Monday, March 8, 2010

Vietnam Part II: The search for more motorbikes

It has been a few days since my last post and the wife and I have been all over Vietnam since, or at least flown over Vietnam which is like being all over.
After arriving in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) and finding our hotel Amanda and I decided to do a quick walking tour of the area. We started by finding the necessities of tourist life in Southeast Asia, i.e. bottled water and Wi-Fi. Bottled water was easy as there were plenty of Circle K's and 7-Elevens. The Wi-Fi took a little longer to find but upon walking around the block we found several cafe's that stated their Wi-Fi'ness.
For Dinner that night we had decided to go to a Vietnamese restaurant suggested in the lonely planet. The food was quite good and a very fair price for the amount that we got. We had a dried noodle dish with Tofu and Vegetables as the main and fried spring rolls with shrimp. We also had a mixed vegetable dish that was quite good.
The next day was set aside for a walking tour of Saigon. We started near our hotel and walked following the lonely planets suggested route. This took us to several highlights throughout the city most of which related to the French Colonial History, Vietnamese culture, and the Emancipation from Franco-American Imperialist Forces.
The key points that stood out for me were the Post office, the Notre Dame Cathedral, The War Remnants Museum, and the Ho Chi Minh city museum.

Random Extravagant French Government type building

Cathedral of Notre Dame

Interior of Notre Dame

Neon Mary

US Army Tank outside of War Remnants Museum

US Army Chinook Helicopter also outside of War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants museum serves as a reminder of the brutality of war and the impact that the american forces had on Vietnam. The general theme of this museum was to show graphically the violence that occured whilst the american military was campaigning in Southern Vietnam. To this purpose the museum succeeds very well and I was left with the feeling of a pit in my stomach. As this was the first time that I've visited a "communist" country I didn't expect to see the flip side of the coin that is the propaganda against the "American War" and a plea for peace. Many of the atrocities that were commited by US soldiers are pointed out while those of the Vietcong are mostly ignored. What is well documented for both sides is the cost of the war on both sides, the cost in dollars for what was really an unnecessary war and the cost in lives of Americans and Vietnamese.

We topped off the day with a meal at the Tandoor restaurant which was a couple of blocks down the road from our hotel. The food was quite good we started out with sweet lassi's and moved to skewered homemade cheese with vegetables and a curry with naan to top it off. After dinner we had juice at the top of the Sheraton hotel with a view of the city.

Saigon on a clear night

Tuesday was our last full day in Saigon so we decided to take a tour outside of the city to the North. After purchasing tickets to a tour from our hotel, not necessarily a good idea, we caught the bus first thing in the morning. The tour guide was a cheerful vietnamese fellow who had a lot to say but not all of it was worth hearing. Rather he talked incessantly about not much at all. What he did say seemed to tow the communist propaganda party line of the celebration of the reunification of North and South Vietnam.

Why this particular tour was not such a good idea, the bus that picked us up was quite cramped and the driver was frankly, scary. Besides the fact that the tour guide was very talkative we also stopped at a Handicraft studio outside of Saigon. The handicraft studio was made up mostly of people with disabilities that created the usual wares that one can find on the streets of Saigon. There were a lot of wooden lacquered plaques with inlaid mother of pearl as well ornately decorated plates and vases, to full table and chair sets with prices up to US $13K or VND 26,000,000 or so.

Preparing the Pottery for Lacquer and Decoration

A finished plate on display for sale (Notice the subtle bicycle theme)

A beautifully carved chair with mother of pearl inlay
After the handicrafts village we attended to noon day ceremony of a uniquely Vietnamese minor religion that combines the tenants and traditions of several major religions into its own unique flavor. Though the majority of the architecture some kind of Chinese Hindu fusion, subtle details on the interior suggested Buddhism and even Catholicism. When we arrived the paritioners were in full chant or possibly song with instruments playing and many tourists taking pictures.

The main hall

The Three Saints (Victor Hugo is one of them, can you guess the other two?)

The Temple from the outside

While the temple was interesting and certainly unique amongst the few buddhist and chinese temples that I have visited it certainly wasn't the highlight of the tour which was to visit the famous tunnels of Cu Chi. These are the tunnels that played a vital role in the operations of the Vietcong against the Americans during the war. The tunnels served as supply routes for southern troops as well as sneak attack, escape routes, and living quarters.

The area is a restored portion of the jungle that was heavily fought over between the Americans and the Vietcong. Upon arriving at the tourist area and beginning along the path through the jungle it didn't take very long before I started to hear gun shots in the background. These were not echoes from the past but actual gun shots from several different types of guns. As it turns out the people who run the area have set up a firing range where tourists can shoot military rifles for VND 20K per bullet (about USD $1). This did not add to the ambiance of the place but a reminder of the tragedy that befell this place over 35 years ago. This gunfire in the background did not sit particularly well with Amanda, as she needed to be fed ice cream in order to better block out the noise.

The first part of the tour consisted of showing the tricks of concealment that the Vietcong used in order to disguise their tunnel openings from foreign eyes. These tunnels have been enlarged or as I like to call them american sized so that tourists can fit in them, even so it was still a tight fit.

Now you see her....

Now you don't!

As we moved along many different sites were pointed out, such as craters from american bombs that were dropped on the jungle. This one in particular was dropped by a B-52 bomber.

Crater Left over from bomb dropped by a B-52
These tunnels stretched for several km's in some cases and were smaller than the 80cm x 120cm size that they are now. Amanda and were two of the only people to make it out of the 100 meter tunnel that tourists are allowed to enter. Most of the others in the group used one of the earlier exits to escape the cramped and hot clay quarters.

Entrance to one of the preserved tunnels of Cu Chi (American Sized)

Tank gutted and left over from the war

The conclusion of the tour was a Vietnamese war propaganda film that told of the beauty and splendor of Cu Chi before the american war and how the Vietcong had to use engenuity rather than shear numbers and massive artillery to defeat the american. The film made one point very well, that the american military did not fully understand the powerful bond that the vietnamese have to their individuality and their willingness to fight to the very end to keep it. This has been a historical theme since being controlled by the chinese, to the europeans and finally the american occupation.

Upcoming posts:

Hanoi by plane or by train?

Inland Empire: The Ancient city

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