Lanterns and Lite History: Hoi An, Vietnam

Before I tell you about Hoi An, I need to tell you about the journey it took to get there. Until we left Da Lat to head north, our longest night bus journey had been about six hours, from Siem Reap down to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The bus there had basic but functional bunks, and although we were both zombies the next day, we did sleep for a bit. Cambodia to Saigon was a 15-hour or so set of day buses, but we went to bed as soon as we arrived so it was only a mild form of hell. Saigon to Mui Ne and Mui Ne to Da Lat were four-hour journeys and although they weren’t pleasant, they weren’t terrible. Da Lat to Hoi An was probably the first journey where I should have taken sleeping pills.

The first leg of the journey was down from Da Lat to Nha Trang and took about four hours. The worst bit was looking out at the mountains and realising that if the minibus hit a corner, we would all plummet to our deaths.

Dalat to Nha Trang, Vietnam
That’s not a badly taken photo, that’s the view (well it might be slightly badly taken I THOUGHT I WAS ABOUT TO DIE).

After a two hour stop over in Nha Trang (I did not, in the end, meet any Russians) we boarded the sleeper for Hoi An. It took 11 hours and I think I slept for three of them; the bus was overbooked so I had a local lady’s elbow in my face for a large portion of that.

We’d chosen our hostel in Hoi An on recommendation from people travelling the opposite way – they all raved about the free breakfast, and free breakfast is not something to be sniffed at. We rolled up at about 6:30am, just in time to plonk ourselves down in the dining area and give thanks for the buffet. Or I did, anyway – Maxim is not a breakfast person, so I ate enough for both of us and took a nap as soon as we could check in to our dorm.

Sign in Canteen, Hoi An, Vietnam
There is definitely a story behind the urgency of this sign.

Hoi An used to be a major international port and its Old Town, which is UNESCO certified, is a mishmash of architecture and history from Japan and China as well as Vietnam. Hoi An is also famous for its lanterns, which are so beautiful that not even my terrible photography can take from them.

I got serious sci fi film vibes from the green ones.

You can buy lanterns, but there was no way I’d get one home in one piece. I’ll just have to go back with a proper suitcase and some bubble wrap…

The Old Town is scattered with ‘community halls’ which I thought at first would be town halls like we have at home: nondescript, slightly damp buildings with stacking chairs and terrible coffee. In fact they are essentially temples. Groups of Chinese nationals settled in Hoi An in the 17th century and brought with them their architecture and culture and whatnot. I got a bit confused by all the history, which I was learning from plaques on walls as I went, so possibly you should read more than the Lonely Planet intro before you start. There’s also a ‘Japanese covered bridge’ at the entrance to the Old Town, from Hoi An’s Japanese traders. You can wander around the Old Town all day, basically (the traffic is minimal) and pay a few thousand dong to visit any five designated buildings in between coffee stops at very cute cafes on the river front. I did a few temples and a museum, which featured some local clothes and household objects and a fleet of very creepy mannequins.

I am fairly sure I’ve missed out a fun historical nugget of information – or several –  but as I write I’m waiting for the ferry from Koh Tao to mainland Thailand, so I will wrap this up. After Hoi An we went to Danang, which is way better than everyone says. There’s another bridge and everything.

South East Asia Day 79: Missing the UK… (Or Not)

If my maths is right (and it probably isn’t), today marks three quarters of this trip. In honour of this significant landmark, here is a list I’ve been compiling of what I miss about home… and what I could happily never see again.

Things I don’t miss about the UK

  • Drizzle
  • Wearing three layers to leave the house and taking both an umbrella and sunglasses
  • Brexit bullshit (not that I’ve been immune out here. Completely devastated about #IndyRef2 but who can bloody blame them)
  • The Daily Mail
  • Going out for coffee and needing to sell an organ for an accompanying flapjack
  • Neighbours who complain that I park over their driveway, which I don’t, when they don’t even use their driveway
  • Bible bashers in Southend high street who should go to an Asian war museum if they actually want to see what hell looks like
  • Turning on the TV for two minutes and finishing Keeping Up With the Kardashians an hour later
  • How shit everyone thinks everything is even though they live in a country that isn’t riddled with landmines and they have free healthcare and their government hasn’t tried committing a genocide recently and their children are in school and not asking tourists for money outside a famous landmark
  • Having two-four jobs at any one time
  • Easter advertising at the end of January

Things I do miss

  • DOGS
  • My friends
  • Decent chocolate
  • Cupboards
  • Private Eye
  • Leaving my clothes in my bedroom when I go into the bathroom, and leaving my toothbrush in the bathroom when I go into my bedroom
  • Family
  • Smoking ban in public places
  • General public use of seatbelts and traffic lights
  • Staying in the same place for more than a week
  • Good TV
  • Having a job
  • Porridge
  • Being the only person who has a bed in my bedroom
  • Waking up to Jon Humphreys ripping the shit out of a politician on the Today Programme
  • Going down the pub, bitching about the pub, going to McDonald’s after, bitching about McDonald’s
  • Getting my eyebrows waxed
Cat Ba, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
There were no windows in the bathroom/dorm of our hostel in Ha Long Bay; walking there took about 30 crooked stairs and it was 30 people to a room. This was the view I woke up to. TL;DR: I can live without getting my eyebrows waxed.

 

A Tale of Two Cities… No, Three Cities. And Three Trains, Three Buses, One Unprescribed Sleeping Pill and 50 Hours of Public Transport

All right children, I know it’s been four seconds since my last post and I was telling you all about southern Vietnam in January, but I’m going to fast forward you for a minute to 10th March, which was the beginning of what I am now realising was a ludicrous journey across central Thailand. I’m going to be retelling it for years to come, so I thought I may as well tell you all now while it’s fresh in my memory (and before I pass out with exhaustion and wipe the shittier bits from my memory).

Our general plan for the trip was to do Bangkok-Cambodia-Vietnam-Laos-Thailand. We both want to see the southern Thai islands, and to see Chiang Mai in the north, and we fly home from Bangkok, which is conveniently located in the middle. Or inconveniently, if you consider that we have three weeks to visit two opposing sides of the country.We got to Vientiane, the Lao capital, on Thursday (I promise I will tell you all about Laos soon) and realised that it was more practical to go to south Thailand before we went north, partly because the Maxim wants to be in the south for a party thing in the middle of March and partly because Lao public transport is generally lacking in options. Flying anywhere from Vientiane was expensive, so we booked a sleeper train to Bangkok and planned to get another train and a bus down to Phuket (pronounced ‘pooket’, for the record, not ‘fuck it’). Surprisingly, everything went to plan. Unsurprisingly, I wish someone had knocked me out on Friday afternoon and woken me up tomorrow morning.

Vientiane’s train station is about 12km south of Vientiane, so we reached there on a bus from our hostel, via about five other hostels. I had purchased two snacks for the journey, some disappointing crisps and a bar of overpriced chocolate, and I made it through most of the crisps before we reached the station. I should add that we left the hostel at about 3pm, so we’d had a full day of doing stuff in 35 degree heat and already needed a shower. When you cross from Laos to Thailand, you pay 10,000 kip to leave Laos and have your visa stamped, then get a shuttle train to Nong Khai in north-east Thailand, which takes about fifteen minutes and crosses the Friendship Bridge (nice one, politicians).

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Children played on the tracks before the train left. I have been away from Health and Safety land for so long that all I thought was ‘that looks like a nice way to pass the time.’

We’d booked a sleeper train from Nong Khai to Bangkok – you can also book a regular train that travels at night, and we soon learnt the difference – and paid a few thousand kip extra for lower berth beds on recommendation from everyone. We’d booked late, so we were in different carriages; my neighbours were a Lao man who snored loudly and got off a few stations before Bangkok, and a Japanese girl and her Korean boyfriend who were told off by an official for sitting on their bunks before he’d made them up (he also confiscated their beer; alcohol is prohibited on Thai railways). Until I was on the train, munching my chocolate and watching as staff transformed the bunks into beds using foldable mattresses and hospital corners, I hadn’t really thought about living in hostels for two months. I mean, I miss my bed and my privacy and my space, but as I took in the working reading light, working plug socket, curtain and folding table (complete with drinks holder – the lower berth was definitely worth it), then cleaned my teeth in a little cubicle with a lock, liquid soap and toilet paper I thought ‘this is the most privacy and the most luxury I have experienced since that beautiful yet pricey hostel in Hue, if not since London’. And then I thought, ‘I am very much ready to go home.’

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Leg room! LEG ROOM.

The journey was from 7pm to 7am – we left on time and everything – but unlike on sleeper buses, they didn’t turn out the train lights at all (that explains the curtains) and the background noise is spectacular, so when my Lao neighbour got up for his stop at 3:30am, I did too. Staff roused the troops, and converted the bunks back into seats, around 5am, so by the time we got into Bangkok station I was starving and wished I’d taken diazepam the night before.

Kids, if you ever have to get from Bangkok to Phuket, ignore the environmentalists and the purist backpackers. Ignore your money concerns and desire for adventure. Book a flight. By 8am, we’d sussed out the ticket office, consumed various overpriced coffees, used a terrible wifi connection to Google our options, consumed various breakfast foods (a chicken leg at 7:30am was a new culinary low) and booked another train. I can’t remember if we were too tight to fly or just forgot that we could, but we wanted to get the hell out of Bangkok as soon as possible so we booked the soonest available train to Surat Thani, which is the end of the railway line, and a bus on to Phuket, which I had just learnt is an island and has no railway.

What do you do if you have twelve hours in the biggest city in South East Asia? If you’re Maxim, you find a cafe and chill out with food and/or (or and/and) a beer. If you’re me, you find a cafe, eat another breakfast then walk to the nearest market and get a Thai massage. On your return to the cafe for lunch, you discover that an American couple there is also waiting for a night train, and they’re stoned. They’re so stoned that they laugh at everything at a volume normally reserved for raging arguments and compliment your elephant trousers. ‘They’re from Luang Prabang,’ you say. ‘Laos,’ you add, because you know they’re new to Asia. They nod. Your patience extinguished, you walk to the nearby metro and pay 50p to go three stops to Lumphini Park, which is one of the places you didn’t get to visit when you came to Bangkok back in January. You get lost twice between the station and the actual park, stop at Starbucks in an air conditioned mall, pay £3 for iced coffee and hate yourself for it, then Google directions to the park, brave crossing a couple Bangkok’s roads and arrive in the park so exhausted that you have a nap on the grass until it’s time to get the metro back to the cafe, then haul your bags to the main station and eat a couple more chicken legs for dinner.

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Once I’d sat down I didn’t even regret the Starbucks. I will be going back to Lumphini before leave Bangkok in April.

The only part of that I really recommend doing is the massage and the park; stoned tourists are to be avoided unless you’re in Vang Vieng, Laos, where many people are stoned at best (seriously can’t wait to tell you all about Laos).

As we had booked a regular train that happened to travel at night, for the journey from Bangkok to Surat Thani we were back to shitty seats (mine actually fell off its frame when I leant back too far) and the desire for a quick death. The train left about an hour and a half late and either a window was left open or someone had turned the air con on to the ‘sub zero’ setting, because I ended up digging out my hoodie, a pair of socks and the emergency foil blanket I brought from home in case we stayed in open fields. I also took a diazepam so at least if I was cold I wouldn’t be conscious to complain about it (self medicating to survive overnight journeys is not the same as smoking weed in Bangkok. I did not speak to one human post-consumption, although I did have some weird dreams).

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If you were wondering what a foil blanket looks like… (The white one was provided; it was more useful for blocking out light than blocking out frostbite.)

This morning I woke up naturally about fifteen minutes before we arrived in Surat Thani, bought a coffee from the service staff and forgot to take my socks off before I put my sandals back on. I also forgot to take my eyemask off from around my neck before we left the train; I like to imagine that I sat in the cafe waiting for our transfer bus to central Surat Thani looking like a seasoned traveler… possibly I just looked like someone who’s started to rely on diazepam.

We had a half an hour wait for the transfer bus, and while we sat there it dawned on me fully that we’re back in tourist territory. When we left Vientiane, we’d virtually seen or spoken to the same twenty people since we arrived in Laos; it’s the most ‘undiscovered’ of the four countries we’ve visited, with the smallest number of westerners and the highest number of people willing to go off the beaten track. South Thailand isn’t just a backpacker’s staple, it’s a regular tourist’s staple. About fifty people crammed into two cafes, waiting for transfers to Krabi or Koh Samui or Phuket. Some had been on the road for years, with compass tattoos and authentic local jewellery made a thousand miles away; some had clean western clothes and actual suitcases. I can’t actually remember why short term travelers use suitcases. Why bother with those shitty wheels and creaky handles when you can just carry your stuff on your back and walk around like a normal person?

It is possible I am becoming a purist backpacker.

I remembered to take off my socks when we were on the transfer bus, and bought a Hershey’s while we waited for the main bus – I will at least be grateful that Thailand does chocolate better than Laos does – and passed out as soon as we were on it. Five hours and one rest stop later we pulled up in central Phuket, which turned out to be about half an hour away from our hostel. No longer interested in building our backpacker credentials and unable to read English, let alone Thai, bus maps, we hailed a taxi. By the time we stumbled up the steps to our hostel at 5pm, a full 50 hours after we left Vientiane, we were also unable to remember why we wanted to come this far south, or leave Laos, or stay alive.

It’s 9pm now; I’ve had a shower, eaten, done some laundry, messaged a few people and Facetimed my mum. I’m going to add photos to this and go to bed before I forget where my dorm is. Then I am totally going to tell every tattooed backpacker wearing authentic jewellery that I’ve done a 50 hour journey across two countries and three cities (four cities?). I might leave out the socks and sandals bit though.

Crazy Houses, Waterfalls and a Giant Bottle of Wine: Mui Ne and Da Lat

Mui Ne

We knew we wanted to go from Saigon up to Da Lat, because it was on the Top Gear Vietnam special, and originally planned to head from Da Lat up to Nha Trang. We changed our minds after mentioning it to people travelling from north Vietnam to south; out of ten people, nine of them would say ‘do not bother with Nha Trang unless you want to go to the Russian version of Ibiza. Go to Mui Ne instead.’ I have nothing against Russians – or Ibiza – but backpacking is about taking the road marginally less traveled, blah blah blah, so we went from Saigon up to Mui Ne.

Things to know about Mui Ne: as far as tourists are concerned, it consists of roughly one long coastal road, a beach, great conditions for kite surfing and some sand dunes.

Mui Ne Beach

On our first evening we learnt that if Nha Trang is full of Russians, Mui Ne is well stocked with them; menus are in Russian and expats run restaurants. We had dinner at a one such place, offering goulash and playing Gerry Rafferty and Wham! (pretty sure playing Edge of Heaven is against Russia’s anti-LGBT propaganda law, now I think about it). Not the most surreal dining experience I’ve had, but one does not go to Vietnam expecting to hear Gerry Rafferty.

I don’t have any other anecdotes about Mui Ne, because I didn’t get much further than the road or the beach; on our second day I made the mistake of being very hungry when we stopped at a restaurant one afternoon (also run by Russians and offering turtle and shark, which are normal dishes out here). As I won’t eat anything endangered, I played it safe with some chicken in mushroom sauce, which was tiny so I followed it with mushroom soup. Possibly I should add mushrooms to my list of foods to be avoided unless completely necessary, because I spent the next morning in the toilet block waiting for invisible forks in my stomach to stop stabbing my intestines.

Or possibly I shouldn’t have eaten two meals in half an hour.

Anyway, the most I saw of Mui Ne was the inside of the hostel bathroom block. Maxim took a trip to the sand dunes and a fishing village and one day I will go back to Vietnam so I can get better photos than he did.

He got quite good photos.

Da Lat

Da Lat is up in the mountains, and was popularised as a destination by the French during their occupation; it’s cooler than the coast, relatively quiet and very, very pretty, in a Disneyland-meets-European-architecture-in-the-height-of-summer kind of way. For example, the Flower Gardens:

I got sunburn wandering the gardens… then had to by a hoodie for the freezing evenings. Da Lat’s not known for having four seasons in a day for nothing.

Datanla Waterfall, which we accessed on a two-person bobsled (I have no idea who came up with that but I salute them):

The Truc Lam Pagoda, which I have just realised I have no pictures of, and and the cable car ride down:

We also went to the Hang Nga Crazy House, designed by local architect Đặng Việt Nga, who still lives there. My photos don’t do it justice; the building is a cross between Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and the Crooked House at Adventure Island in Southend (there are crooked houses outside Southend, right?). Stairs curve; walls lean; bannisters are rare. Do not take small children or the infirm to the Crazy House; they will not come out alive.

We’re heading back to Thailand today (I’m so behind on blogs, at this rate I’ll be  telling you all about Hanoi when I’m on my next holiday). We’re taking the night train to Bangkok, then again to Phuket, and I’m so relieved to be avoiding another night bus that I’m not too bothered about not getting a shower for at least two days.

Or not too bothered, anyway.

Laos as in Louse or Laos as in Cow? 

The Internet is telling me it’s ‘Louse’; I’ve only ever heard ‘L-ow’. Evening from Vang Vieng, Laos.

We left Vietnam over a week ago and since I’m hopelessly behind on blogging different places we’ve been to, I thought I’d say hi in real time before we head back into Thailand. Assuming everything goes to plan, we’ll be home in the UK in a month and I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I miss my dogs, family and showers without strangers’ hair in the plug. On the other, I’m just starting to understand how Asian traffic works.

I’m looking forward to returning to Thailand (an elephant sanctuary! A dog sanctuary! At least one beach!) but I’ll be sorry to leave Laos. It’s the poorest of the four countries we’ve visited, with the worst roads and the most squatting toilets, but it also might be the friendliest and most relaxed (which is no mean feat; South East Asians give the Greeks a run for their money in the ‘chilled out attitude’ stakes). The country’s official name is Laos People’s Democratic Republic, and one leaflet I saw joked that PDR actually stands for Please Don’t Rush. Possibly we’ve been in Asia long enough to actually get that, because in Luang Prabang we watched the sun set over the Mekong:

Sunset Over Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos

I took a minute from packing to leave Phonsavan to catch a bit of the sunrise:

Sunrise Over Phonsavan Laos.JPG
I even appreciated the boarder crossing’s freezing, Cold War-era, horror film set ambiance at 7am and partway through a 25.5 hour bus journey…

Crossing from Vietnam to Laos

That could have been down to the diazepam I took the night before, though.

The Cu Chi Tunnels & Ruinification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

One of the best things about a city as sprawling as Ho Chi Minh City, and a country as vast as Vietnam, is that you can swing from ‘adventure tour’ to ‘relaxed museum visit’ in the blink of an eye. Case in point: Cu Chi and the Ruinification Palace.

The Cu Chi Tunnels

SOME HISTORY: during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong built a complex network of tunnels across both North and South Vietnam to avoid bombing by US forces. The tunnels under the Cu Chi district of Saigon were used as military headquarters as well as living facilities for locals, and now they’re available to tour. From above there’s some jungle, an obligatory gift shop and an inexplicable shooting range. The real fun comes when your guide moves some leaf litter, hauls a plank of wood from the ground and shows you… a foot-wide tunnel entrance.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
You’d think after South East Asian toilet facilities I wouldn’t be phased by a hole in the ground… but at least you’re not expected to live in the sewage system.

You can climb in, pull the hatch over your head, feel your way into the tunnel proper and then haul yourself out again. I had a sneaky feeling that despite being a similar size to Vietnamese people – or more similar than most Westerners – I would get stuck in the tunnel and die, so I abstained. For scale, a few six foot guys on our tour did get in, but barely.

Next we saw some of the absolutely genius, totally sneaky, every-naughty-child’s-dream-booby-trap booby traps.

Each trap is pretty simple: when stepped on, its spikes impale the victim through various body parts. If I remember my GCSE history, the stress and paranoia of living with the threat of these traps contributed heavily to the ridiculous levels of PTSD troops experienced. I got pretty stressed just looking at them, so hats off to the war veterans in that respect.

As people lived day-to-day in the tunnels, they came up with ingenious ways of hiding their presence, like cooking during the misty early mornings to mask smoke, or putting air vents in tree trunks to disguise them. They did get flooded out – literally – but generally speaking, the Viet Cong one-upped the West for years. Of course, the tunnels themselves helped.

Entrance to Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
During the war, tunnel entrances were so well hidden that even Viet Cong couldn’t always find them.

Before you go down into them, the guide warns that if you’re claustrophobic or suffer from high blood pressure, you should stay outside. Whatever, I thought, I‘m almost as small as the Viet Cong and I don’t think I’m that claustrophobic. Let’s go!

Turns out I’m a bit claustrophobic, and not that small.

I don’t have any photos from my brush with suffocation, because I was too busy humming songs to distract myself, checking my brother was still following me and trying not to think about suffocating. The tunnels are roughly the size of an air vent, made of stone, and frequently drop a level or move upwards so you have to haul yourself up or drop down a few feet. I’m five foot one, ish, and I nearly got stuck, so I have no idea how average-sized people managed it. I suspect that tourists over a certain size are bluntly told not to go, because they would genuinely get wedged and there’s just no way to get them out.

We survived, though, with grubby backpacks and a deep respect for the communities who spent years underground. Now, on to something more aesthetically pleasing than some rocks:

The Ruinification Palace

From the outside, the Ruinification Palace, also known as Independence Palace, is basically the 1960s encapsulated in a building. I don’t like that blocky, grey concrete style of architecture at all, probably because there’s a lot of it in Southend and as a child, with drizzle stuck to my neck and a grey sky next to grey buildings filled with grey people, I decided I would leave Southend for warmer lands as soon as possible. Happily, the interior reminded me of The Man from UNCLE and appealed greatly to my unachievable ambition to have a spotless, symmetrical bedroom.

SOME HISTORY: there’s been a palace of sorts on that site since the 19th century, during French occupation, and after a bomb attack in 1962 the building was completely redesigned. The president of South Vietnam lived and worked there until 1975 when Saigon fell to the North and tanks literally rolled through the gates. The president surrendered immediately and the palace has been left as it was then, from the meeting rooms to the underground war bunkers.

My favourite bit is that the top floor of the palace was originally designed as an open space for the president to meditate upon various issues in peace and quiet. He turned it into a party room with a dance floor and space for 100 guests.

I am not wholly unsurprised the South lost the war.

Tết in Saigon

We arrived in Vietnam from Phnom Penh just before Tết, the lunar new year (what everyone knows as Chinese new year), thinking it would be a New Year’s Eve celebration similar to home: fireworks, street parties, raucous festivities…

What actually happens is that most people go home for the holidays, clean their homes and shut up their businesses from anywhere between three days to a week. Not exactly Hogmanay… but also way more fun than getting wasted all evening and waking up on 1st January to some questionable Facebook mentions and a hangover the size of New South Wales. A few backpackers complained that the city was ‘dead’, but if 50,000 mopeds, 20 street vendors per road and several million locals spilling out of coffee shops and bars and restaurants all week is dead, I would like to see ‘alive’. Here’s what you can entertain yourself with in Saigon during new year:

Random Street Parades

I had breakfast on Bu Vien, the main backpackers’ street, on our first morning and watched a lion dancing parade roll past. Then I saw another the next day, and another the next… The city also closes off an entire street, Nguyen Hue, and fills it with flower decorations. Think the Mall on a celebration day meets an extravagant florist. Families walk through in their best clothes and take photos. As 2017 is the year of the rooster, it felt like a very fancy Easter egg hunt during the Chelsea Flower Show…

Nguyen Hue Walking Street during Tet Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Getting a clear photo was almost impossible because about 10 families at one time wanted the same photo in the same spot.
Nguyen Hue Walking Street during Tet Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
They remind me of the 2012 Olympic mascots…

Notre Dame Cathedral

No, not the French one. Christianity is less of a thing in South East Asia than Buddhism, but more of a thing than I thought it was. Vietnamese Notre Dame isn’t as spectacular as Paris’s, but it’s still a lovely, if disconcertingly European, building.

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
I’ve become so used to buddhas that it actually took me a minute to remember Mary’s name.
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon plus Diamond Plaza, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
We didn’t go in as there was Sunday service, but we did notice that the giant glass building right next to it looks like it would fit nicely in Vegas.

The Central Post Office

Saigon’s Central Post Office is near Notre Dame, and as someone who both sends and makes postcards it’s important that I visit as many post offices as I can while I’m out here (I do have other hobbies but none of them are as exhilarating). Saigon did not disappoint.

Saigon Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Can you imagine how good my Instagram would look if I shipped all my orders from here?!

Saigon. Just Saigon.

Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Is that a block of flats that became a block of cafes? Are they just really cute house fronts?
Ho Chi Minh City city centre, Vietnam
This is a main square at the city centre. There are a tonne of old buildings across the city, but development is EVERYWHERE.
Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
A tree on a roof next to a building on a roof.

Also seen: a squirrel chained to a tree, a truck full of pigs and monkeys, small roadside fires (people burn offerings), large roadside rubbish tips (Saigon is a dirty city – rubbish is just dropped in the street), people feeding pigeons, a couple eating dinner on a moped.

Then again, all of that is pretty normal for Vietnam whether it’s new year or not.

The Ho Chi Minh City War Remnants Museum

I was going to merge this post with another, because I’m terribly behind on sharing what we’ve been up to (I’m writing this from Hue, central Vietnam, which I think is our fourth place since leaving Saigon) but on reflection it deserves its own title.

Dedicated almost entirely to the Vietnam War, the War Remnants Museum isn’t quite as horrific as anything Cambodia has to offer, largely because you’re walking around a pleasantly air conditioned building with snacks available on every floor, but I still don’t recommend going if you dislike a) criticism of the American government, b) graphic photographs of the effects of chemical weapons or c) communism. The museum’s information plaques are verging on pro-Vietnamese propaganda, but once you’ve seen a few photographs, there’s not a lot of room to disagree.

SOME HISTORY: in 1955, communist North Vietnam, its South Vietnam-based allies the Viet Cong and various communist states, went to war against capitalist South Vietnam and its main ally, America, plus a bunch of other anti-communist countries. The North won and Vietnam was reunified as one country in 1975, but not before eight million people were killed and thousands worldwide protested against the US military’s heavy involvement (which as far as I can tell, benefited precisely no one except for chemical weapons companies).

The ground level of the museum is given over to war memorabilia like protest signs (I had no idea just how many people from so many countries marched to show their opposition to American policy… sound familiar?). Outside are a couple of helicopters and the remains of a prison block which I think was used by either the US, or the French during their occupation. Torture methods included confining prisoners to tiny cages and pulling out teeth, etc. So if you were depressed by my post on Tuol Sleng, don’t despair – gruesome torture is an international phenomenon!

Guillotine, Ho Chi Minh City War Remnants Museum, Vietnam
Yep, that’s a guillotine.

The next two floors are altogether grimmer. One gallery is dedicated to the work of war photographers, most of whom were Westerners and many of whom seem to have been killed before their work made it to print. I suppose the magazine spreads look a bit antiquated compared to the the live-Tweeting that’s been going on in Aleppo, but the images themselves are spectacular – and look way better in print than on a little screen.

War Remnants Museum Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
It is harder to take photographs of photographs than I thought it was.
War Remnant Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The gallery contains the work of 133 press photographers from all over the world, and took four years to collect.

The second gallery of doom is dedicated to the victims of napalm and Agent Orange. SOME HISTORY: organisations and individuals on both sides committed horrific war crimes (rape, torture, civilian massacres) but the USA arguably takes the biscuit with its liberal use of napalm (the burning one) and Agent Orange (the chemical defoliant one) against the Vietnamese people.

I only took a few photos and I won’t share them here because they are horrible. I had seen burn victims before, but napalm sort of peels the skin from the body until the person resembles a zombie’s self portrait. The photographs of the herbicide victims reminded me of a hall of mirrors. Victims still look like people, but only just. Effects of the toxins include about four types of cancer, cleft palate, Parkinsons, water on the brain, developmental disabilities and spina bifida. And that’s just a few names I got from a list. I didn’t know that the chemicals stay in the environment for years, and can worm their way into people’s genetics, so people are still being born with the effects of a warfare programme that ended in 1971. Victims – which include Vietnamese people but also war veterans and their families – have sued various chemical companies in the years since, but I’m not sure what’s actually come of it. If you want to see real-life victims, by the way, come to Vietnam in 2017! Once you notice the hunchback and the lady crawling on her hands because her legs don’t work and the Agent Orange victims’ charities, you don’t really stop noticing them.

Gallery at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City,Vietnam
Other exhibitions include photos of buildings and local people during the war.

I will leave this here because I want to have a shower and think about something that doesn’t depress me… JK Rowing roasting Piers Morgan on Twitter, maybe. It’s the little things in life…