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VIETNAM | Friday, 17 October 2008 | Views [643]

Entering the city of Saigon or Hoh Chi Minh depending on when you were born was like entering any other large SE Asian city, tons of motos, tons of traffic and tons of people. Somehow there is flow that for the most part makes it all work. It was early afternoon time enough for me to take care of some business including getting some cash and finding out how to get to my couchsurfing hosts house. Saigon is made up of some 14 districts and then some, I arrived in district 1, my hosts, Melanie and Martin lived around district 7. They said the best way to get there was by taxi so after a few hours I figured it was time to approach the waiting taxis on the street. After showing them the written directions from Melanie and Martin and getting many nods of ok I got in a taxi. Turns out the driver did not entirely know where he was going, luckily Melanie and Martin have a Vietnamese maid and they gave me their home number. After about five phone calls and 122,000 Dhong later we made to the house. In a new part of the city with a mix of expats and Vietnamese. Tunill the maid let me in I quickly met Martin and Jona, their 20 month old son. Melanie was still  at her Vietnamese language class so we were going to meet her in the city for a couchsurfing get together.

Melanie and Martin our Dutch they moved to Saigon two months ago so Martin could start a new venture getting a new ship built in Vietnam. He is a shipbuilding engineer, which I found interesting having never met one before. We talked about the process of finding a shipyard that could build this ship over water then boarded another taxi for the city to meet Melanie. We had dinner with about 30 other couchsurfing enthusiasts including a couple from Singapore, Jackie and Justine who were also staying with Melanie and Martin. I met some other nice couchsurfers, had my first Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup, which I love) and then we rode home.

The next day I left early with Melanie, Jona, Jackie and Justine for a market in the city. Jackie and Justine were looking for clothes, I was half-heartedly looking for a new small backpack because mine from Bangkok had ripped a new hole and it was attracting unwated attention. I did not find anything that spoke to me so I bid them goodbye and set off for the district one to book my bus up north, skype with my parents and eat. On the way I happened by a woman with a sewing machine on a side street. I approached, showed her my ripped bag and through limited Vietnamese and English came to a conclusion. 20000 Dhong, done in one hour and a plastic bag to hold my crap. I left feeling pretty proud of myself that I did not have to buy a new bag. I did however feel like a homeless man with my grocery bag full of belongings and a water bottle. I was able to skype with my parents for a little while although we had some audio problems but got to see that they are in good health. After I went to book my open bus ticket for the north and a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels for the next day. I made it back to my sewing savior and my bag looked as good as new or at least as good as it did when I bought it a few weeks back.

I then wandered over to the Royal Palace where the North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gate in 1975 and north and south Vietnam were reunited, sort of. That partly contributes to the name Saigon, the name before the war, and Hoh Chi Minh City, after the war. Like I said it depends on how old you are. After that I decided I could not spend another 122000 Dhong on a taxi so I bought some food and the first xe om (moto) driver who dared asked where I was going was met by a return of " do really want to know?" After pointing out the location on a map courtesy of Martin and Melanie we negotiated a price of 40000 Dhong and I was set for a rather spirited ride through rush hour traffic(actually hard to tell the difference at any time). He was a bit older so he did not take as many risks as other drives and we made it in record time.

Before dinner I watched a movie with Jackie and Justine and then Tunill made a wonderful Vietnamese dinner for us. SO fresh and so tasty I ate much. I was feeling very nice and full so I wandered off to bed to get up early because I needed to be in the city at 8:00am for my tour. The next morning I bid my wonderful hosts, Melanie, Martin and Jona farewell and found another moto driver on the street and after a quick negotiation we were off for the city center. I also had to take my big bag so I did not need to come back because my bus for the north was leaving at 8:30pm. I stored my bag at the tour office and set off with about 15 other people for Cu Chi, about 1.5 hours away.

Cu Chi is a place any people who know anything about the Vietnam War know about if not the name. This is the place of many kilometers of underground tunnels that the Viet Cong wages a guerilla war from in the south. The US bombed much of this area but it has been replanted and at first glance it was hard to tell anything had occured. The place is a major tourist destination know so it is all layed out for visitors to explore. Our first stop afte the obligatory pottery shop was to watch a propoganda video about Cu Chi from 1967. It was very, very pro Cu Chi people and fighters and faulted the United States for the people of Cu Chi's need to build the tunnels and protect their land. I few quotes from the video I wrote down include:

"crazy patch of devils (United States) fired into children, women, chickens,ducks..."

"Ban Lee (Cu Chi guerilla fighter) was awarded the American Killer Hero award..."

"...no architect could design it (refering to the tunnels)"

"day after day they (United States) wanted to enter the tunnels, they were defeated..."

From the video we went to a a tunnel entrance with a top, we all had our photos taken while snaking down into the hole. Our guide told us a few interesting things about the Viet Cong, as his Uncle and Father were in the war. His Uncle said there was a frequent worry about VC coming into Saigon and setting off bombs. Because the VC and people who lived in Saigon were all from the same area it was hard to tell them apart. So the way his Uncle and others always knew how to pick out VC was by the tan they had on their feet from wearing a particular sandal made from used tires. Finally, we entered the tunnels and instead of walking, crawling, laying down for 40 meters we went for 100m (According to our guide some 250 kilometers in total length). However, most of the group bailed out at some point underground as there were various exits off to the side. Only a few of us did the entire length, myself included, in fact after a few guys bailed out I was the first to exit the tunnels, very hot and very sweaty. Can't imagine some people spending upwards of 20 years living in these tunnels. After the tunnel we saw various homegrown traps that the VC used in the jungle, some looked very cruel and painful. At the conclusion we bused back to Saigon with a sense of interest and amazement at what war can do to individuals on both sides, and how the urge to survive can make people do amazing yet horrifying things.

Arrived back into Saigon about 2:30 and my bus was not until 8:30pm so I skyped with Jessica, booked some airline tickets and had some more good Pho. Boarded the bus at 8:30ish and headed for Mui Ne along the South China Sea. The next entry will include this marathon trip from Saigon-Mui Ne-through Nhra Rhang-Hoi An-Hue-Hanoi. This will take place over about 5 days without much in between except a little sight, eating and sleeping. Ciao!

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