Friday, 29 August 2008

Cu Chi Tunnels

I'd never read up on Vietnam before I arrived, I simply wanted to get out of China and into somewhere different, somewhere with any semblance of character. Thankfully I found that - both in the people and in the surroundings. Some of this has been shaped by war, some by the requirement of tourism to keep the smaller towns going. The one thing that everyone seemed to be doing or recommended to do was to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a couple of hours outside the centre of Ho Chi Minh. A tour was booked, US$5 including the bus ride there - the only 'downer' was that we weren't told we also had to pay to get in (two different tickets, bizarrely), which a few of us were slightly annoyed by, but really, it's pennies and worthless moaning with such nice weather and hospitable people showing us about. Plus, I didn't fancy my chances on finding my way back from the remote place we found ourselves in!

Myself and a girl I'd found a room with the night previous decided to get onto this tour thing, and it proved itself to be a worthwhile spend of a day. The tunnels themselves were carved out by anyone and everyone living in Vietnam during the war that has scarred large parts of their land; essentially tunnels in the mud that were lived in for a few years for some. To say they were cramped is an understatement, my legs were buckling after a small amount of crouching and hobbling about, perhaps being 6'3" isn't a fair comparison, but a lot of people (myself included) felt claustraphobic even before we'd gone into the holes in the ground. It's a marvel to wonder how utterly terrifying it would have been to have to live down there, have no decent way to defend yourself against the oncoming American forces; even moreso when you see the huge craters left by bombs throughout and after the war (as some lay dormant until happened upon by anyone unlucky enough to stumble into any).

Other than the tunnels themselves, the other main draw for people to come here is the freely available guns to shoot.. yes, war-torn by guns and bombs, and they have a shooting range with a variety of different weapons for you to try out - from pistols to AK47s and other ridiculously loud instruments of pain. I hesitated for a few minutes while this Polish guy I met (who has his own dentistry practice which I may have to visit myself sometime this year) had his go at firing an AK47. As we were about to go, I said 'Sod it', manned up and bought five rather long, scary-looking bullets to put in this scary-looking gun. They cost less than £1 each and could be bought just next to the range, prices written on an A4 bit of paper on the desk.

Nervously I put on my ear protectors, which weren't in fact ear protectors but old headphones with the cord cut off. Fantastic. The guy looking after the guns put the bullets in, and of course the gun was secured down so people couldn't just walk off with them or fire willy nilly. I looked down the sight, pulled the trigger slowly and, well, it was really, really, really loud. So loud I was surprised the guy who put the bullets in was just standing next to me with nothing protecting his ears, I was glad for the old headphones! All five shots went pretty quickly but I savoured how utterly horrendous the recoil was on my shoulder (despite it being secured down), how powerful it is and sickeningly scary to think these exist.

I come away from the experience dazed, making my way up to the rest of the group with a confused conscience.

I get back to my room much later on, crack the laptop out and think 'What next?'; then I book myself a one way ticket to Bangkok the next day for around £50.

One of the many tunnels burrowed into the ground

One of the horrific traps they created to combat the invading forces - I'm not sure which one I'd rather not encounter, an army with guns and bayonets, or a nail-encrusted trap you have to pry yourself from, if at all possible. With this one, your weight is paramount to how hard this trap will clasp onto you, some are barbed

Guns and bullets, get your guns and bullets..

So I got my bullets..

And took my sweet time

The Polish chap I spent the day with, getting into one of the tunnels. I almost backed out, but in the end myself and three girls (one from Northampton, strangely enough!) waited until everyone else that had gone in had exited at the other end, and got through the 100m (or so) tunnel as quickly as possible. No regrets!

The view from one of the well-touristed government buildings in Saigon

Saigon And Beyond

Getting into a habit of doing things I don't enjoy was never intended, but again, I find myself on a night-bus in Vietnam. Truth be told, they're not all that bad, but are most certainly not my preferred method of travel and sleep-catching. They're fine for getting somewhere and can be excellent for meeting willing travel buddies, plus, they're dirt cheap, just don't expect to get anywhere quickly!

I'd spent a few nights in Nha Trang (two or three, my memory is already fading), sun-soaked, yet I didn't manage to get any part of my body any more tanned, even with a day relaxing on the beach with a book. The next logical place on the Vietnam trail was Saigon/Ho Chi Minh, whichever you prefer - a £6/$12/200,000Dong night-bus took me there in the evening. A friendly but short-spoken guy came to my hotel and told me the bus was "around the corner". I had to lug my bag about ten minutes through Nha Trang to some other bustling streets, felt more like an hour though - especially when it's 35 degrees at 8pm!

The bus was a seater, so no lying down, barely any sleep, but I did manage to nod off at some point as I was woken in the morning by the driver, I glanced left and right, picked up my glasses, my bag, and promptly got off the bus and wandered up the road at 5am with pensioners running past and doing star jumps and dancing in the tennis courts and fields to my left. Two minutes later: "Bollocks". I forgot my book, I put it behind my back so I wouldn't forget it in the morning.. and it turns out I did forget it, and I only had fifty pages (out of six hundred) to go before I finished it. I ask my friend I shared the journey with to look after my bag for a minute and run full pelt back to the bus.. which is no longer there. No! It had my book.. which, whilst annoying, is replaceable - but also had my bookmark, my bookmark being a Polaroid of myself and my friend Laura who I met in Amsterdam (who worked at the Flying Pig Hostel there). Arse.

I lament this for a while and trudge back to my bag, hoist it onto my back and start the regular search for a hostel in the morning mist and sweat of Saigon.

If Hanoi was held at its edges, stretched twice its size and then had some money dropped onto it, that'd be Saigon. It actually has a store that sells electronics, something I'd not seen anything of in any other place in Vietnam. The streets are a lot wider, there are a heck of a lot more cars, but still their numbers pale in comparison to that of the scooters and motorbikes. The slight layer of dirt still clouds the pavements, the sky is never truly blue, but the people smile, the kids play football with tennis balls and the government buildings piss on everything else around them. All the money spent on visas to enter their country could be doing a lot more than making their large white buildings even whiter.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Annnd it's back!

And my box arrived on its two week journey across land/water/whatever from Hong Kong, including some clothes I'd posted, bits of paper, business cards from various places and people, annnd my hard drive, with all the photos on it I'd take along the way!

That means an update soon - I'll be getting to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and then back through China; it'll just take a while. :)