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History lessons in moped city - Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

VIETNAM | Friday, 22 May 2009 | Views [3070]

Crowds of overpriced baguette-wielding hawkers thronged around the bus as the rucksacks were crammed into its belly. They had a captive market and knew it – expensive la vache qui rit  baguettes for breakfast it was then. The return trip to Phnom Penh was punctuated by two events. A Cambodian woman let fall her thick bankroll of notes on the bus corridor without noticing. I grabbed it before a greasy haired man got to it – he grimmaced as I handed it back to the lady. She snatched it out of my hand without so much as a smile. The other was a flat tyre. All the people heading to Vietnam were asked to get off board another bus and we set off again.

After a quick change in the capital the third bus of the day noisily beeped its way through the haphazard roads we were by now accustomed to. Size counts for double and the horn is used instead of brakes to get anything out of the way. I mean anything – water bufallo carts laden with vegetables or scrap metal, sawngthaws packed to the brim with locals silently tolerating the discomfort, tiny mopeds with live pigs trussed up on the pillion seat, kids playing games in the dirt. And articulated lorries and tourist buses with deafening horns clearing a path through the lot.

A horrific crash involving a bus identical to ours and a heavily laden truck travelling back towards Phnom Penh showed that the organic approach to traffic management applied in Cambodia has its limitations. The bus looked as though it had been overtaking the lorry which had braked suddenly. The bus had slammed into the back of the truck. The place where the steps onto the bus used to be, where there was usually at least 2 or 3 locals along for a cheap ride and a chat with the driver were, was non existent. We could see people wandering about the roadside in shock, as a young traveller with a shock of blond hair was carried awkwardly down the bus, visibly injured. Our driver slowed for a spot of rubber necking then carried on at breakneck speed as before.

The border crossing was pretty standard, seeing as our passports already contained the Vietnamese visa thanks to the dodgy dealings in Laos. Everything checked out and after the bags were scanned we got back on the bus. There was a pause, then I felt a blunt object being gruffly inserted into, of all places my left ear. I wheeled around to see a man with a digital thermometer a bit put out that I had removed his thermometer from my still infected ear. I let him proceed, gently and he moved on and checked everyone else's ears. The leaflet he handed us made reference to SARS but I suspected that it was a control against swine flu. Maybe they had a few SARS flyers left over and were recycling them.

A few hours later we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's hustling commercial centre. There were mopeds everywhere, going in all directions with no regard for the convention of riding on the right hand side. We managed, with difficulty, to cross the street and headed up De Tham, the main tourist street in the old centre, still called Saigon. We found a decent little guesthouse for $15 a night and freshened up.

Life in Asia, they say, happens on the steets and Saigon is a perfect example. It's completely normal to see locals eating and playing cards, tourists drinking beer and children happily defecating around the same street stall. Men on bicycles with clackers drum up business for street massages while people with horrible disfigurements beg and little old ladies in conical hats sell bootleg cigarettes. At every corner, a gaggle of cyclo drivers (human powered mini tuk tuks) ask passers-by “Where you go now? I take you!!” It was hectic, for sure, but after 3 months in Asia we'd gotten used  to it and had learnt that if you want to join in – you do it on the street. We found a place with 2 empty stools on a street around the corner and ordered a few beers. A couple we had briefly met on the way into Laos passed by and joined us. They were the two who were somewhat less than delighted to be given aisle stools rather than seats on the bumpy bus ride into Phnom Penh. We exchanged stories and rounds into the night.

The next day it was time to explore a little – both the geography of the city and the complex history of the nation. The first stop was the central market, with an obstacle to entry: it's surrounded by a massive traffic intersection. This was the first real test of crossing the road – everything else was practice for this moment. Everything we knew about crossing roads was thrown out the window - zebra crossings, green men, waiting for a gap – all useless. The crossing points are ignored, as are the green men. There are no gaps in the endless moped fuelled craziness. It's a faith based experience. Slowly but confidently you step on to the street and move into the mopeds. You raise your hand to indicate you are going to cross and hope to whatever higher power you believe in that they notice you and swerve. We made it. You have to love a city where just crossing the road is an adventure!

The market itself was no less hectic – it's a hive of bustling commerciality. Good morning vietnam t-shirts and old communist propaganda posters haggled over alongside live geese and pig entrails. It can be claustrophobic at times, especially when the sellers take your hand or grab your shirt trying to get you to look at their stuff. We didn't stay too long.

Independence palace was originally built in 1871 as the home of the governor-general of Indochina. When the French released their colonial reins in 1954 it became the seat of the US  funded puppet Diem administration. It was pulled down in 1966 and then reconstructed as the official residence of the president of the Republic of Vietnam and the seat of power. In 1975 the palace was attacked by the tanks and bombers of the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam and renamed Reunification Palace. It was one of the key moments of the fall of Saigon and paved the way for the creation of the the communist state still incumbent.

An excellent guided tour is included in the entry. The whole place has been meticulously maintained in 60s kitsch style, right down to the corduroy sofas and wooden paneling. The president certainly lived it up – there was a small casino, a private cinema and projection room and on the top floor, a ballroom complete with stage, cocktail bar and great views over the city.

It was however the centre of military operations as well, so the basement contains a maze of bomb proof cells with map rooms and intelligence and communications centres, still with the original pulse-dial desk phones. The president's emergency evacuation helicopter was destroyed in the 1975 attack but a replica is placed faithfully on the roof and copies of the tanks and bombers used are placed in the grounds, weapons still trained on the palatial target.

A block away, the War Remnants Museum is the most visited attraction in the city. It's a monument to the attrocities of the Vietnam war, or as they correctly call it here, the American war. The grounds are filled with tanks, bombers, missiles and chemical bombs – stark reminders of a war that so many opposed. The displays inside are horrific and many people, young and old wept as they looked, some remembering, others understanding for the first time the brutality with which war is waged.

In an attempt to remove the Viet Cong's principal supply route, the Ho Chi Minh trail, the US dropped thousands of tons of defoliants. Agent orange, or dioxin was the most infamous and the scars of its use still burn in both the bodies and the psyche of Vietnam. Just 85g of dioxin, about a tablespoon full, is enough to wipe out a city of 8m people. People are still being born with the horrible effects of the toxin today. I'm sure many of the beggars on the streets are victims of this fate. Other exhibitions indicated the support for North Vietnam in other countries and the development of diplomatic relations with the country. I was surprised to see Ireland as one of the last countries in the world to formalise a relationship with the country. That was only in 1996 – a few weeks before the Solomon Islands and just after Bosnia-Herzegovina. What's most surprising about all this is the people – we haven't come across people in any country SE Asia yet which are so welcoming to foreigners.

We booked a day tour to Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi tunnels the following day. The guide, a schoolteacher who had fought, and lost with South Vietnam in the war was brilliant. After a bus ride north we stopped at Tay Ninh. The centre of the town is the Holy See for the Cao Dai religion, formed in 1926 as a fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Catholicism. It borrows much of the terminology and structure from Catholicism. The temple itself is an ornately decorated multicoloured building which the men enter from the right and the women from the left. 9 levels in the building serving as the steps to enlightenment – the closer to the ninth, the closer to God. The pope died in the sixties and no-one has been pious enough to replace him so the robed worshippers chant and pray on the lower levels, the ninth level, and also the eighth, curiously vacant. We were allowed witness their midday mass from the balcony – the devout praying at 6am, 12pm, 6 pm and midnight every day. The divine, all seeing eye was the most prominent image in the temple, the chanting and music melodious and soporific.

After lunch we moved back towards HCMC and the Cu Chi tunnels where there was a very strong Viet Cong (Communist) presence in the war. They were fiercely bombarded  by South Vietnam / the US and created an elaborate system of tunnels in order to shelter from the onslaught. The tunnels have been doubled in size to cater for the obese tourists who now visit every day. Even with the doubling in size going 100m through them was a claustrophobic experience. We were shown how the grizzly bamboo booby traps lefts for the American GIs were made and how effective they were at maiming and injuring. A firing range was nearby where tourists can fire M16s and Uzis for a dollar a bullet. The boom of the automatic weapons was a bizarre yet somehow fitting backdrop to the tour. We declined the opportunity for target practice.

We had arranged to take a night bus up to the coast the following evening so as we packed in the morning we checked our email and caught up with things. There was bad news from home. There had been a fire in my parents house in Dublin. Thankfully a smoke alarm alerted them to it so they could escape safely but the kitchen was destroyed and the house rendered uninhabitable. I was almost sick with worry but thankful that everyone was ok. It's a horrible sensation when you are so powerless to do anything, being so far away but after managing to speak to everyone i gathered that my sister and brothers had things under control and my parents in good health. For the first time on the trip I felt homesick. It was a strange day after all that news. After looking for places to use the internet and call home we were at a bit of a loss so we found a department store with AC and had a look around, not really in the mood for retail therapy. 

Tags: crash, history, home, moped, religion, temple, tunnel

 

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