Saturday, 26 November 2011

Vietnam Trip 3 - Saturday - Saigon

I spent a fairly fretful night. Despite feeling very tired I was unable to sleep properly. I could not get the room at a comfortable temperature and was constantly turning the aircon on and back off. I could feel my body temperature going up and down. I surmised that I may be ill. In fact that was proven to me in the early hours when evidence of Saigon Belly made itself known. I will spare you the details.
I found it funny. I had survived 5 days in the Mekong Delta in barely sanitary conditions, but it was only when I returned to what I considered civilisation that I picked up a stomach bug. It turned out to be not serious and I decided to not allow it to hold me back.
I made it to breakfast, which was a buffet with a nice mix of Western and Vietnamese food, with lousy coffee.
What to do with the day was another problem, I had visions of massages and spas and copious amounts of alcohol to celebrate my new found freedom.  That was all nice in theory but getting drunk is not a lot of fun on your own.
I decided to go and visit the Cu Chi tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels are the famous (infamous?) series of underground tunnels to the north and west of Saigon where the Communists dug themselves in during the Vietnam War. This formed a stronghold for the North Vietnamese which the Americans and Southern Vietnamese were never able to break. It had good supply routes from Cambodia and the Ho Ch Minh Trail and was close enough to Saigon to be very important for the Communists to launch their campaign to invade Saigon.
A guide about to disappear into a hidden tunnel
By day the Americans controlled the area, by night the Viet Cong controlled the area. The Americans bombed it incessantly but could not manage control.
I arranged a tour bus which took us on the 90 minute drive. The bus stopped at a factory that made Lacquerware,  a Vietnamese speciality, and to me seemed highly overpriced.
Arriving at the Tunnels we paid the entry fee and then were led around as a group. The first start was a propaganda film about how nasty the Americans were and why the Vietnamese had to hide in the tunnels. It was informative at times, but as I looked around the audience I wondered how the Americans would take it. In fact I saw 3 people leave, I don't know if they were American but they weren't hanging around any longer.
The tour then took in the above ground. Here we were led to an area of scrub and told to find the tunnel. Of course we could not. A guide then showed us the concealed entrance and demonstrated how to get in and out without leaving the entrance exposed. A few of the tour group tried it with various levels of success.
One of the people on the tour doing a disappearing trick
We wandered on past displays of uniforms, the remains of a tank and various traps designed to maim the American troops and slow down their advance. The Vietnamese were quite ingenious in their man traps, few would kill but most would maim and require you to be released and evacuated to medical facilities. Also they were ingenious in tunnel digging operations. The material removed was used to fill bomb craters so that it was not obvious that digging was taking place, ventilation holes were buried in all sorts of places, ant bear holes was a favourite.
Air holes in an Ant Bear nest
Our guide kept telling us to follow him and stay on the paths as we might fall into an undiscovered hole. At one stage a loud explosion went off nearby and the guide indicated that a tourist must have wandered off the path and stepped on a landmine. All very theatrical. It was a gag but it did highlight how nerve racking it must have been in the war years to be in this area.
We then came to the part where we had an actual underground experience. We had the opportunity to go underground and experience first hand how things were. I suspect that the tunnels were widened for westerners. Certainly it seemed concrete lined so that it would not collapse and had regular exits with stairs. I am mildly claustrophobic and found myself having to fight the urge to make a break for the surface. I had people behind and people in front so that all that I could do was continue along. I went I suppose about 30 metres and then came to an exit and took the opportunity to head for the surface. The tunnels were in operation for 20 years, I managed about 5 minutes.
Tank remnants
After that we had an opportunity to go to the live firing range and try out some of the weapons there. I had enough money on me to buy 10 bullets for an AK47. I was given a clip and led there by an instructor. He loaded the gun for me and one by one I shot the bullets. I took my time and sighted on a target. I slowly corrected each shot until I was hitting the target fairly close by the end of ten shots. What surprised me about the shooting was how fast the bullets travelled. I felt the kick in the shoulder and the puff of dirt from the bullet impact seemed instantaneous. If someone shoots one of these at you, you are probably injured or dead before you hear the shot. One of the people on the tour fired an M1 machine gun. It was fun, but over before you knew it.
I am not fussed about the morality of shooting these weapons. It was fun and plenty of women were doing it also, it was not a macho thing.
We were then treated to lunch, our food was what the residents of the tunnels had. This consisted of a root, something like tapioca, and weak tea. Not nourishing, not tasty and I decided that if I had to spend a week in the tunnels eating that and being claustrophobic I would have been heading to the surface and asking the Americans to shoot me.
After that we, that is the tour group, headed back to Saigon.
I had a shower and a pitstop and a change of clothes, before a short rest.
I then decided on my massage. I had plenty of choices but settled on a place near the Ben Than markets. The girls were gathered out the front and wore skimpy blue and white shorts and tops. I had a shampoo which was a solid 30 minutes scalp massage, followed by a much needed haircut and then an hour long massage. After that I felt that normality was being restored and the events of the last few days were fading.
Despite the uniforms and external looks this was a massage not a special massage. Specials were not on offer, certainly not at 4pm in the afternoon. It was great. I am a fan of a fairly hard deep tissue massage but this masseuse talked me into an oil massage which also included hot rocks. It felt good. All that time she was chatting me up. The conversation made its way to how I was single and she was single, I looked 10 years younger than I was and I needed a nice Vietnamese girlfriend. I could see where it was leading. But once bitten twice shy, at least for this week.
Incidentally for those who may visit Saigon, the massage worked as follows. I paid an advertised price for the massage, and haircut and shampoo. I was then expected to pay the person who did the work a tip, this was roughly 100% of what I had already paid. These people did not get a wage, their money came from tips. The tips went straight to the person and the advertised price went to the cashier at the front.
Departing the massage parlour it was now time for that drink. I wondered the streets and then came across a small outdoor Cafe, with a restaurant behind advertising happy hour mugs of Tiger beer. They had nice Jazz music playing. Who was I to refuse when one of the staff approached me and suggested that I step inside.
I had a couple of drinks, then found something to eat, rice and something, not very memorable and headed back to the hotel.
At the hotel I paid my bill, packed for an early start, and then turned on the TV as I was about to head to bed. I thought that I had inadvertently switched to a porn channel as scantily clad women were doing gyrations in a park. After watching a little I realised that it was "Aerobics Oz Style" how long has it been since that was on TV in Australia? On second thoughts that was soft porn, maybe I was on a porn channel.
During the day there was no contact with Phuc, if things were normal there would have been a series of SMS messages. The silence was telling.
Destination tomorrow, Singapore. I will summarise my Vietnamese experiences in another posting and that will be the end of that stage of my life.
The Bludger had a growly stomach and an early start the next day.

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