Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
We flew via Vietnam Airlines to Nga Trang. The crew on the plane we pretty disinterested and this was a worst flight to date. Fortunately, it was only an hours flight. After researching the transport options, we decided on flying as it was cheaper and easier.
Nha Trang is bizarre! Similar to Da Nang in that it is located on the coast with a vast expanse of a picture postcard beach lined with high rises. There the comparison ends though. It was strangely enough full of Russians as apparently there is direct flights from Russia. Go figure!
We stayed in an apartment right on the beach on the 37th floor. Wow an incredible view of the beach from our bed, but so high it gives you vertigo.
Two blissful days were spent on the beach. It was perfect, the sea was not salty or rough and was cool and clear. The beach was clean with white sand. We parked up on sun loungers and paid of course as you do, while sunbathing (me at least as Josh felt he was brown enough haha) and watched the world go by while supping on cheap cold beers eating freshly cooked in front of you on the beach delicious prawns and langoustines.
At night the city went mad with pumping music from bars. The sound systems in Vietnam are mad. I have never heard such loud music ever from such massive speakers. After not being able to sleep one night due to (yes even from the 37th floor), we decided we might as well check it out. But by the time we got to the ground floor, as everywhere in Vietnam, the music suddenly stopped as they seem to close down at 11pm.
We could see across the bay on an island they had some sort of odd amusement park which can be reached by gondola from the mainland. We didn't go as it sounded pretty lame and was incredibly expensive. Nha Trang is clearly a holiday destination and not the real Vietnam but it was a nice change for a short time.
Off on a plane again with Vietjet to Ho Chi Minh city. A short hour long flight which was pleasant enough.
Ho Chi Minh or Saigon as the locals in the south still like to still call it, is the capital of Vietnam. We had mentally prepared ourselves, as other travellers had warned us that it was dirty and there wasn't much to see. We were pleasantly surprised as it wasn't as bad as were feared. Saigon has staggeringly over 8 million people and is expected to have 20 million by 2020! That explains the pollution which is hard on the eyes.
We stayed in a good hotel in the backpacker district which is within easy walking distance to the sights.
That afternoon we visited the harrowing War Remnants Museum. Although biased and obviously with a lot of propaganda it was extremely moving and haunting. Formerly the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. Many of the atrocities documented here were well-publicised but rarely do Westerners hear the victims of US military action tell their own stories. While some displays are one-sided, many of the most disturbing photographs illustrating US atrocities are from US sources, including those of the infamous My Lai Massacre. One of the most disturbing displays for me was the French and South Vietnamese prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son Islands. Artefacts include that most iconic of French appliances, the guillotine, and the notoriously inhumane 'tiger cages' used to house Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists; VC) prisoners along with other various unimageable forms of torture. There are many well preserved tanks, bombs and US planes on display and horrific photographs of the effects of napalm (agent orange) which still has ongoing severe unfixable issues for to date, the fourth generation descendants. This is the first time I have felt embarrassed coming from New Zealand because of our involvement. Josh started to say he was from Tonga which of course no one has any idea where that is.
The following day we went on a tour of the Chu Chi tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels refer to the section of tunnels open to tourists, in the district of Cu Chi, 35 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. There are actually two sites opens to tourists, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc, about 13 km apart.
On our way to the site, our tour guide told us about the history and we came to the conclusion that there is clearly still a division between the north and south of Vietnam. The guide (from the South) was vehemently derisive of the North, "They are liars and are corrupt". We heard similar things in the North of the South. I would not be surprised if Vietnam ended up like North and South Korea sadly.
Construction of the Cu Chi tunnels began in the late 1940s during the First Indochina War with France. When the US military entered the picture to support South Vietnam, communist forces began expanding the network. At its height, there was over 250 km of tunnels, no more than 70 cm wide, 90 cm high, some running 30 feet deep. This subterranean maze served as shelters, communication centres and supply lines. The US had men, modern equipment, firepower and aerial bombing at their disposal. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, most of them peasants, were outnumbered. During aerial attacks, to survive, whole villages moved underground—cramped, dark tunnels with kitchens, sleeping areas and hospitals. Despite clever engineering with disguised ventilation and drainage, the conditions were almost unfathomable. It was sweltering, hard to breathe and at risk for disease, flooding and snakes. The tunnels were strong enough to withstand the American's aerial bombing while on the ground, the Viet Cong fought back with guerrilla warfare. While US soldiers, unused to the terrain and conditions, plodded through in heavy gear and boots, the VC set up booby traps: trip wires for explosives, pits that would impale victims, boxes of venomous snakes overturned on top of their heads. Deaths could be slow and horrific. It was a tactic of ambush and quickly disappearing into the tunnels, the entrance too small for a US soldier to pursue. In response, the US forces assigned soldiers to become "tunnel rats", entering the tunnels to find traps and engage in hand to hand combat. Frustrated, in January 1966 Operation Crimp targeted Cu Chi with a large scale bombing and 8,000 US and Australian troops on a search and destroy mission. It was mostly unsuccessful - they had simply moved into the tunnels. In 1967, Operation Cedar Falls attacked the tunnels in Binh Duong province, north of Saigon, using 30,000 US troops, defoliant and bulldozers. Within a few months, communist forces would return and use the tunnels in the pivotal 1968 Tet Offensive against Saigon. It's estimated that 45,000 Vietnamese men and women died defending Cu Chi tunnels.
A section of tunnel at the Ben Dinh tourist site have been preserved and actually widened to accommodate tourists which is where we went. The site set in the jungle was sweltering and we were shown the incredibly tiny entrances and manmade ant hills with the breathing holes for the tunnels which were up to three metres deep. We had the opportunity to go through a 100 metres of tunnels (which had being widened) but one look at the very tiny claustrophobic tunnel and I couldn't do it. Josh managed it to the end which was quite an experience. Unbelievable that people lived in these tunnels.
On the way back our guide treated (I use the term not in a positive way) to his karaoke, SEA love Karaoke. Th caterwauling and gradual out of time and out of tune is a sight to behold.
Josh particularly wanted to visit the Museum of Vietnamese History as since we have been travelling he has been trying to match up some pottery remnants found in Tonga and Polynesia which indicate along with recent DNA discoveries that Polynesians come from South East Asia (SEA). He has had not a lot of luck as throughout Asia the recorded (or rather promoted) history does not seem to go back that far but he has found that the Champa people which are indigenous of Vietnam (and are similar to the highland people of Laos and Cambodia) have similar art. Locals of SEA tend to not know and only seem to go back to the 19th century.
At night we visited the famed walking street which reminded us of Bali with the street lined with bars and loud western music complete with insistent vendors selling their wares.
Another flight on VietJet (not too bad for a budget airline) then took us to Phu Quoc Island.