26th April 2016
“To awaken alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark
Which blog to write next – a long tome about China or a short one about Vietnam? To do the travel quote justice I decided to write about Vietnam. I only spent 3 days there a in the 1990s, when it was a fairly new tourist destination, but I certainly woke up in a strange town, and in a strange hotel which used to be a ship. A surreal experience, the ship was docked in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and had been converted into a hotel. It was really unique, brand new and really comfortable. It was so long ago I have no digital photos but will try to capture them on a digital camera and post them later. In the meantime I have included some amazing pictures I brought back, and the 'laughing Buddha', said to bring good luck if you rub his tummy!
I did a quick side-trip from Thailand at time when you had to get your Vietnamese visa before travelling. Although short, this was one of the best trips ever as it was so interesting, the people were lovely, gracious and forgiving (more about that later).
It was a small group tour that took included a tour around Ho Chi Minh City, the Saigon war museum and the famous Chiu Chiu tunnels. It also included the two most moving stories of people I have ever heard.
Previously, Vietnam had been a French colony. Many will be aware of the Vietnam War: 1955 – 1975, so quite recent in our lifetime. Many will be aware that it was a war waged between the Viet Cong (the communists in the north) who allied with southern rebels, and the southern Vietnamese and their American allies. It was, therefore, known in Vietnam as the American War. It was a divisive war that split the country in two. The rest of the history you can research yourself, but go armed with the knowledge of the past because it will help put the country into context.
Those of us who grew up in the sixties will have impressions/memories of the demonstrations that took place in the USA against the war, Hanoi Jane (Jane Fonda), and the 9 year old little girl on the cover of Life Magazine (Than Phi Kim Phuc)  who was terribly burned by napalm. The latter became instant, worldwide, news. Later on the country was depicted in the Robin Williams’ movie ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ . I was also influenced by earlier movies: ‘The Deer Hunter’ , and ‘Apocalypse Now’ . As I reflect I begin to realise how much of my travelling has been influenced by the eras I grew up in, and the movies I watched at the time. And I’ve watched ‘Miss Saigon’ at the theatre 6 times!
But I digress.
The most moving part of the trip was the Saigon war museum. At the time it was 5-roomed, yellow-bricked, ‘tumbling down’ building with some quite gruesome images of the war. People I talked to after I returned branded it ‘propaganda’ but I didn’t view it like that. The detail you can view for yourself, but the most impactful exhibit was a frame of medals won for valour by an American soldier in the war whilst fighting against the local Vietnamese. It had a plaque which simply said ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong’, and he had sent the medals back to Vietnam to be displayed at the museum. It was a very humbling and a honourable act, in my opinion.
The countryside around Ho Chi Minh was lovely, but the vegetation was only just growing back after the 20 year war. It was peppered with delightful scenes such as the man walking along the road, followed by about 8 or 9 ducks all waddling behind him.
On a lunch-stop we ate in an outside restaurant with fresh fish served between what looked to be something like a toaster rack, and was absolutely delicious. I overheard a group on another table talking. One man, an American, was talking a lot in particular, about how he returns to Vietnam every year to see what he can do to genuinely help the local people. He had been a solider fighting against the Vietnamese and was trying to give back to a country from which so much was taken. Of course, I was nearly in tears hearing this. It was another very moving story. Our tour guide was very gracious and ‘smiley’, and continually said ‘we don’t live in the past’, ‘we forgive’ and how the country just wanted to move on.
One day we visited the Chiu Chiu Tunnels, which are described as a ''masterpiece of underground engineering', built by the Viet Cong that run for thousands of miles. You have to be quite small to drop down inside the tunnels from the hole in the ground (which I did) and once inside they are amazing. There are three layers of tunnels underground which are very cleverly designed, so that the smoke from the ‘kitchens’ couldn’t be seen from above ground.
They were used to move supplies, store transport communications, used as living accommodation and hideouts for the Viet Cong. The other side trained ‘tunnel rats’ to navigate the tunnels to search out, for example, booby traps. They were used very cleverly, because the Viet Cong could spring surprise raids on the enemy and then disappear down the tunnel holes as if they were ghosts. Our guide told us the American forces were too large to go down the holes, so they had to bring in men from India. They were smaller in stature, and defter to perform this task. I see now the tunnels have a shop, but when I was there it was just ‘raw tunnel’ and absolutely fascinating. They are now part of the Vietnam War memorial park.
Unfortunately, on this trip, I didn’t have the opportunity to see the French-influenced city of Hanoi, and since my visit, Vietnam has built a number of luxury resorts on the coast. I guess that just means I need to go back one day. I hope I see you there!