26 October 2011

Instruments of Torture [Saigon, Vietnam]

Saigon (or Ho Chi Mihn City as it is less commonly known) is like Hanoi on steroids. Think huge buildings, millions of people, cars, trucks and more scooters I have ever seen (all with horns blaring!). The lights, sounds and smells all fight for your attention (along with the hundreds of motorbike taxi drivers that litter the streets); it is a sensory overload. There is only one word that can accurately describe the feeling in this city; chaos.

Julia and I arrived to Saigon on different buses, but soon met up and went about finding a room for the night. There was the normal large number of touts standing around, but no one really wanted to bargain with me. In the end having to take a room for an excessive US$8/night. The 'hotel' was more like someones home. Actually, it was someones home; full of clutter, people and a baby. One morning when I came down early I found an old woman and the baby asleep on the floor. The rest of the day they spent their time on the couch watching Vietnamese daytime TV. They supplemented their hotel income by selling noodles from the front step... These, among other things, made it one of the more interesting places I have stayed in.

We were only in Saigon a few days, but that was time enough to get into a bit of a routine. We found a Bai Hoi; basically a place with little plastic tables and chairs out in the street that sells very cheap beer (about US$0.30/glass). Most evenings we would go and have a glass or four and just relax, watching the madness of Saigon on the streets around us.

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Saigon are the Cu Chi tunnels, located about 60kms outside the city. It is possible to get there solo, but it is much easier, and not very expensive to take a tour. The tour guide was extremely difficult to understand through his heavily accented English, they stopped at craft shops and other places I had no interest in visiting, and just generally encouraged you to buy things or spend money. Par for the course really.

Luckily the tunnels spoke for themselves. The most interesting part was seeing how unbelievably small they are. The fact that people lived down there for months on end blows my mind. We were able to walk/crawl through one section that had been widened for tourists, but I struggled to get through (and I'm not a big guy). And the network of tunnels is very impressive, some stretching out for 250kms to the Cambodian border.

So, the negative; there was not a lot of information provided, and the information that was provided was extremely propagandist and one sided. It depicted the Americans as an evil force, and the Vietnamese as an innocent victim. Now I'm not taking one side over the other, I am just saying that I would have liked to have been provided a fair and impartial record of events.

Whether planned or not, the Vietnamese did reveal a little about how they 'behaved' in the war. We saw how the Viet Cong took the un-exploded American bombs and used them to create their own weapons, and how they built their traps. The traps were just plain gruesome; several different contraptions built with huge spikes. Designed to maim their victim, inflicting maximum pain without actually killing them.

We also visited the War Remnants Museum, which was again extremely propagandist. It mainly shows the atrocities that America perpetrated on the Vietnamese people. And I realise that most, if not all, of this information is true (if a little embellished). But there was absolutely no information about the the weapons or tactics of the Viet Cong, or the treatment of the South Vietnamese or Americans by the VC. The whole outside area was filled with American tanks and airplanes, the inside filled with American weapons, but I did not see one weapon used by the VC. Anyway, it is quite a sobering experience; seeing some of the horrible effects of this war. Especially the people affected by Agent Orange. For this section I found myself constantly turning away from the horrific photos.

I had originally planned to travel to a few cities in the Mekong Delta, then make my way over the border to Cambodia by boat. But after talking to a few travel agents they advised me that it was really hard to travel the area independently. I know, I still have not learned my lesson; NEVER trust the travel agents. But the reading I had done seemed to back it up. Anyway, we were running out of time as I had to meet Simon and Yona in Phenom Phen for the Rugby World Cup final in a few days time. So Julia and I booked a two day tour. We decided against trying to get over the border on the Mekong, as one agent said the river was still really high and it was not entirely safe. Again, they were probably just trying to sell us something more expensive. So we just booked an overnight bus from Saigon. It didn't work out too bad, though, as we booked the Cu Chi tunnels, the Mekong tour and the bus all at the same time, so got a sizable discount. Now here's hoping it is worth it...

A couple of other random observations:
- I am surprised that anyone in Saigon has working power; the power lines are an absolute mess. It is jut a birds nest of black cable running all over the city.
- Vietnamese love to play (what I describe as) a version of hackey-sack. Basically a game where you have to keep the ball off the ground using any body part but your arms/hands. They have these shuttle-cock type things and some of the really good guys stand 20m or more apart and play. Kicking it to each other without it ever touching the ground. They also have a version that is like volleyball, played with this strange ball. Again, no hands. It is quite impressive to watch.
- People seem to get really angry here, mainly when you don't buy their stuff. Example - I was sitting in the Bai Hoi when a woman came up selling bracelets. I said no but she persisted. I told her that it was our last few hours in Siagon, and that we were leaving for Cambodia so had no more money. She yelled out LIAR! then walked off. I witnessed a similar thing with a guy selling cigarettes; the seller trying to convince the sellee to buy, the sellee refusing, then the guy yelling out WELL FUCK YOU! They are really shooting themselves in the foot in my opinion. I was looking at buying some coffee in the market and one woman was showing me what she had. When I said that I was going to have a look around and might come back, she got all hostile and said 'you wont come back'. And I replied 'well I wont now...'.

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