Vern: It turns out that Ho Chi Minh City is still very much called 'Saigon'. Despite being renamed after the fall of South Vietnam and the reunification of the country in the late seventies, no one, except a few bureaucrats use the official name. Saigon conjured up grand images in my mind of a historic and exotic pulse of the Orient, but the images I leave with are of motorbikes. Millions of motorbikes, herding through the city's grid system twenty-four hours a day. Facing each red light, bikes are lined up twelve or more across and ten rows deep at intersections, but they're not necessarily waiting for the light to change. The ever so slightest gap in the torrent of cross-traffic is enough to incite the first row of bikers to leave their marks and make for the other side. Crossing the road as a pedestrian is terrifying! It felt like being in an electric bread slicer, all those sharp shiny cutting bands coming at me and my only hope was to step into one of the gaps and hold my position as the blades passed. One learns quickly to fight the intuition to run as fast as possible across, and instead to move slowly and obviously. They're not going to stop for you, but if the scooter drivers can see you and predict where you're moving to then they'll try to dodge you.
The intercity bus from Can Tho dropped us miles away from the 'backpacker area' and, too frugal to take a taxi, we had our first go at urban public transport in Asia and flagged down a city bus. The driver kindly stopped and let us board but the conductor berated us for hailing them down. Buses are to be boarded only at bus stops, which are few, far between and almost invisible amongst the market stalls and parked scooters that cover the pavement. The ride cost a pittance and we were feeling very pleased with ourselves until we realised that we'd caught the right bus but in the wrong direction. We got out at the next stop and boarded the same route number headed the opposite way. Fortunately a pittance paid twice still added up to a pittance. This bus terminated near to the tourist centre and our journey was almost complete but for a six-lane traffic circle lying between us and a bed for the night. Traversing this tornado of two-stroke engines was something of a religious experience but we made it in the end and checked into a rather smart 'mini hotel'.
It was New Years Eve and what better way than to start by tucking into some famed Vietnamese street-vendor food? Well that's what we thought, but unfortunately the chicken-and-rice served up were rather average and on the way back to the hotel we came upon an International Food Fair in a park which would have been a much better place to start! Dim sum, Singapore Chilli Crab, Vietnamese delicacies, Thai favourites and Italian style pizza were all on offer but all we had an appetite for was a cheap soft-serve from the KFC stand.
Back in our hotel room, we let our food settle while we watched an Amazing Race marathon (it was good watching the contestants rush around in some of the cities we'd visited) and then it was time to party. Our first round was sunk indoors in a tiki bar but we quickly realised that the real party was on the street. A few doors away, a crowd spilled out of a restaurant and formed a horseshoe around a two-year-old who was tripping, spinning, stepping and strutting in a marvellous breakdance routine. The streets were crowded with partygoers and vendors selling funny hats, foam canisters and cigars; everyone lit up by the neon and LED lights above the bars and restaurants on the strip.
Next up, the sidewalk dancefloor was invaded by wintery werewolves, or at least tipsy Canadians in wolfman masks cavorting under faux snow spurting out of aerosols they waved around. One doesn't need much more of a cue, and soon Andrea and I were thrashing around, wearing masks and pulling off our best Thriller moves.
Drinks prices turned out to be negotiable at the next bar whose management were eager to fill a free street-side table. (Imagine countering with a lower offer when presented with the bill in a London drinking den!) We were joined by a German couple also keen on beer and conversation, and chatted with them about German things like efficiency and multilingualism until the masses started counting down the New Year. Hugs and kisses, cheers and flares, and 2012 was welcomed in. At around 2am we found ourselves at a little restaurant eating burgers and trading heckles with some war vets who were also enjoying a fourth meal.
The next day started slowly but in the afternoon we made it to the Reunification Palace. Previously the Presidential Palace of South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese tanks bashed through the gates, stormed the building and forced the surrender of the South on the 30th of April 1975. This marked the end of the Vietnam war.
The building hasn't been used since and is a time-capsule of retro regal furniture. Andrea was rather disappointed that there wasn't a tank-sized hole in the fence. Not only would such an exhibit be a witness to history, but also we'd have been able to step through it and visit the museum for free.
Room after room of seventies furniture got a little tedious though I was quite envious of the president's Man Cave, with it's teak bar counter, mood lighting and circular sofa. In the basement a propagandist video was playing telling the tale of the war and that fateful April day when the city, the palace and the people of South Vietnam were "liberated". Not defeated: liberated.
The War Remnants Museum, which followed on our itinerary, provides an illuminating and troubling look at the messiness of war. Previously called The American War Crimes Museum, the name was toned down for diplomacy, but the exhibits still recall gruesome details of the assassinations by US Troops of entire villages assumed to be hiding or aiding Viet Cong guerillas. Worse still are the walls and walls of photographs making very clear the devastating effects of Agent Orange. Millions of litres of this herbicide, which contains a high percentage of dioxin (the most potent poison man has yet to come up with), were dropped during the war to clear out the dense jungle. The land may never recover and the bloodlines of least five generations of Vietnamese and US soldiers who handled the chemical are polluted. The third generation are currently baring the after-effects with around 3 million people living with severe deformities. The museum had the desired effect and made us very angry. Every gung ho warmongering politician (and the idiots who keep them in office) should have to walk through here and face up to the atrocities perpetrated by even civilised Western nations and their scared soldiers. So much horror is hidden in history and conveniently forgotten, but it won't be long before similar institutions are erected in Bagdad and Kabul.
We bought a second piece of luggage at the market in the evening; the fake North Face backpack we bought in Bangkok had fallen apart in less than two weeks! 'You buy cheap, you buy twice' has never rung more true. Afterwards we slurped up our first 'pho', Vietnamese noodle soup, at a specialist place with eight varieties on the menu.
Our last day in the area found us crawling around underground in the Cu Chi tunnels. The Viet Cong and later the North Vietnamese army used this remarkable 200km tunnel network, which starts only 25km from Saigon and stretches to the safety of the Saigon River and into Cambodia, as a base of operations for attacks against the South and the US. Andrea slipped in and out of one of the original tunnel entrances--about half the size of a man hole cover--but a wide shouldered Australian battled to do the same. Working replicas of all the rudimentary traps, designed for capturing animals, but enhanced to kill or maim enemies who came too close to the tunnel entrances were on display. The popular 'tiger-trap' was a trapdoor hidden under a pile of leaves which fell away to drop the unlucky soldier who stepped on it into a pit of bamboo spikes. Gulp!
We sampled tapioca root dipped in peanuts which the tunnel dwellers fed on and which apparently has zero nutritional value, and I crawled through the full 140m section of the network which has been reinforced and widened for westerners. The 'park' is designed to tell the story of an ingenious David against the well funded Goliath and while it is a mind-boggling tale, it is somewhat one-sided and carefully filtered. There is no memorial for the 10,000 Vietnamese soldiers and similar number of civilians who died in collapsing tunnels. Lauding the ultimate victory is much more important than remembering the dead. A grainy 1966 propaganda video was screened at the end of our visit and the audience couldn't stifle gasps and macabre chuckles as it told the story of a fresh faced peasant who'd been awarded the 'American Killer Hero Award' for sniping enemy soldiers and disembowelling tanks with homemade explosives. Just imagine the uproar if army medals issued in the west carried such vulgar names!
My last meal in Saigon was a delicious dish of crispy noodles creeping up out of a savoury broth, and then it was time to a board a bus headed out of the sweaty urban madness of nine million people, seven million motorbikes and onward to the cooler, quieter southern highlands.