflict for all concerned.

Squeezing ourselves into the tunnels (although specially widened for fat tourists like us) made us realise just how claustrophobic it must have been.

Here’s Daisy’s take on the experience…

We went to the Cu Chi tunnels and we saw loads of traps. first we saw a bamboo trap, which was a trap with sharp pieces of bamboo which had on top a thing where you walked on it and it fell down . We also saw a folding chair trap which is a kind of thing that you sit on … and get trapped. As well as that we saw a stick trap which had sharp sticks that stick out when you fall in it.

One of the tunnels was made bigger for tourists but I still had to duck down tiny. I wouldn’t have liked living there.  

We also tried a root called tapioca, it tasted better with peanut dip.  

(Written by Daisy)                          

Oh, and Dad and Paul got to shoot a machine gun – with real bullets….which made them very excited.

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After the tunnels, because we like to temper justice with mercy, and education with fun, we indulged in one of my favourite travelling-with-children pastimes, and paid £10 to go and swim in the five-star-hotel round the corner. Since we’d already checked out of our hotel, the poor staff had to cope with us six vagrants AND our luggage for an entire four hours. The girls played in the water– they are now swimming like (somewhat ungainly) fish after so much time in the pool – and Mum and Dad relaxed. They are learning that, with a trip like ours, there is always a come down after a luxury experience. In this case it was the Vietnamese night train from Saigon to Da Nang. But more of that another day.

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