Ho Chi Minh City, SaigonToday we left Danang Airport (an old US base) and flew down to Ho Chi Min City (previously known as Saigon before the North took over the South, reunifying the country and making the whole of Vietnam communist). HCM city is very busy indeed. In fact there are 8 million people living there, which is double the total population of New Zealand, 4 million bikes and 10,000 taxis! We would literally cross the road by all forming a line parallel to the kerb on the other side and walking out in front of all of the bikes (again there are few cars) which never ceased moving - its then up to them to dodge you, assuming you don't pick up speed or make unpredictable moves and just carry on walking slowly across. In the restaurant that evening we were met by tiny women, all trying to sell us books from a large stack they balanced on their hip, towering way over their heads.Today (day 33) we took the bus to the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong (who were the guerilla communist group from the north of Vietnam who fought the south). These are hand-dug tunnels, totaling 250km and go all the way to the Cambodian border. Inside these there were hospitals, wells, kitchens, weapon workshops - you name it. The tunnels are on 3 layers, each getting smaller the lower down in the earth you go. Some of the entrances have now been enlarged for tourists but the top levels of tunnels were typically small enough for a size 10 person to lower themselves into - no bigger and certainly not big enough for the US soldiers. They were surrounded by traps in the war and were located in the dense forests - hence the reason the US, who were fearful of entering this unknown territory, used 200 million litres of agent orange to kill all of the trees during the war. We were given the opportunity on our visit to enter the first level of this underground system, which housed 500,000 Vietnamese during the war. Inside they were black and we had to feel which way the tunnel turned as we crawled along on our hands and knees. There seemed to be little air inside and we soon got even hotter until we were pouring with sweat - possibly from the shear panic. Upon leaving the tunnel we were given bland cassava to eat, as the soldiers would have lived on during the war.In the afternoon we visited the war remnants museum. We saw rooms and rooms of photos which had been taken in the war of the maimed and killed and of those who have been born since, who have been affected by Agent Orange. It was very disturbing - I had no idea what had gone on before today until now. Phuong had told us before we went in, not to get upset - to “remember that it’s all in the past”. How could there appear to be no hard feelings? Did the Vietnamese just say this or did they truly feel it? So many Vietnamese were killed by the Americans as there was no way of distinguishing between those that were Viet Cong and those who were peace keeping everyday, working people going about their own business. At the museum we also saw the Tiger cages that would have housed 14 people. These were rooms slightly longer than a single bed and a tiny bit wider. During the hot and humid summer months, prisoners were given half a can of water to drink and wash with - a day. Fingers were cut off, eyeballs removed and even the guillotine was used. So barbaric and cruel and yet only in the last 30 years! Not one of us talked through the whole visit; in fact I didn't hear anybody in the whole museum talk - that's how moving it was. Again I felt like crying - simply by looking at the pictures and the clothes on display punctured by the bullets.That evening we all tried to liven up for our goodbye meal. Phuong took us to a very local restaurant which sold all manner of things - frog, rat, certain male animal parts, cuttlefish teeth..... We stuck to alligator (which tastes a bit like fish and a little like chicken), beef and prawns. I have to say it was delicious but we were all a bit shocked when the beef came out raw! But then followed 3 bbqs to cook with - as a foodie I was a bit disturbed that Phoung insisted on using the same chopsticks for all the raw and cooked but I lived to tell the tale! Well when the bag of still wriggling prawns arrived there was squealing and defiant "no's", people even moving seats wanting no part in their murders. Rhoda set about killing them before barbequing them but most were cooked slowly to death. Well when in Rome.... The food was delicious and yet another great experience. Later we went to a really funky place that played live music; you really would not have known that you were in Vietnam - more Viva Cuba in Leeds. We gave Phuong a tip for being so kind to us all and giving us an experience of a lifetime. He was choked up, it was very sweet. I hope that we will all stay in touch with him; he is the happiest person I have ever met despite everything. He deserves all the luck in the world - maybe one day we will pop back in and say hi (fingers crossed).The last couple of days were spent visiting the indoor market called Ben Thanh Market and taking a trip down the Mekong Delta. The market sold all manner of goods. As we entered, our nostrils were filled with the stench of fish, which was mostly dried and salted, along with the smell of non-refrigerated meat. I thought it was amazing - how they could dedicate so many stands to dried fish – did they eat it as a snack or re-hydrate it - who knows? Next to this food section there were the usual low tables and tiny preschool chairs full with people munching away on Pho noodles – I nearly tripped over a few of them! Then of course there were tiny cubicles of fabric with women perched on top (about 3m up in the air) restacking and folding the cloth and shouting down to us. Not to mention the many stalls with wooden chopsticks, chopstick holders and chopstick boxes. The market led directly onto probably the world’s busiest street. I think it was a roundabout but it was hard to tell, as the traffic seemed to go in any direction it chose to travel and there were so many lanes. As it poured with rain it was hard to make out the people on the bikes – with 4 or even 5 to a bike all under a specially made poncho which went over the driver as well as the entire heads of all the passengers it was hard to tell. Meanwhile the puncture fixers with their bowls of water and the petrol “stations” (empty single cola bottles with a green liquid sat on a brick) continued to sit at the kerb side.
Our final day was spent visiting the Mekong River Delta. On the way we stopped at the biggest war memorial in Vietnam, which commemorated the lives of 6000 out of the 4 million Vietnamese who lost their lives during the war. We also learnt that the US had spent a staggering 8 billion dollars on the war – hard to believe but true. In front of the statue people were praying, bowing with their incense sticks held way above their heads so that the smoke would carry their prays and thoughts up to their gods. The delta runs all the way to China and has islands scattered throughout it, including the Unicorn Island (representing intelligence), turtle island (longevity) and Phoenix Island (power/strength). On some of these we visited a coconut candy “factory”, ate lunch and listened to local music.