Goodbye Vietnam, Hello Cambodia

Saturday morning began at 3.30am for us as we had to get the 7am flight from Da Nang airport to Ho Chi Minh, which most people still call Saigon. The plan was to arrive into Saigon and then drive to the Mekong Delta, ”Mekong Delta is famous for its abundant
harvests of tropical fruits, flowers and rice, as well as it fantastic views while boating along the canals
” which was supposed to take about 2.5 – 3 hrs long….. 4.5hrs later, we were still on the bus trying to get to there! It was a holiday weekend and the world and his dog were out on the roads. I was dozing on the bus and everytime I woke up, I swear it was the same building that I was looking at out the window each time!

The days activities were moved around so lunch came first and then we had a boat ride along the Mekong River from Cai Be down to Can Tho, I think if we had arrived as early as we were supposed to may have been a bit more vibrant as most the boats had closed up for the day, but it was interesting to see the way life works on the river, with the different boats selling their items. Their cargo was identified by an example of their product hanging from a pole on deck!

There was a whole village on the water, fuel stops, grocery boats even cafes! Life just carried on as normal. We also saw some local cottage industries, making popcorn, sweets from coconuts and rice paper, it’s quite ingenious what people do to make a living and how important the river is to daily life.

Next stop was the obligatory market stop, health and hygiene standards are very different to those back home! Plus any kind of food goes here, all the parts of a variety of animals are eaten here, nothing goes to waste – honestly, nothing! Dairy products don’t seem to factor much, milk is condensed milk from a can (brought over by the Americans to add to the really strong coffee made here), staples include rice, vegetables, noodles and fish.

Sunset meant another trip along the river but this time in a traditional sampan, rowed by a very strong woman! This allowed us to travel through smaller bits of the river where it was quieter and more peaceful so I was able to take in more of the river surroundings, which was nice. The beautiful sunset was an added bonus before another 2.5hr bus journey to Can Tho and the best hotel of the trip – shame it was only a 12 hour pit stop as we had to leave for our drive to Phnom Penh the next day.

Sunday morning we left for HCM/Saigon, yet another long bus journey, again just realising how big Vietnam is and how much land you have to cross to get anywhere. Our first stop was the War Remnants Museum, 3 floors of pictures, posts and documentation of the Vietnam War. It was horrible – that’s all I will say about the contents. Pictures of dead bodies, mangled and bloody. The famous photo of the naked girl, running screaming away from napalm attack was sobering. We all were rather subdued for the rest of the evening.

Although I was interested to learn about the Vietnam War and get to the real history about it all, it was a shocking thing to hear about. What is difficult to understand is that it happened in my lifetime, recent times but other countries in the western world did nothing nothing to stop it – why was this allowed to happen? This is a question I asked myself over and over again during this trip.

The Cu Chi tunnels are a 75mile long set of sprawling underground network of tunnels and living quarters used by the Viet Cong during the war. From there, they masterminded their warfare against the Americans – very cleverly I might add!

These tunnels are only part of a wider network across the country, air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, centipedes, scorpions, spiders, and rodents. Most of the time, soldiers would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops, or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds.

The soldiers hid themselves well so as not to alert the americans to their activities, for example camouflaging air holes as mole hills and having strategic traps doors to allow for easy escape. They set up booby traps using simple items such as sharpened bamboo sticks. They were a group of tenacious soldiers.

As we were walking around the area, I heard gun shots and I thought that it was sound effects to make it seem more realistic but.. NO! As we approached the souvenir/shop bit at the end, there was a firing range – practice area for the army but civilians could pay to have a go. I was rather surprised, to say the least. We had a couple of ex military in our group that actually found it difficult and had to leave, something the Vietnamese government should have thought about before putting the army practice range at the end of a tourist site. (Warning, the video below shows the practice shooting)

We left the tunnels to drive towards the land border at Moc Bai/Bavet, crossing in to Cambodia which I was really looking forward to. I had found Vietnam interesting, the history, the people and the definitely the food, but did I like it? I have to be honest and say that I don’t know. I found it an odd place, very gray and concrete and not very pretty. People didn’t seem happy or maybe I just didn’t warm to them? I felt that we got a very generic narrative of the country, guides towing the line and avoiding the real narrative so I don’t feel that I got a real feel for the country. For example, the Reunification Palace is noted as a must for tourists, yet it was not part of our tour. Apparently it was the base of  Vietnamese General Ngo Dinh Diem until his death in 1963. It made its name in history in 1975 when a tank belonging to the North Vietnamese Army crashed through its main gate, ending the Vietnam War. It is like a time capsule frozen in 1975. You can see two of the original tanks used in the capture of the palace parked in the grounds. It has gardens, secret rooms, antique furniture, a card playing room & casino, a command bunker and still used to host important occasions in the city.

Thinking back on it now, it was a whistle stop tour with long days in the main cities going from one site to another without the time to stand still and take it all in. Not much of countryside or coastal areas and there was a lack of colour and atmosphere. It was a loud, bustling relentless assault of people, bikes, noise and smells – nothing wrong in that at all but I am not sure I got much pleasure out of it overall.

I think that I was still reeling from leaving my life in England, leaving the boys and also dealing with grief, too much maybe, to enjoy Vietnam. It was an introductory experience into a land that has a load more to offer, and I think that I would like to go again and explore different parts of the country with a different mind set to do it justice. I mean it is a HUGE country and it can’t be possible to get a real view of it in just 10 days.

Having said that, crossing into Cambodia from Vietnam was an uplifting experience. Straight away, even just walking across from the Vietnam immigration & customs building to the Cambodian one, I could see that it would be a very different experience. That was until a mosquito bit me in the eye, and it was downhill from then………!

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