Thursday, 29 November 2012

A Squash and a Squeeze: Sayonara Saigon

Ho Chi Minh (the city formerly known and still referred to as Saigon) with its 14 lanes of traffic, millions of scooters and thousands of hotels was a bit of a change from Russian beach town Mui Ne. It still has all the hallmarks of your typical asian city: tat vendors, side shops, kamikaze roads to cross, people wearing pajamas day to day, but is a very different city to Hanoi and I think I like it more. There are more open spaces, the roads are bigger (less of a chance to get lost in the maze), the people seem nicer and it's hotter. It's only downside vs Hanoi (aside from the threat of bag snatching) is that the numerous fruit sellers find it acceptable to cut and serve durian in the streets so every now and then you come across a less than favorable smell.

With our new found interest in the Vietnam war we booked onto a tour to visit the Ch Chi tunnels. We waited patiently for our bus in the morning and eventually a small chap with a full head of flowing hair, high waisted jeans, pink neckerchief and beautiful coffee coloured satin shirt came to collect us. 'Jackie' (as in Chan) was a surviving soldier with a childbirth obsession and a knowledgable and entertaining guide. Our fellow bus friends were less than ideal - one giant Malaysian family with odour problems which was quite something in the heat. As the only europeans aboard we were banished to the back row. We did have a seat each (5 between 3!) but there was no suspension so it was ever such a bumpy ride. Jackie was also speaking to us about the war and childbirth so there was no chance to nap.
Before we reached Cu Chi we stopped at a workshop in which (mostly agent-orange affected) artists were on a production line producing some amazing artwork and renovated furniture including the bowls people barter outrageously for in the markets. It was an eye opener when you saw the detail and effort behind every piece, eggshell fragments individually embedded, mother of pearl delicately placed and some pretty nifty brush work. Jackie threw a lot of facts at us on the bus such as since the war there have been 60m births hence why the population is so young, and because there are so many people everything is handmade to increase employment.

We arrived at the tunnels and were joined by a larger group (huge troupe of us now) and started the tour. (I should also mention that mr.chan randomly bought Lauren an iceream which she graciously accepted in the sweltering heat). Jackie was telling us all about the area and its significance and explained that the original tunnels were small, cramped and full of beasties and bats (as unused) and that they had some example tunnels for tourists that were bigger to accommodate for westerners. He asked if anyone wanted to go in the original tunnel and a handsome Aussie lad volunteered. Jackie then moved some leaves aside an revealed an extremely small hole in the floor. He handed Rick (the handsome Aussie) his phone torch, put the lid back down and left him to find the exit. About a minute later he appeared and other than being a bit sweaty seemed unscathed. A very small handful of people then decided that ok, they'd try and for some reason the three of us thought we would too. I mostly blame Lucy for this as I'd seen a photo of her going into the hole and in a tunnel so didn't think it would be that bad. Mistake. Wrong tunnel. Down we went, Bryony, me, Lauren, and once we'd squeezed in there was no going back. It. Was. AWFUL. We were on hands and knees, shoulders touching the walls on both sides, hands on leaves and god knows what (cockroaches and giant millipedes scuttling over them) and bats on the ceiling (happily Bryony was first so they mostly flew into her). Apparently it was only about 10m long but it twisted as turned, was hot as hell, pitch black and quite frankly terrifying. I worked very hard to suppress the rising panic and thankfully this made Lauren and Bryony much calmer as they attempted to calm me. We stayed very close indeed! After a lifetime (about 2 minutes) we heard voices, saw light and THANK THE LORD we at the exit. We emerged sweaty, grubby and shaky,adrenaline pumping. We then realised we hadn't taken a photo (what with the horror and all) so decided to nip into the entrance for a photo op, safe in the knowledge head would be above ground and we wouldn't have to go in again. Bryony and Lauren hopped in, said cheese and climbed out again. I hopped in, said cheese and did NOT pop back out again. As it would happen fatty Wright here has hips decidedly more sizable than the average ayjahn (and the other two!) and lack the upper body strength required to push them back the way they (seemingly effortlessly) came. How hilarious, then less hilarious, then slightly alarming and, on the suggestion I crawl back though, full on panic. There was nothing to put my feet on for help below so I was entirely reliant on arms which had turned to jelly in my (clearly still hilarious) panic. A German man started filming as a couple of the guides attempted to pull me out but I was hot and they weren't helping. Bryony snapped away as Lauren came to my aid and after another lifetime (about 30seconds) I managed to hoof my ass out and clamber out. It was thoroughly ungraceful and simultaneously terrifying, humiliating and very funny. It put me right off my lunch.

Moving on we were shown some horrific Vietnamese booby traps and told more about the very gruesome war. When we got to the 'tourist tunnel' which was bigger, had some lighting and no beasties I couldn't bring myself to go in, so visited at the various safety exits to see how they were getting on. Given my horror on a 10m journey I didn't feel like 200m! I don't think they realised the tunnels were like microphones and everyone on the ground could hear them bleating on about their sweaty mustaches and how they were hotter than baboons. As they had got on fine I did go in the last tunnel, which was about 50m and took you to an underground room. There was still a lot of adrenaline but it was a lot less scary (including seeing a tail disappear into the wall) as we grappled about in the dark and we managed to laugh our way though. It makes you think though - we couldn't cope with two minutes in the actual tunnel and they lived underground for years. Shudder.
Ever the thrilling company

tiny original (taken using camera flash to provide light!)

Realising I was stuck

The 'Bigger' tourist tunnel

Aside from discovering I'm claustrophobic other Ho Chi Minh activities have included a fair amount of wandering (we are much better with bearings here than in Hanoi), the War Remnants Museum (a one sided, graphic look at the war), reunification palace, lots of parks (with bizarre outdoor gyms), bryony finally found her blinking bandana (it feels like an epic journey), tasty market food and frozen yoghurt heaven.

After a relatively event free (tunnel aside) few days something had to crop up before we left and that came in the form of a tiff with our hotel. It was a lovely guest house but we got our washing done and it came back dirty - it neither smelled nor looked clean, so we brought this up and sent it back where they grudgingly did it again. Our grubby cu chi clothes also came back less than fresh (I re-washed mine by hand in the sink afterwards and they were clean with minimal effort so wasn't hard). It wasn't much washing, but it wasn't clean and so we weren't happy paying for the final batch (we had paid for everything else). Eventually the woman snapped and told us to get our stuff and get out, so out we went into the midday heat to kill a couple of hours before our flight. They're a feisty bunch!

Spending a month in 'nam (man) has been an eye opener. We have travelled the length of the country by car, bus, local bus, sleeper bus, train, boat, foot, bike, and motorbike (not to mention quad bike, kayak, sledge and jet ski) - I will never berate south west trains again. And bryony has trodden on my toes more times than i care to count. The only thing left is to fly out... I only wonder what Cambodia has to offer.

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