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…

Coconut Candy & Crocodiles: the Mekong Delta

Hi from Vietnam! We’ve been here a couple of weeks already and done a lot, and I’m going to post slightly randomly, because we did a few more museums and – surprise! – they were grim. So to start, here is our day trip from south from Saigon (that’s Ho Chi Minh City to anyone who can be arsed to use the city’s post-war name, which is zero people out here) to the Mekong Delta.

First of all, let me stress that if you travel from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, you need to stop off at the Mekong Rest Stop. I have become well acquainted with Asian public toilets in the last month and I can safely say that I have never been to one – out here or at home, actually – that’s had such a pleasant ambiance. There is a lake. The lake has lily pads. There are bridges and paths and little places to sit. There are restaurants with cute names and neatly organised crockery. I didn’t have time to take a picture because I spent 15 of our 20 minutes queuing for the toilets (nothing is perfect) but it was prettier than some places I’ve paid to visit.

This has been your public service announcement.

Our trip took us to three islands on the delta’s tributaries, which are named things like Unicorn Island and Phoenix Island. The most mystical thing I saw was some fire dancing, but we’ll get to that. We were warned to keep our arms inside the boat in case of crocodiles and I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or a caution – there isn’t any health and safety out here, but no one wants to be eaten by a prehistoric lizard – but the river has been over-fished, so there aren’t many left. I don’t think there’s much of anything left, as fishermen tend to go right out into the sea to catch what they’re after. There’s still a tradition of painting eyes on the front of boats though, to keep the crocs away.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam
I may paint eyeballs on my car to ward off motorists who can’t use their indicators.

On our first island we visited a coconut candy factory. I haven’t done a blog on South East Asian food yet so you haven’t heard me complain about the lack of chocolate (there are Snickers, M&Ms and Hershey’s in the shops, but American imports are expensive so most of the confectionery is cake-y). Instead of chocolate, sweet toothed (teethed?!) Vietnamese eat coconut candy, which is basically coconut plus malt sugar. The cooking process is ridiculously simple (mix and cook for half an hour) and we got to try some. It tastes a little bit like toffee and a little bit like fudge and a lot like something you’d find in Honeydukes or Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. I have a serious sweet tooth – I was distressed to learn I’d have to pay five dollars for a Hershey’s – and a few mouthfuls was sweet enough for me. Maxim managed about one bite, so it is possibly not for the savoury-minded… or the diabetic. I would’ve bought some for home, but we’ve got two more months of travelling and the odds of a lump of gooey sugar surviving in my bag are worse than the odds of the US administration not starting a war, so to get a flavour of what it’s like, do the following:

  1. Get some coconut flavoured toffee
  2. Turn the heating up
  3. Run a hot bath so the entire house is nice and steamy
  4. Release several thousand insects onto your property
  5. Eat the toffee
Coconut Candy factory in Mekong Delta, Vietnam
This is where the candy cooks over coals. Sometimes they add flavour, like peanut or ginger.

Our second island was kind of surreal. New year celebrations hadn’t finished (I will talk about them in another post), so there was a circus-type variety show on with a guy eating knives and a girl dancing with fire to Lady Gaga songs, as well as traditional lion dancing. It felt both very Vietnamese and very international, but I guess Lady Gaga has that effect. The island’s regular entertainment included a couple of pools full of crocodiles, a couple of shops with bags made from the crocodiles’ late cousins and a fleet of ancient bicycles that I refused to touch (partly because they came out of the ark and partly because my feet wouldn’t have reached the pedals).

Tet Circus Celebration Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Yep, those are knives balanced on his nose.
Crocodiles in Mekong Delta, Vietnam
I’m not a crocodile fan, but I’m not a crocodile handbag fan either…

The third and final island was probably the closest to what I’d expected from the tour: we tried local fruits while a group of musicians played local folk songs – and If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands which is one Western import that needs to disappear from everywhere, including the West – and got stared at pointedly by a lady with a basket until I took one for the team and tipped a thousand dong. Then we tried honey tea in a traditional-yet-quite-commercialised ‘local home’. I mean, it was clearly someone’s home, but no one serves tea in formal dress and heels. As someone who used to work for a tea bar I can confirm that honey tea is a) nothing like regular tea and b) delicious. They keep the bees on site (some actually flew around us and took little baths in the honey as it was served) and the tea is essentially a spoonful of honey plus lime juice plus what I think was honeycomb, topped with boiling water, served in a shot glass. I’m going to try it at home, and maybe sell it as a hangover cure-come-detox method because it was one of the few genuinely healthy beverages I’ve ever tried that also genuinely didn’t taste like vomit.

As this is Vietnam and an excursion wouldn’t be complete without using the term ‘that’s bizarre’, the same house had a cage with two pythons, and visitors could drape one of the pythons around their neck while posing for a picture. I abstained because I am not suicidal, and couldn’t help but notice that while one of the pythons was out and about, the cage containing the other was left wide open. Bizarre and a potential international disaster!

Our final sight was the traditional Mekong riverboat trip, the one you’ll see if you Google the Mekong Delta. The views are wonderful, and as we did it at low tide you could see where the water normally came up to, which was kind of ethereal and cool. The downside was that the lady paddling our boat spent most of the 15-minute trip demanding that we tip her. She’d point to where other people had left dollars or dong in other boats and kept up a running commentary of ‘Tip? Tip!’ so much that I nearly told her ‘Never pat a burning dog. Oh and always cleanse, tone and moisturise instead of just using soap, you’ll really notice a difference.’

Riverboat on the Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Traffic jam…
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam
The delta’s water is actually quite clean – the colour comes from the soil, which is very fertile. It’s also freshwater, which is why the islands are so green.

There was no beautiful rest stop on the way back into Saigon, unfortunately, but there was a thunderstorm. I didn’t manage to get a good picture of the drenched motorcyclists, but I did find it interesting that they use their giant plastic ponchos to cover the moped’s handlebars and main light as well as protecting them and two or three people sitting behind them… I have no idea why it hasn’t caught on at home.

Next up: exploring Saigon!

Bring a Torch to Cambodia

It’s been a heavy few blogs, so here is a treat for you at home in the UK on what I’m assuming is a dismal February day: I went to a beach and it was excellent. Well if we’re going to get into it, I went to a few beaches. There were multiples of excellence. Come read and pretend you were there too!

Sihanoukville

Not a cute name on the Sims (I think it was named after Norodom Sihanouk, the late king), Sihanoukville is a town on the south coast of Cambodia. I haven’t frequented a Spanish beach resort for about a decade, but I have a feeling local developers are using the Costa del Sol as a template – there is a lot of development and a lot of nationally ambiguous tourist junk, so visit soon if you want to actually feel like you’re in South East Asia and not just a really far away Malaga.

After a night at a hostel at one end of town, in which some drunk Russians came into our dorm at 3am and started an argument with an English guy, we headed along the coast to Otres beach. It’s quieter than the main beach, Serendipity, although our hostel had a beach bar that played what can only be described as ‘the result of someone punishing their electronic music app’ so I probably would have spontaneously combusted if we’d stayed anywhere busier. We were in a 14 bed dorm, which I was apprehensive about until it turned out that the dorm took up the entire floor of the hostel and didn’t have any windows. Not as in, they’d forgotten to put any in (not that it would surprise me) but that the first floor had a veranda running along the edge with a sloping roof, so although there were bathrooms and private rooms attached, the dorm was technically open air. The bunks actually felt quite private, because they were all covered in their own mosquito nets.

Otres 2 Beach, Sihanoukville, Cambodia
That’s wonky, isn’t it. The island looks like it’s about to slide down to the edge of the image.

On our first evening a storm threw the power out for half an hour, and on the second the generators stopped working for an hour of their own accord. Or possibly the hostel had their electricity cut off. Staff had their own theories. The wifi was shite, which was probably a blessing in disguise; I woke up at 3am on Saturday morning and couldn’t work out why I felt ill, then remembered that a certain thatch haired psychopath was being sworn into government around about that very time… the next day everyone at breakfast was watching the Al Jazeera coverage with identical expressions of exhausted disgust (and it takes a lot to unite a group of half asleep backpackers from eight separate countries who spent the previous night resenting one another for making too much noise).

Koh Rong Island

There are a lot of islands off Cambodia’s coast and a lot of travelers hop across; we picked Koh Rong, the largest, because we knew there was space at a hostel we could afford (money and hostel availability dictate most of our movements). There was a lot of wind on the day we traveled, and we were told that we’d change ferries part way through. I was trying to work out the logistics of moving our stuff from the boat then onto the quay and back again when it transpired that the ferries had pulled parallel to one another we were literally going to step from one onto the other. Bags were passed over by crew, and I’m pretty sure something fell off one into the depths of the Gulf of Thailand.

I did not know before we booked that Koh Rong is ‘the party island’, but I also did not know how isolated our particular hostel was. We had to wait for their supply boat to pick us up from the main beach, and because the wind was so strong we ended up being dropped off a beach early and trekking through a bit of jungle until we reached ours. I was wearing flip flops; one of the bar staff, who had stayed on the main beach the night before, had no shoes at all. Apparently you just have to keep your eyes open for snakes… my glasses were covered in sea spray from three or four hours of waves the size of cars, so I fully expected imminent death and my relief at making it to civilisation was halted only when I realised the toilet/shower block was made from concrete, contained no soap or flushing  mechanisms and was home to several of the island’s insects. It was also along a sandy pathway littered with tree roots, plants and leaf litter, and lit by approximately one light.

As was the path to our tent.

Other than that, though, we spent three days in paradise. The enforced relaxation (no wifi, main beach about 3 kilometers away) sent me a bit bananas, but these days a digital detox is probably something we should all do at least three times a week, so I relearnt the art of the siesta and made friends with a questionable Jack Reacher novel whose final pages had been lost. Was the kidnapping genuine? Did Reacher sleep with the grieving sister? What happened to the original assassin? I’ll never know (although I can guess, and I don’t know which is more entertaining). I also tripped on a tree root on the beach and bruised my foot, then got a rash sitting on a hammock but neither of those things are as fun as another beach photo, so:

Koh Rong Island, Cambodia
Less wonky? I think less wonky.

(The rash went after I got moisteriser from a pharmacy in Ho Chi Minh; the foot still aches sometimes but I’m carrying my belongings around on my back and averaging a museum a week so there’s not much I can do about it… thank god for four hour bus journeys?)

Unless I write something else about the thatch haired psychopath, the next post will be about Vietnam. Spoiler alert: I’ve already visited a beach.

Reasons to Let Trump into the UK

This post isn’t about South East Asia! Anyway so in case you’ve been living under a rock (great idea, by the way), there’s a petition asking the government to downgrade President Dickhead’s state visit to a regular one. I haven’t signed it, because although a state visit for a US president during their first year in office is unprecedented, and despite the opportunities it gives Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage to spout more self-aggrandising bile than we thought possible, I think a Trump administration state visit actually holds a wealth of opportunity for us all. No really bear with me:

The Queen will have to meet him

She might not be able to comment on politics, but she can publicly make subtly scathing conversation without raising an eyebrow. Various aides will have to murmur behind napkins ‘you certainly have done a lot’ does not mean she agrees with you on the Muslim ban, it means she can’t believe you haven’t been impeached yet. Yes, she really is offering you another biscuit.

Prince Phillip will have to meet him

Less subtle and witty. More like ‘the trifle is gorgeous today, isn’t it? So are you planning to start World War III with China or with  Iran?’

There will be loud, intrusive protests everywhere the delegation goes

The British tradition of just not mentioning unpleasant smells won’t be enough for officials to avoid bringing up how angry people are about the US administration’s desire to defecate over everything it sees, and the UK government’s desire to hold the toilet paper as long as it puts us in good stead come Brexit. Because how do you avoid bringing up signs like these?

Petition for Ian McKellen to get another knighthood.

Boris Johnson will almost definitely insult Trump to his face

Using words like ‘piffle’ and ‘codswallop’. For the first time in Boris’s political career everyone will be pleased about it. I guess this would also happen on a regular visit, but if it’s during a state visit he might be wearing a black tie and tails and the memes alone will be glorious.

Banning a man who’s spent his presidency banning things is too much like playing his game, and the British game is so much more fun

A lot of people just want him barred from entering UK airspace and although any type of Trump visit will be detrimental to our air pollution goals, I just don’t think a ban is particularly British. I think what is British is satire, sarcasm and a succinct declaration that we are quite cross.

Remember Je Suis Charlie? Now’s your chance to make good on the free speech and satire quotations you retweeted then. When Trump visits – and he will, at some point – every mildly eloquent, satirical or artistic person with access to the Internet gets to let loose. Whether it’s Have I Got News for You or The Last Leg or some bloke named Steve live Tweeting a press conference, the message will will be unambiguous: we will not hold the fucking toilet paper while you shit on our values. Columnists will crack their knuckles; cartoonists will sharpen their pencils; protesters will take their signs, chants and sit-ins to acidic new levels; Banksy will decorate a high rise. Small children will ask ‘why does my mum break china when he’s on TV?’ to the point where schools will hold assemblies explaining civil unrest. Alt-right neo Nazi scum will look at one another and gulp. Republican higher-ups will blink and realise that the special relationship isn’t about the Prime Minister’s Brexit negotiations. It’s about neighbours looking out for one another even after the odd failed invasion of the Middle East and dodgy extradition attempt. We will invite you in for a cup of tea, Mr Trump, but we reserve the right to spit in it.

I can’t believe I’m 21 and just made a toilet paper analogy. Yes, I can. Anyway what are your thoughts on the state visit? Do you have any ideas for protest signs? Tell me. (Next post we go back to regularly scheduled chat about Cambodian beaches.)