Monthly Archives: January 2018
On our last morning we had arranged amongst ourselves for 6 of us to travel on a tour taking up the majority of the morning prior to the time needed to check out. It was slightly more expensive than some that we had looked at but it was pretty much the only one that we could feasibly fit in before we were collected from the hotel for our transfer to the airport. We were collected from the hotel and taken to a boat station where we boarded speedboats and having donned the oh so fetching life jacket. Soon we took off and sped down the river for a speedy trip out to visit the Tunnels.
We were given breakfast on route and some of us chatted, I was quite happy just to sit and watch the scenery as we sped out of Ho Chi Minh City heading in a northerly direction as the crow flies. I found it fascinating watching the speed boat weaving in and out of the water hyacinth, I wondered how often that got caught in rudders. It was wonderful to just watch life on the water just carrying on and to be away from the hustle and bustle of the busy city.
Once we arrived at the tunnels, we were even more grateful of the unholy hour that we had got up at as the car park was pretty much empty with perhaps a coach or two only in view and we realised that we would absolutely be viewing this historic site with very few other hangers on.
The Cu Chi Tunnels became legendary throughout the 60’s really I think when the Viet Cong took control of the 30-40km rural area down to Ho Chi Minh. It is thought that at its absoloute peak the tunnels stretched all the way from Ho Chi Min City right over to the Cambodian boarder. The network of tunnels themselves is thought to have been as long as around 250km in total. It utterly astonishing when you think about that in more detail. Several areas of the network of tunnels were also storeys deep and obviously included int eh construction were countless trap doors, living areas, kitchens storage facilities, weapons bases, forms of hospitals and nursing stations as well as command centres.
The tunnels apparently took around 25 years to build, starting back as far as the 40’s built by a poorly equipped peasant army for the French invasion of the area mainly for communications between villages but also to help the South Vietnamese evade the French troops. They were returned to for the war in the 60’s – extended and strengthened and repaired where needed. The Tet Offensive attached were actually planned from here in 1968.
Over the years the Viet Cong worked on making the tunnels difficult to both detect and also disable. Wooden trap doors were heavily camouflaged with earth and branches and some were even booby trapped. There were examples of these for us to look at on the site and the simplicity of some of the booby traps was unreal yet utterly destructive and maiming to its victims.
There was an opportunity to see if you could disappear down one of the tunnels quickly – most of us in the group looked at each other looked at the hole and worked out that we’d never actually make it in never mind out! We were shown how it was done within a matter of seconds and we did manage to persuade one of the group, a far slender gentleman than the rest of us to have a go as well. It was fascinating.
Because of the deception of the South Vietnamese by their careful and skilful creation of the tunnels they were able to evade so many troops who tried to find them in the area. As a result US and Australian troops launched large scale ground operations to try and identify the location of the tunnels by defoliating rice fields and bulldozed huge amounts of the jungle, evacuated villages and the Americans used a whole host of chemical bombs not he area including napalm and set fire to the dry vegetation but the intense heat interacted with the wet tropical air and created cloudbursts that extinguished the fires leaving he Viet Cong safe in their tunnels. Being unsuccessful in thier attempts to flush them out the Americans started sending down ‘tunnel rats’ who ended up in sustaining horrific injuries and thus casualties owing tot he underground fire fights and booby traps.
The Viet Cong were clever, very very clever, when the Americans tried sending down dogs into the tunnels to attack them, the Viet Cong started washing in US soap and wearing US Uniforms so as to confuse the dogs into not attacking them. Owing to the amount of dogs also killed or maimed as a result of the booby traps, which of course they could not spot, the Mexicans started refusing to sending their dogs to their death by going down the tunnels.
It wasn’t until the late 60s that the Americans gave up as such and carpet bombed the entire are with B-52s which destroyed a number of the tunnels as well as anything else that was around at the time. But it was seen merely as a symbolic gesture in the end as the Americans were pretty much on their way out of the war by this time and the tunnels had already served their purpose. It left the area devastated with chemicals left in the soil and water, leaving farmers and workers at risk and the crop yields depleted.
There was an opportunity to go through one of the tunnels but at 1.2m high and only 80cm across and unlit – I decided that I could get what it felt like from above ground without the need to crawl inside myself. I think that I would have found it far too clautrophobic for comfort.
It was an eye opening experience to put it mildly. To suddenly hear gunfire from the area where you were able to pay to fire genuine AK-47s as you were walking around the site was utterly surreal. None of our group fancied shooting the real guns for a small fortune but to just stand and hear the guns going off felt creepy in itself.
From here we headed back to the speed boat and sped our way back up to the terminal that we had left from where we were given some lunch and returned to the hotel in plenty enough time to change, shower finish packing and await our transfer to the airport and home. What a trip, action packed with such a variety of activities and a wonderful guide who really helped me to enjoy the country that in time I would like to return to to explore more of.
Thankfully someone did come up trumps on my emergency call out for Immodium. A great way to start the day, but I was determined that I was not going to miss the day as we were heading out to pop along to different places via different boats along the Mekong Delta and I was really looking forward to it. I managed to sip some coffee and have some toast to put at least something in the tummie as I felt TOTALLY drained from the previous nights events & was feeling a little weak and shakey.
We had a short coach trip to get to the boat that we would be initially heading out into the Mekong Delta on. It was fascinating once we had chugged out of the boat station to see the amount of what looked like rubbish floating on teh water, but on closer inspection and after askiing Hung we realised it was actually a growing plant which is a weed and in some areas is a nightmare to the local farming area.
Our first stop was to a Honey Farm (Bee-z) and a Chocolate producer. Both were fascinating though I am not sure that I really wanted to spend time holding a large piece of Honeycomb with all of the wasps (or were they Vietnamese bees?) still buzzing all over them! Others bravely did and we sampled some Honey tea and a coconut treat before moving on to see the raw cocoa beans and a brief sample of the process of the bean to bar. Having done all of the work with Menier Cooking Chocolate whilst working at Geometry PR it was fascinating to see it all for real rather than on the pages of a book or wikipedia! The chocolate was dark and bitter and delicious and whilst I could easily have taken some home, I pointed out to myself that it was ruddy warm out and that anything that I did buy would surely melt into some form of lump before it even made it back to my case in the hotel!
At the end of the trip to these establishments they were very keen to show us thier pet, clearly a hit with the tourists – a MASSIVE python who was aptly named Python! They were keen for people to pose with him around thier neck and for some unknown reason as no one else stood forward, I did. Why? Ive no idea as I detest snakes. They freak me out in Harry Potter yet here I was offering to have an 8ft one draped over my shoulders. Honest to god, I worry about myself at times! So photo was dually taken, it was fine – i do actually look like i am crapping myself in the photo and that was becuase I almost literally was (the loo was the final stop before getting back on to the boat) The snake was moving across my shoulders as I posed and it was SUCH a strange feeling as his muscles were put into action alonf his body as he moved. I say he, I have no idea if it actually was a he or a she?! I felt very proud of myself – another thing ticked off the random things to do list!!
The next stop was to visit a family-run business that made coconut sweets and some other items. They showed us how to get the flesh out to use in the sweets & they cracked open a large coconuts which was fascinating, if not rather dangerous looking!
Having purchased some of the sweets for work, thinking that they are less likely to be ruined in the heat of the rest of the day, we all tried a number of different fruits some which were delicious and sone that had just THE strangest texture to them.
From here we were taken by horse and cart through some of the local area to the next type of boat that we got to the stop for lunch which appeared to be in the middle of no where. But lunch was all laid out ready for us. As we were near the water, unsurprisingly we had fish for lunch. First course was prawns in their shells followed by an Elephant fish which was sort of filleted in front of us. Absoloutely THE last thing that I felt like eating I have to say! My stomachs turned at the sight and smell of it after the previous day/night’s experience.
During our meal, where all I had was beer, we were sat at tables of four and Chris and I were sat with Rosemary and Chris. Somehow we got onto the topic of Morning Glory and Rosemary clearly was not aware of the other meaning for it and was going on and on about the plant in her garden, with EVErY sentence she uttered the rest of us were in stitches, unable to control the giggles, especially as her husband kept trying to get her to stop aware that she was not clued up on the other meaning. I laughed SO much it hurt and I had tears streaming down my face, it was most definitely a case of you had to be there.
From here we were transported in tiny little boats through the amazing bamboo clad waterways to lead us back out to the main point on the delta to revised our larger boat back to the boat station that we had started from earlier that day.
Back at the hotel we had a short while to get ready for the final meal that we were going to have that Hung had arranged the location for, not too far from the hotel. It was above some shops and you walked through a sort of mini supermarket to a lift at the back which only took a couple of people to go up a few floors to get to the restaurant. There were very few others in there when we arrived and they were very slow at getting the drinks out let alone the orders for food. It was here that we gave Hung his tips and I was the one that thanked him for his time and information to help make the trip a great success. Unfortunately I started off by saying how we had all enjoyed our tome in Cambodia – WRONG COUNTRY EMMA!!! As the food had not arrived for many, several of us decided to leave, pay for what we had and try and find somewhere else to eat. We headed to the burger looking place just up from the hotel. Several were leaving early int he morning and so we bid our goodbyes to several, but some of us had all managed to book on to a trip tot he Chu Chi tunnels the following morning which was not part of the Explore trip.
It was lovely to make it to bed feeling a reasonable temperature, even if a tad delicate still and still quite weak. I was proud, and relieved that I had managed to last the day.
We made our way to Saigon by plane on an early flight after an early departure from our hotel in Hoi An flying from Danang. The weather was definitely warmer and incredibly humid in the capital city. You could tell it was far more cosmopolitan than the previous places that we had visited really and certainly not as quaint I felt. The room was wonderfully (and thankfully) air conditioned and a welcome relief from the sweat central heat of outside – with only such a short visit there was no chance my body was going to acclimatise in time!! It was quite a stark contrast to the previous temperatures that we had been in.
After about 10 mins in our rooms we were back downstairs for a walking tour and lunch out. I didn’t really feel the vibe of the city – it was quite hard to work out my bearings in general but with little more than 48 hours we did a pretty grand job of shoving everything in, well the major sights. There seemed to be even more bloomin mopeds on the streets and passing through the city from the airport was eye opening watching all of the mopeds at all of the traffic lights stops. Obviously being a much larger city there were bound to be more but it just felt as there were even more as the streets were wider than they were in say, Hanoi.
We headed out to wander the streets to see the sights and first off was to grab some lunch. The weather really was stifling and I was struggling a little, downing water like there was no tomorrow. Unsure of what to have to eat as I was always wary of ordering something that had the jolly old bell pepper lurking in it. I decided to go with another Cao Lau which I had chosen back in Hoi An and which was utterly delicious – Japanese style noodles seasoned with herbs, salad greens and bean sprouts, served with a slice or two of roast pork. I knew what it was & I couldn’t really go wrong with that choice. HOW WRONG COULD I BE??!!
Unfortunately my dish was a little dissimilar to the version that I had in Hoi An and most importantly atop of the dish was delicately placed a prawn in its shell still. This was not mentioned on the menu at all and Hung was excellent at explaining to the restaurant why I. Could not have the dish and how they simply couldnt just take it off the top and I eat the remainder of it. After much. Agitated discussion the dish was taken away and was being remade without the prawn on the top. I was incredibly suspicious of the second version and I was adamant that there was still prawn in it. Hung reassured me that the restaurant had promised that there was none in the replacement. I kind of had to take his word for it and so had a few mouthfuls before declaring that I really wasn’t that hungry after all and that it was probably because of the heat.
We walked past the People’s Committee Building which we, as tourists, were unable to enter. Its style was French colonial of course looking similar to a sort of Hotel de Ville as you would see in France. At one end of it is a huge statue of Uncle Ho and the other a ole Thor’s of construction where the proposed central city station will be for the new Metro station that is slowly being built/created in the city.
Other sites that we passed on our walk were the Opera House, which is near to the construction of the new metro system. We saw the Notre Dame Cathedral which was a rose brick colour and built between 1877 and 1883. Its based in an area of the city known as the city’s government quarter. Being so close after New Year and so close to Tet, we did find that most of the places that we were keen to see the inside of were not actually open, I think I would have liked the opportunity to explore the city a little more I have to say. The impressive towers of the cathedral, Hung told us were around 40m high and the top bits are iron spires. Its still an operating Catholic Church. The Central Post Office we did get an opportunity to look inside of and it was fascinating – a HUGE portrait of Uncle Ho (obviously) took the main position and line of sight as you entered the building.
I’m not sure that I could honestly say that it was the highlight of the day, more the most poignant part of the day was the visit to the War Remnants Museum which we had already been advised in our trip notes was to give us a very different version of the Vietnam (American) War than that depicted by the Americans. It was a gruelling visit. But a very. Necessary one to fully appreciate the more recent history of the country. It was already sweltering and I was feeling incredibly feint walking around all of the halls of the artefacts that were on display as well as the mass of photos of the atrocities in the other areas of the country during the 60s. The after effects of the chemical warfare and the clarification../realisation that actually millions died in this country for, as far as I could tell, very little reason what so ever. The descendants of those that were hit or came into contact with the napalm and other chemicals that the Americans exposed millions of Vietnamese to are still disfigured and disabled to some degree. Seeing some of the images of those that were effected first hand were disturbing to say the least but yet one wanted to soak it all in to truly understand the utter atrocities that took place in this beautiful country.
I couldn’t do all of the rooms, too emotional and was starting to feel not just too hot but really quite unwell. I came outside and perched with a bottle of water out of the sun and watched an American dressed in American clothes, many apologies to any American readers, sort of all saluting to and in praise of the army who spent a good 10-15 mins setting up a camera to take a photo of himself all thumbs up happy smiley posing next to the American built F-5E just that was used to bombs he Presidential Palace in 1975 and sits in the courtyard area of the museum. I felt sick. I mean I did anyway but I couldn’t honestly believe what I was seeing. It was certainly NOT the act of compassion or understanding of the atrocities and frankly murder or millions of innocent civilians in this country. I was INCREDIBLY close to going up to him and saying how inappropriate his actions were, but if Im honest I thought I might actually have thrown up all over him my stomachs was starting to churn something chronic.
We made it back to our rooms to freshen up etc before all heading out to supper – mainly tot he delicious sounding restaurant around the corner that Hung had suggested and booked for us all. Whilst ‘freshening up’ the idea of ANYTHING passing my lips at this stage bar itsy bitsy teeny weeny sips of water made me nauseous and I had spent quite a while not more than a step away from the bathroom. There was absoloulty NO WAY that there was no prawn in the second version of the lunchtime dish. This was typical of a shell fish reaction – GET OUT OF MY BODY by ANY means possible and via any entrance or exit point. Im present sure that I do not need to go into much detail. I binned the idea of going out for the meal and went through a FREEZING cold stage where i was literally shivering in my room, had ALL the clothes I had with me on pretty much in the bed, air-con off & I COULD NOT get warm. It was 33 degrees outside and yet I felt like I was in the arctic. I decided to have a bath, that might relax me if not warm me up. I sat in it as it filled up so that my body could get used to the heat, my body was BRIGHT pink front he heat of the water yet STILL I was shivering. Safe to say that I was NOT in a good way. I was really quite concerned and had decided that if it didn’t subside by the morning I really would have o go to hospital to get checked out as this was not actually funny. What with he head cold as well for the majority of the holiday I just felt like a massive bundle of feebleness.
I put out an emergency call for Imodium for the following morning as I was really looking forward to the day ahead but it was ALL on little boats out on the Mekong River and I honestly had no idea what to do if it continued into tomorrow as I couldn’t possibly make the trip out.
At some point I must have got to sleep, how Ive not idea and why, in hindsight, I didn’t just go and stand in the corridor outside my room which had no air on in it I have no idea! That surely would have warmed me up?!
It was lovely to have a day that wasn’t so scripted, to be able to chill a little and do my own thing. My lurgy was still raging but I decided that although I should probably rest up while I could there was also a town out there that needed exploring and you never know if/when you are going to visit again. I had my breakfast and headed out to do a spot of exploring at my own pace.
As I headed from the hotel on the walk into town I was stopped by a girl getting off the back of a scooter who walked with me as I ambled along the road towards the town. We chatted and of course she was wanting me to visit her shop as she was a dressmaker. Well that was job no 1 sorted – to find a dress maker and have some clothes made, because I could. As I’m still trying my hardest to loose some weight it was pointless in trying to get anything too jazzy or expensive and so some basics were on my agenda. Having been measured up to the nines on the top half, I chose a couple of tops including a traditional style top instead of a dress which had beautiful lanterns all over it – apt for the town I was in, it was a no brainier! As I was wrapping up my choices and paying I saw someone else having a try on of a dress that I thought might be quite useful too so I asked for that as well. From here I also went on to have some sandals made two the same and in different colours. An extravagance but I’m looking forward to saying that I had them made in Vietnam!!
From here I went to see the market as we were told it was better to go in the morning as there weren’t many trading in the afternoon. The heavens opened and I was glad to have managed to have got the pac-a-mac just in time else I’d have been drenched through. It was wonderful seeing all the fruits, veg and meat all laid out as well as the fish and other bits and pieces. I’m not sure that food hygiene is a massive thing out here, it all I could think of as well as how fresh everything looked.
Having had a further amble and understanding of actually quite how small the town is and how it was going to be easy to see the old part of it at total ease in a day. I headed back to the hotel to have my massage and pedicure that I had booked. It’s always pretty hard having a massage when you are totally blocked up but to the amusement of the masseuse I shoved a tissue up each nostril and put some more tissues by my shoulder and lay down ready for my full body massage. It was wonderful, really good to get some knots and tension out even if it felt slightly odd having the lady almost sitting on top of me while she did it.
I had a shower once is finished to get all the oil off and wash my hair and sorted myself out for the remainder of the day out and about seeing the sights of the town. Dosed up on yet more meds that were frankly doing absolutely nothing to ease the symptoms as far as I could tell.
I headed back out to have my afternoon amble and see some more of this quaint little place. I visited the Old Chinese Assembly Hall that Hung had recommended which was beautiful but TOTAL Death by Incense which properly got to the back of my throat. It was nice to be able to do things at my own pace I must say.
There is quite a Chinese influence in a number of the buildings as there as when the Chinese settled here they identified them selves according to their province back home and as a result each community built their own assembly halls which all remain today. There is also the Japanese covered bridge, first constructed in the 1590s by the Japanese community to link them to the Chinese quarters. It was flattened out for cars to use by the French but it has thankfully since been restored to its arched shape. There are alters or rather fairly weathered statues of dogs one end and monkies the other, thought to be because it was built in the year f one and finished in the other or because many of the Emperors of Japan were born in these years.
Because of the location Hoi An is totally vulnerable to flooding and the lady who encouraged me to go to her dressmakers was telling me and showing me how high it can come up and how quickly they have to move to stop all their stock from being ruined. It was fascinating and thankfully not something that we experienced while we were there. Here are some general photos of the town, hopefully it will give you an idea of how stunning it was & kind of why I fell in love with it.
On my amblings I ran into two of the group – Paul & Chris who had spent most of their day sitting and people watching in the same bar by the river in the sunshine. They were rather pink! I joined them for a few more beers and people watching tasting massive bits of ginger from street sellers and generally giggling lots before they went off for massages and a rest before coming out later to collect their jackets that they were having made that day as well.
I went to collect my clothes too and was really pleased with them & the shoes I’d had made too – I did ask for a couple of amends to the clothes, a chinese style traditional top needed letting out a little and the basic dress I had, I wanted the sleeves slightly shorter so they were delivered back to the hotel for me to pick up when I got back after supper.
Well New Year was a total wipe out for all of us apparently as not ONE of the group was there to se wit in with Hung who was apparently enjoying the free flowing wine until the early hours, well ok maybe until just after midnight!
Today was as a part travelling day as we headed further south to our next overnight destination of Hoi An – the town I’d heard most about from other travellers to Vietnam that apparently was a must see and do not miss place and I’d love it. Remembering the bumpy roads from Cambodia in the bus, I used my neck support from the plane to help ease the jolty movements and so cause my neck any unnecessary extra pain. I felt proud of my self as I really do think that it was a tremendous help. We took the Hai Van Pass which is a beautiful winding mountain road where you pass a great number of sights. Thankfully I was on the right hand side of the bus so I was unable to see the utter nut jobs on their bikes overtaking the bus on sharp bends. There were a number of shrines at the side of the road that I had full view of which I can only assume were for those killed in accidents on the roads. When we weren’t climbing the pass in the bus we passed the typical scenes that I was expecting to see and hoping to capture on camera (but have failed it appears) of workers or should I be calling them farmers out in the paddy fields.
It was on this road the Hai Van Pass that THE Vietnam episode was filmed for Top Gear, the one that I have never seen, yet have still put a link to, despite never having seen it 🙂 The pass was the boundary between Vietnam and the kingdom of Champa back in the 15th Century and until the war in the 60s was heavily forested. There is a fort at the top which we stopped at which is full of French bullet holes and was also used as a bunker later but the Americans and South Vietnamese. It was clearly also THE place to have your wedding photograph taken, as everywhere in Vietnam seemed to be!
If we weren’t in a bus we could have shaved an hour off our journey by using the Hai Van Tunnel but lorries, tourist buses, motorbikes and bicycles are banned from taking that route, mainly in case they get stuck apparently?
We headed to Thuy Son which is the largest and most famous of the Marble Mountains which houses a number of Buddhist sanctuaries, that were originally Hindu and pagodas which also gave some wonderful views of the sea. They were very picturesque and it was lovely to see some sights finally in some warm sunshine after a quick 10 mins on the beach in Danang to paddle in the frankly FREEZING waters of the South China Sea! Definitely not tempted to strip off and have a dip, that was for sure!
From here we headed on to Hoi An. Having checked into our hotel which was walking distance from the main town and, even better, had a massage & pedicure option which I was sure to be partaking in the following day! Hung took us on an orientation walk after a little time to ‘freshen up’ in our rooms. My word, having heard so much of the town I was certainly not disappointed. The atmosphere and lack of traffic was enough alone to make me want to stay here for longer than the 36 hours or so that we had. Sadly the photos of the evening walk did not come out well enough t really demonstrate the utter beauty of this place, Ill try adding a few though to try and give you an idea.
We had a delicious dinner in a restaurant called Banana Leaf where I sampled one of the traditional dishes of the area called Cao Lau which was delicious. In fact everyone had a delicious meal that evening and went to bed stuffed and ready to explore on our own the following day as we had a day at leisure, a day I was really looking forward to to potter and do my own thing.