Good Morning Vietnam!

12 Feb

We are heading north through Vietnam– stopping at cities and towns along the way. Leaving Cambodia was a struggle – as are most in-transit days. Our last day in Cambodia started off just right – beach bumming and working on our tan. We visited Otres Beach, which was much more relaxed than the main beach and only a short motor-taxi ride away. At first, I wasn’t so keen on taking a motorcycle, but now I really enjoy the ride. It’s an authentic way to travel, especially when the driver is balancing your giant backpacking in-between his legs.

Otres Beach, Cambodia near Sihanoukville

Otres Beach, Cambodia

We booked an overnight bus out of Sihanoukville, but had already checked out early in the morning. I was desperate for a shower, so the front desk said I could rinse off using the tap and bucket in the bathroom. I walked into the dingy stall with a squat toilet. I realized that the bucket and tap were used to wash your business down the porcelain hole in the ground. UGH, but what can you do? I washed the bucket with soap and used the fresh water from the tap and ‘showered’. haha! I was first to go and then Stefanie. At least, she was warned and could prepare herself.

It was suppose to be a direct, sleeper bus all the way to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), in Vietnam, but you never know in Asia. Long story short: the bus was full and the driver said there would be another bus to pick us up – which didn’t show up. No surprise there. We called the agent and were told we needed to take a tuk tuk and make it to the bus station in time. At the station, we boarded a bus that had one empty seat (i had to sit next the driver). Then we quickly found to switch buses and board our actual Sleeper bus. We drove all the way back to Phnom Penh (not part of the deal) and switched into a regular sitting bus for the remaining 8 hours to Saigon. Direct Sleeper Bus… far from the truth in South East Asia! We made it to Vietnam and surprisingly, only an hour behind schedule. Things do work out!

Siagon was insane. There are over 6 million motorbikes/scooters in the city, in addition to a million cars, buses, etc. I thought the streets were bad in Cambodia – but this is another world! Fortunately, Stefanie and I are jaywalking professionals! The motorbikes are less threatening than cars – they just swerve around you.

Right now, it’s Tet – the Vietnamese New Year. Actually, I am not even sure if it’s ended. Tet started out as a 4 day celebration, than 1 week, than 10 days. It’s everybody’s excuse to charge you extra for your room, food, taxi rides, etc. It’s becoming increasingly annoying. It’s a lot easier now – but when we were in Saigon, everything was closed! Unlike our new year celebration, the Vietnamese consider Tet a time for relaxing with family. There are some decorations and there was even a small little party along a street in Saigon but mostly, it’s hard to tell there’s a national holiday going on at all.

Thankfully, we were able to accomplish some sight seeing. We visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the VC soldiers and local people dug over 200km of underground tunnels during the Vietnam War (or American War, as it’s known here). The tunnels are very touristic – and some of them were increased in size so that Westerns can crawl through them. We saw some booby-traps and trap doors and near the end of the tour, we had the opportunity to crawl through 30 metres of a tunnel far below the surface. Let me tell you, 30 metres was enough! I’m only 5’3, 115lbs and I found it difficult. We are traveling with three guys, one Canadian and two English, and they all bailed out early on. Too cramped!

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

Secret Entrance to the Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

The booby traps were gruesome. Trap doors that swung open with a pit of bamboo stakes. Many people died in the tunnels – Americans, Foreigners and Vietnamese. My dad met a man in the states who was a ‘tunnel rat’ – his job was to crawl through the tunnels with a pistol, flashlight and bomb and kill the VC. They added small lights in the tunnels for tourists, but during the war they were completely dark. Can you imagine encountering an enemy? Freaky!

The construction was also fascinating. They dug entrances deep in the Saigon River, as well as hidden ground doors in the jungle. They ventilated the tunnels using large bamboo sticks that reached the surface and even diverted kitchen exhaust using smaller tunnels located further away. In the end, the only way for Americans to defeat the soldiers hiding in the tunnels was to completely carpet bomb the site.

We also visited the War Museum in Saigon. There were several floors with different exhibitions. Outside, there were old US helicopters and tanks, missile launchers and other war machines. There were tons of photographs – most of them were gruesome. They had a room dedicated to photos and information about Agent Orange, the dangerous pesticide sprayed by the US over Vietnam. The had statistics about birth defects and other side effects of the chemical – even after 40 years! There are even some second and third generation families who are experiencing outrageous birth defects related to the use of Agent Orange.

I learned a lot about the Vietnam War during my time in Saigon. Such a pointless effort… it may explain why the US and other foreign aid never bothered to help the Cambodians during the genocide only a few years later.

After such depressing cultural activities, we all decided we wanted to do something light-hearted during our last day in Ho Chi Minh City. Stay tuned for the next post!

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