A greeting that will be as familiar to the Chinese as Hello is apparently. So its now almost exactly 12 hrs untill we fly out of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and now we must say good bye to South East Asia and allo to Ching Chong China land! So last time we met we were in Hanoi and Jen and I were about to go and visit an embalmed corpse.. only we didnt as we didnt get up in time so we missed Uncle Ho in his glass box and instead got to see the bigger concrete box in which one may find him. Apparently it represents a flower but it doesnt actually, it is a big concrete box. We also saw the outside of his museum and the outside of a Pagoda as we arrived between the hours of 11am and 1.30pm and of course Vietnam had gone to bed for a quick kip. So twas with heavy heart we found a bar and then went off individually searching for Birthday presents for the other one, not excatly culturally mind blowing but there you go.
We headed off via Night Bus to Hue just south of the DMZ that divided up the country in the years following the French IndoChina war up and till Uncle Ho's commies marched into Saigon about 21yrs later. Hue apparently is one of the most beautiful citiesin Vietnam, I can well believe it if it wasnt for both the North Vietnamese troups who insisted on knocking bits of it over during the Tet offensive and then the Yanks who finished the job by blowing up pretty much everything else in a bid to win it back off the NVA... so all in all not quite as amazing as perhaps the lonely planet makes out. Anyway enough of the boring stuff.. it was my birthday and having just arrived off the night bus on which I recieved no sleep we both just passed out for about the rest of the day. The reason I couldnt sleep on the bus was due to the fact that there was a crazy fellow in the seat behind me who had an alarming habit of sleep walking (I prey it was sleep walking) out of his seat and then steadying himself against my seat and the seat in front all the time with his eyes shut. He would wake up enough to go back to his seat with a little nudge or the driver jamming on the breaks but it was unsettling that whenever i closed my eyes he would appear like a serial killer. What confirmed that he was indeed a sandwich (or 12) short of a picnic was when he returned to his seat after being woken up by the driver in a particularly violent evasive driving manouvere and I turned round to 'check' he was secure only to find his big retarded face about 6 inches from mine with both eyes half open and then he started to emit wierd grunt noises rocked back and forth for about 15 seconds before returning to his sleep walker/serial killer mode. I tell you I clasped my penknife blade open close to my chest for the rest of the night.
Enough with the wierdo on the bus, in Hue we went on a DMZ tour to see the infamous sites of several Vietnam war battles, only there wasnt really anything to see at all with the exception of Ving Moch tunnels used by villagers to hide from US bombs. The tunnels were about 20 mtrs deep and hot as hell although not to tiny so one could stand with a slight bow. The other sites consisted of a bridge built after the war, 'The Rockpile' which was a former Artillary site on top of... you guessed it, a pile of rocks, only the artillary site was dismantled so it is now just a pile of rocks.... awesome (we still took pictures, it was either that or hit the tour guide who had 'bigged' it up). We also came to Khe Sanh firebase although this was also dismantled so instead you can see a bunker and a helicopter and a hilariously jingoistic museum glorifying the attacking forces with amusing captions such as 'The cowardly Americans show panic in the face of the mighty Liberation soldier', its a matter of historical fact that Khe Sanh was never over run by NVA except after it was abandoned by the US Marines... but who the hell cares when you have such a tragically funny museum on site. That about sums it up along with about 7 hours of driving thrown in... not that awesome.
Hue more than made up for it however with its gastronomic delights. Jennie's birthday being one day after mind and her father treating her and me to a delightful slap up meal during which Jen finally got her hands on the first decent bottle of wine she'd had since we left.. other local concotions being less than pleasing on the tongue. I must say Thank you to Micky for including me in this treat, it was without doubt the nicest meal we've had since we left Blighty. A gastronimically less pleasing meal but an amusing meal was had the night before at a restaurant run by a deaf mute who is both waiter and chef of the establishment.. cue rediculous sign language on all parts. Anyway enough with Hue we moved swiftly on to Hoi An which was agreeably just down the road by about 3 hrs.
Hoi An actually did live up to the LP's hype having not been obliterated during the war and also being a UNESCO World Heritage Site which means it was nice and clean and old looking as it should be. It also is home to the most hotel rooms in Vietnam on soem obscure basis, which apparently makes it cheap and luxurious, although we found it full and not so cheap. But we did end up with a leetle bit of a bargin for 8 dollars, for air con, satelite tele, ensuite and the killer... a swimming pool on the roof!! Result, although I cant say the same for the Italy v France World Cup Final, I cannot believe Italy are the World Champions.. defense is good but they really are a bunch of nancy boys who should never have won, however there you have it. The only consolation being the stunning Headbutt from Zidane that sent Materazzi flying, watching the replays cracks me up every time!
Hoi An is famous for its old buildings and also its tailors which are reputedly up there with Hong Kongs tailors, so of course being unable to control ourselves we both went and tailor made suits and shirts at the tailors shop round the corner of our hotel. Jen opting for a skirt and jacket combo in a subtle navy pinstripe, and myself opting for a brown pinstripe one.. it sounds far,far worse than it actually is (I know you dont believe me!). However in spite of the relative cheapness of the suit the postage for sending them home would have cost almost the same again, so now we're lumbered with two suits to haul around with us... we may try and wear them tomorrow on the plane and wangle an upgrade.. of course check in will be a bit suspicious what with these two well dressed people with dirty back packs... hmmmm. Anyway it took numerous fitting sessions all of which were quite good fun as they measured you up and pinned bits of cloth here and there, but by the time we had finished we realised we had to leave town and move on to Nha Trang.. aka the beach!
Nha Trang is rubbish... I dont really want to talk about it, we stayed about 24hrs and then got out, it was jammed with local holidaymakers (nothing wrong with that in particular) and subsequently the hotels and buildings had sprung up all over giving the place all the charm of Bournmouth on a cold and rainy day in February. It was also expensive and unless you had pots of cash or enjoyed sitting on a packed beach all day there was nothing to do either.. Nuff said.
Well almost it did give us a bizare insight to the Vietnamese at play, as we arrived at 5.45am from Hoi An, the entire beach front was packed with people playing football and badminton or just milling around... at quarter to six in the morning!!! Thats a culture shock when you compare Brits on holiday to that. The most bizare bit was the contingent of mostly middleaged to elderly female holiday makers who get their exercise by walking in funny ways up and down the beach front.. it was like watching your Mum and your Granny having competitons of who can do the best John Cleese impressions from the Ministry of Funny Walks. It was truly strange!
As you probably guessed we moved on swiftly to the much much quieter beaches of Mui Ne, renowned for its sand dunes and its Kite Surfing. Mui Ne was brilliant in comparisom to Nha Trang, relatively quiet with plenty to see and an ocean with waves so big and powerful that they knocked you off your feet everytime.. it was amazin! I spent a stupid amount of time in the sea pleasing my inner child by being knocked senseless by the sea, and then we took off on a motorbike to see sand dunes galore and odd rock formations. The sand dunes we absolutely mindblowing, located in land from the sea they're off Sahara like preportions with bright orange sand. The little kids around them hire out bits of plastic with handles on so you can go dune sledding down the sides of them.. which was great although it knackered you having to climb back up afterwards. Things just got more and more bizare with our next trip ebing to see yet more sand dunes only these sit on the shores of a lake with loads of lotus flowers sitting on the surface and the sand is a brilliant white.. yet another kodak moment (one of these days i'll upload some photos). Then it was on towards a place called the Red Canyon which is best described as a miny Grand Canyon carved out of semi hardened sand by flood waters.. another amazing natural oddity. We passed a Mercedes advert being filmed on the road coming back, so fingers crossed they'll have us in the background but somehow I think not, and that was pretty much that.. phew bit of a rush that.. sorry but I'm getting a bit bored of sitting behind a computer.
Ok moving on... to Saigon. Arriving in Saigon from Mui Ne was a bit of a shock, Saigon or rather Ho Chi Minh City is a massive bustling modern city with far more in common with Bangkok than its neighbour in the North, Hanoi. Its not an unpleasant place, but where Hanoi was restful (sort of) and walkable, Saigon is frantic and sprawling and with only two days to take it in we've been a little bit limited in what we have seen. It didnt help matters that when we woke up Saturday morning we realised we didnt have any cash whatsoever and just about every bank in town was shut.. cue massive arguments about what to do. Fortunately we were rescued by a cyclo driver who took us to HSBC bank which we were reliably informed 'never closed' only to be told by the security guard that the counter was closed. This is inspite of the fact that the counter was manned by a cashier who was dealing with a customer. Red mist quickly decending Jen somehow managed to slip past the guard and hung around the counter untill someone served her. Which then left the guard nonplussed when I tried to get past him again only to recieve the same response as before only this time I replied that my girlfriend was inside, to which he did a sort of double take, realised he'd been had and then gave up and stepped aside! One nil to us! Anyway having finally got our hands on some cash we set out to see the sights. Visiting the liberation palace, the former residence of the President of the Republic of Vietnam (the southern bit) before the commies took over in 1975. The palace itself has been left in almost exactly the same condition as 1975 and is preserved as a quasi museum. It is without doubt the most horrendously ugly state residence I have ever seen, it looks like a crappy comprehensive in Staines or perhaps a multi story carpark from the Sixties.. basically it looks like Slough condensed into a single building and hilariously its decorated like a porno palace from the sixties also. The mustard yellow carpets and odd wall paper along with some seriously unethical wall hangings all create an ensemble only the blind could really enjoy..apparently they still recieve foreign heads of state hear.. it must be some form of intimidation or something! All in all very odd, and at times rediculously funny, such as the crypto room in the basement which holds a desk, a chair, filing cabinet and two phones and thats it, one can only imagine they didnt use very tough codes in those days!
We then headed on to the War remanants museum, previously called the The museum of American and Chinese War Crimes, but changed for fear of putting off tourists...fair enough really. The museum itself holds various tanks and planes as well as a gallery of horrifying pictures showing the victims of Agent Orange and various forms of bombs firearms, you name it they have a picture of a dead or dying person who has suffered at its hands. In some ways the images are so grotesque that you sort of become imune to the shock and horror of it. Definitely a strange and sobering experience when you consider just how imaginatively sadistic some of the US made weapons are. Anyway after that we decided to call it a day on the tourist site front and headed off for a wander through markets where you buy all sorts of salavaged junk from the war and general army surplus. I was quite tempted to buy a clock from a Huey helicopter untill the guy told me it cost 120 dollars, not so much maybe.
Anyway we retreated for the day and booked up a trip for the Cu Chi tunnels just north of Saigon for today. These were Viet Cong tunnels used in their fight against the Americans based around Saigon, they were incredibly small and basically involved clambering on your hands and knees 8 mtrs underground watching out for Scorpions and other beasts of the deep, we did infact see a scorpion which freaked both of us out a hell of a lot, not helped byt the close confines of the tunnel. There was also a visit to a shooting range where you could cough up a quid a bullet to fire various small arms like AK 47 and M 16 and if you really want to be a day trippin badass you could fire an M60 heavy machine gun. Suffice to say we didnt bother seeing as the idea of spending what little cash we had shooting bullets from a fixed gun at hand drawn targets lost its appeal once you saw the other specimens waiting for their turn at recreating Nam!! The most memorable part of the trip was our tour guide who had previously fought as part of ARVN who were supported by USA in Vietnam war and had since been 'reeducated' to be a good commie. He was a very strange and agressice bloke who shouted about how wrong he was and America were and made demands that we didnt ask certain questions or generally just raved about random things intermitently, he was also extremely knowledgeable and quite interesting too, but I think he had prob been reeducated a little too well! There was one moment when a simpleton from some European country tried to compare the VC to terrorists saying they would have been branded as such should Dubya Bush been in control, this had most of the bus diving for cover as he was forcefully told he 'Waaarss Veeer Veerr Wrong' and that VC were heroes, the simpleton shut up after that! Ands thats about it.. anyone still awake out there?
Ah well, never mind next time I shall try and keep up to date more often... so we leave tomorrow for China which from what we've been told will be the biggest challenge to date. We have our phrase book handy so hopefully all being well the next report from the front will be from China..