Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, Vietnam (24th Nov 2007)
Our first few days in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was just a little hot! 37 degrees...lovely! We arrived into HCMC at around dinner time and the closer we got to the city the more fun, or scary, depending on how you look at it, the driving became; the journey through town was a little hairy as there aren't any traffic lights but thousands of motorbikes driving along where they please and there appears to by absolutely no rules of the road at all, its find an open gap and drive. When we arrived at our hotel we were told we had the rest of the afternoon to explore Ho Chi Minh City. For the two of us our first stop was the train station as we needed to book beds on the two night trains that form part of our itinerary. Hitching a ride on a motorbike we sped through the city and arrived at the station in no time, booking the tickets was just as easy. Still feeling tired from the previous few days activities we then decided to just walk up and down the main street, Le Loi and try and find somewhere to eat. Not wanting to go too far afield, we settled for Vietnam's version of Mcdonalds, Lotteria where the term fast food doesn't really come into play and the food is served on plates! Needless to say it filled a whole and set off back to the hotel to relax before meeting with the group again.
At night we walked the short distance to the night market where one side of the street is filled with restaurants and the other with stalls selling everything from clothes to incense. We finished our meal and as predicted walked another short distance to the bars and clubs. We had a good few drinks in a bar, watching sport on the TV and chatting to each other before heading back to the hotel and being persuaded to have a beer on the street in chairs that wouldn't have looked out of place in a primary school classroom!
Since Ho Chi Minh was the end of our organised tour with Intrepid, we were now left to our own devices, not exactly true; our leader Matt drew up for us an exact replica of what the other guys will be doing on their trip, where they will be staying and even introduced us to the next tour group leader, Son, who was a great guy and didn't seem to mine us tagging along and even started to make changes to the groups plans so we could go everywhere with them that was possible, thus we became unofficial members of the "Best of Vietnam tour"
There were four of us that official left the tour group the next morning, us two, and our new mates Mike and Marie, so the four of us decided to do what the other group would be doing when we have left for the overnight train, The tunnels of Cu Chi. We took a slow minibus that trundled along for 4hours, going 70 Kilometres to the northwest of HCMC, stopping twice to visit yet another pottery factory, YAWN! We didn't really know what to expect so went with an open mind about what was to come. After buying our tickets we got shown into a small room which used to be part of the tunnels where we watched a video explaining the history of them and their purpose in the war. The entire tour of the complex took around 2 hours and we had a short break in the middle where if you were interested for a $1 a bullet you could fire an AK47 or an M16, which seemed a big expensive on our budget! In regard to the tunnels themselves they are immense and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country and Cu Chi was the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam's base of operations. The tunnels were used by NLF guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. We had a chance to both go down one of the hiding holes and into the actual tunnel network itself. The hiding hole was just about big enough for Kara although she didn't fancy it and was scared to getting trapped in it; the hiding holes were used to great affect we are told as the Vietnamese troops could go undetected and spring surprise attacks on American troops that were based, literally, right on top of the tunnels.
The tunnels that are open to the public have been slightly widened for the increasing tourist trade and even with the increase in size are still really small and we only managed a short 30M stint under the ground before getting extremely hot, claustrophobic and sweaty.
On our arrival back into HCMC we had some free time to do as we pleased before we met up with the other lot later on for tea and no doubt drinks. The four of us decided that we were all in the mood for some light shopping, so headed over to the Ben Thanh Market which is a massive marketplace just around the corner from our hotel. The market is one of the earliest surviving structures in HCMC and today is the one of the most popular places to go for tourists and locals alike, as we would soon find out as we stepped into the hustle and bustle, seeking our holiday bargains! After what seemed about 15 minutes (3 hours) we went back to the hotel and met up with all our mates, who were waiting in the reception area for the welcome meeting of their new tour and meeting the new leader and group members. Luckily our guide Matt had arranged for us to meet the new leader Son and he was great and said he would do his best to fit us into the group where possible. The rest of the night was the same as many of the others and we had a meal out in the city near to the markets that had only a few hours ago emptied all our wallets!
Our last day in HCMC and we still had boxes to tick and sites to see before we left for the train station to catch our overnight train. First on our list was to go to The War Remnants Museum which contains exhibits relating to the American phase of the Vietnam War, and as we would soon find out is a major tourist attraction for the Koreans, who are everywhere, more so than the stereotype Japanese. From the moment you step into the main building it is clear to see that the museum does not attempt to be politically balanced at all. The museum complex comprises of a series of themed rooms spread over several buildings, with period military equipment located within a walled yard. The military equipment includes a classic "Huey" helicopter, an F-5A fighter, a BLU-82 "Daisy Cutter" bomb, M48 Patton tank, and an A-1 attack bomber, all of which have been restored to look like they did back in the days of the war. Some of the exhibits include graphic photographs, accompanied by short, badly translated, English versions of text explaining the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliant sprays, the use of napalm and phosphorus bombs, and atrocities such as the My Lai massacre. This was probably the most eye opening section of the whole museum and featured some horrible things such, as jars of preserved human foetuses deformed by exposure to dioxin; these really were stomach churning when accompanied by the text and explanations of how still after three decades the effects still cripple many Vietnamese families.
After the War Museum we all needed something a bit lighter for the afternoon and decided that it would be a crime to not go and see the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. The cathedral was established by French colonists when they ruled Indo-China and is based on the model of Notre Dame de Paris but smaller in size (To the pair of us we thought it was massive). After flipping through the Lonely Planet guide for a bit of information on the Basilica the whole build becomes even more amazing than just the stunning architecture and grandeur of it. All of the building materials were imported from France and travelled thousands of miles to build the highest quality and most authentic replica that would be possible. It is hard to imagine how all that material could have come from so far away, to think that he outside wall of the cathedral was built with bricks from Marseille...
We did our duties and got some photos of the beautiful gardens outside and the building itself before heading toward the 12 foot high wrought iron gates that guard the entrance. As we approached the gates we saw a woman turning people away and we all felt a bit gutted that we wouldn't be able to go inside; but Mike went jogging over and fed the woman a story about us being in our last hours in the city and we couldn't possibly miss this chance, she bought it and minutes later we were inside. The inside of the building is surprisingly plain, but still for some reason if feels like this is exactly how it should be. The side walls all have huge stained glass windows featuring biblical scenes and we could tell if they were the originals or not, none the less they also were stunning and in amazing condition and gave the place lots of character.
Since the day was still young after ticking the boxes we went for a meal in a highly recommended restaurant, and we weren't disappointed. We still we time to kill after lunch so we did some last minute shopping in the Ben Thanh Market before saying our goodbyes to each other as Mike leaves us for Egypt and Marie for the beaches of Thailand. The last thing we did in HCMC was to say goodbye for the time being to the guy from Intrepid who we would see again in Hoi An in a couple of days.