Hello for the first time from Vietnam! Before I update on my first two days in Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon), I must first conclude my time in Cambodia. Our final evening in Phnom Penh was spent at the kickboxing - a definite cultural experience! The 45 minute tuk-tuk ride to the location on the outskirts of town was an experience in itself, with us once again getting caught up in Phnom Penh's crazy rush hour traffic. The venue was a randomaly located large hall just beyond the city limits. Due to the traffic we arrived after the first fight and when all the seats had gone, so we were standing. Of the 200 or so people there we were the only white people and we got some funny looks! There wasn't a great atmosphere like I was expecting and the fighting wasn't as horrifcally brutal as I had pictured, but it was still enjoyable. It was much more professional and controlled than I'd pictured - the sort of thing you would see at the Olympics. We saw 3 fights with the quality seemingly getting better each time, but after 1.5 hours I started to get a bit bored and we were all ready to leave after the final bout. It was interesting just to experience it, and I was amused by the fact the venue was guarded by people with Ak47s. There were also people there with loads of mobile phones strapped to a piece of cardboard and they appeared to be relaying the information to people who couldn't make the fight - an odd sight.
The next morning we left on our 6.5 hour bus journey across the Mekong Ferry and over the Vietnam border bound for Ho Chi Minh City. It was our last journey under the guidance of Sareth, who has been an entertaining character. It has been interesting to learn about his upbringing - how aged 9 he was driven from his Cambodian community just over the Vietnam border back into Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge ordered his family to move. For 9 months they avoided the genocide and following the toppling of the Khmer Rouge set up a farm there. He then rebelled against rural custom when aged 18 he opted not to take over a plot of land, and not to get married, instead choosing to go to the city and study English - something that still puzzles his family today. He has worked his way up through a series of tourism jobs to his position now with Intrepid, but he says he would soon like to settle down. Aged 40 though he says it will be hard for him - particularly as he is dark skinned and Cambodian women look down upon that. I have really enjoyed learning all about Cambodian culture and history, and its been a great experience to see how they all live. Even though the vast majority of people live in extreme poverty they all seem so happy and kind. Seeing the looks on rural kids faces when the white people role up into town was a real highlight. From the temples at Angkor to the beach at Sihanoukville, and from the rural tranquility of Kampong Cham to the chaos of Phnom Penh - my 10 days in Cambodia has been varied and largely good. I will look back on the country with fond memories.
Vietnam is very different though. Ho Chi Minh City is a world away from Phnom Penh. People here use busses as opposed to piling onto motorbike trailers or standing in the back of trucks. There are shops with proper shop fronts as opposed to just market stalls, and the whole place feels much more western. At night the streets even look like Times Square there are so many lights! Vietnam is definitely a much more developed country than Cambodia - they are not even close in terms of economic prosperity. Aside from the western, and surprisingly capitalist feel, the other thing that strikes you when arriving into the city here is of course the amount of motorbikes. I thought Phnom Penh traffic was chaotic but it is nothing compared to here. When you look down a street there is just a wall of motorbikes, and crossing the road can be an adventure. The city's population is 6 million and there are 3 million motorbikes - a crazy stat! The motorbikes are responsible if they hit pedestrians, but that doesn't make me feel much safer! You just have to walk across at an even pace and keep a look out and they will all go round you - on both sides!
Yesterday afternoon I had a walk round the centre, but there isn't an awful lot to see aside from the cathedral and Reunification Palace. This is of course the palace where the North Vietnamese tank charged up to to signal the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 - 2 years after the Americans had left defeated. The communist north defeated the American backed capitalist south and the country has been unified since then. It is after this time when the city's name was officially changed from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City (after North Vietnam's communist leader, who was also the man who masterminded Vietnam's independance from France), but many locals still use Saigon.
Continuing on the theme of the war, this morning we took a trip 2 hours out of town to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong resistance hid out during the Vietnam War. They were originally constructed when the Vietnamse were fighting the French just after the Second World War, but were expanded upon when the Americans came. The entrances to the tunnels are very well camouflaged, and they were specifically designed to be too small for the average American soldier. I however was able to squeeze into the tiny gap and it made for some good photos. Whilst there we also saw a series of lethal hidden booby traps the Viet Cong set up, and there was also the chance to try our hand at shooting an AK47 at a firing range. I would have liked to have had a go but I didn't bring enough cash annoyingly. I wasn't expecting 10 bullets to cost 4 times the amount of our entire day tour! After some people had had a go on the defeaning guns we got to go into one of the tunnels - a specially widened one for the tourists. It was still very, very narrow, and even though there were escape routes every 20m, the 100m distance felt very long with all the people moving very slowly. It was very claustrophobic and I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live in one such tunnel. The Viet Cong generally only came out at night, so they would never have seen any daylight for months on end. The tunnels were built on 3 levels - the deepest up to 12m down away from the harm of B52 carpet bombing, the evidence of which is obvious with all the craters in the landscape.
Following the tour we were dropped off at the Vietnam War Museum. It gave a very one sided account of the war from a North Vietnam perspective, but it was very interesting to learn about. Most of it was devoted to publicising American War Crimes in Vietnam, and there were some horrific pictures of American Soldiers torturing village peasants and children. There was a large section on a famous massacre which the Americans conducted on every resident of a small village, and some of the images of the bodies were horrid. There was also quotes from American senators and other world leaders who condemned the war as illegal. Its amazing given what happened that Americans are still very much welcome here as tourists, but the Vietnamese strangely seem quite fond of them! One interesting section was about the effects of Agent Orange, a chemical that the Americans dropped on the jungle here to kill off the forestation and allow them to see better. The Americans have never acknowledged the damage this chemical did to countless Vietnamese, though 25,000 US soilders were heavily compensated following a court ruling that it had damaged their health. Many Vietnamese children were born disabled and deformed in areas where agent orange was used, and there were again some shocking images of this. It was all very eye opening.
Tonight we have just met our new tour leader and 2 new group members. We have lost Norwiegen Ingrid and the 4 Sydney girls, but 2 sisters from Melbourne have arrived and will be with us until Hanoi in 15 days time. Our new leader is a 30 year old male named Dat and he seems quite cool. His English is better than Sareth's. Tomorrow we depart for another homestay at the Mekong Delta, but I will be back in Saigon in 2 days and hope to update then.