Follow the Ho Chi Minh trail, follow the Ho Chi Minh trail

Posted: March 18, 2011 in South East Asia
Tags: , , ,

Well we’re finally in Vietnam, ready to say hello to Uncle Ho. Tuan, if you’re reading, I’ve just discovered how common you are mate – every shop has your name on it.  The bus journey from Phnom Penh was relatively painless and for once the border crossing passed without a con artist in sight. The passage from the Cambodian to Vietnamese side was as chaotic as most land borders with a random process that makes life more confusing. Our bus guide took our passports and told us to proceed to immigration and wait there until he called us. Immigration consisted of a huge scrum of tourists and locals bustling for space, waiting to be called through. When they called names, you couldn’t really hear properly so people mistakenly went through, then had to back up with their big bags and it caused mayhem. Eventually we all got through after much amusement and stepped foot into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Note how the word Communist is not in sight just in case the West gets paranoid.

Tuan is common

Say hello to Saigon

Saigon is a city of much folklore. The base for the American GIs during the Vietnam War, its reputation is of a place of bustling intensity with glitzy neon and an army of motorbikes on the go 24×7. It’s the scene for the legendary “$10 me love you long time” scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It may not have the same intensity nowadays but the energy is there and if you head to the Pham Ngu Lao area as we did, the night scene is certainly fun. Just don’t try the cocktails in Eden, it’s like sipping from the drip tray at the end of student night.

We had made loose plans to hook up with some cool Aussie chaps at Eden with the agreement that there was no commitment. After 1hr there was no sight of them (how could we not be a bog enough draw?) so we moved on to a rooftop bar. There we bumped into an English couple we had met on the bus and they said they would join us after dinner. Dinner gone, we hit the booze. Roger and Kerry were excellent company with a twisted sense of humour and dark side to match our own. Copious JDs later, the boys went back to the hotel to pick up more cash, leaving the girls back at Eden as it was the only place we knew how to find easily. Now, I’ve got a large bottle of Jack in my room so you can guess how easily the two of us were sidetracked. I seem to be a magnet for people telling me quite intimate details of their lives and over a huge straight JD, Roger proceeded to tell me about his family and how his sister had been abused by his stepfather. That kind of revelation really hits you but after so much booze, it’s hard to maintain a coherent and sensitive response. We met up with the girls at Eden to find them headfirst in the biggest bowl of Vodka/lemonade I’ve ever seen. Muneeza’s reasoning was that it worked out cheaper than buying individual shots. Nevermind that they were both already battered and had no hope in hell of coping with the behemoth. Mind you, she’s always wanted something huge in her hands so I didn’t want to spoil her moment.

Whilst I was at the bar talking slurred French to a dude from Lyon, our friends had a little altercation. Kerry, worse for wear, got a little bit heated and Roger in his wisdom opted for acquiescence and gently guiding her home. We hit the hotel and I don’t even remember passing out.

We were up early on Wednesday 16th for our day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels and the temple. My JD fuelled hangover was more virulent than Russell Brand in a virgin colony, so I managed to persuade my jani to swap the tour for the shorter half day Cu Chi trip. On the coach I was sweating like a fat man on a treadmill and I was so happy we’d shortened the trip. Annoyingly and not on script, we stopped at a handicraft factory outside town. It seems that any organised tour fits in a pointless shopping stopover to rinse as much tourist dollar as possible in commissions. Most people were non-plussed and sat outside waiting for the bus.

Cu Chi, Cu Chi Cu

Finally we arrived at Cu Chi. During the Vietnam war in the 70s, this area was a hotbed of resistance against the US based out of Saigon. The US had the military intelligence, the money and the weapons yet the Viet Cong (VC) successfully out thought and out maneuvered them for years. The tunnels were one of the main reasons, as well as typical US military arrogance thinking they could just outmuscle the peasant resistance.

In the course of a few years, the VC carved out tunnels stretching from Saigon to the Cambodian border. At Cu Chi alone the tunnels cover more than 200km. The underground labyrinth is stunning and intimidating. The tunnels were carved by hand using farming tools. The soil was dragged out in wicker baskets. Each tunnel was high enough for the Vietnamese to crawl along and wide enough to just fit one person. At intervals there are trapdoors at surface level. By foot you wouldn’t notice them but as we were walking around, a uniformed officer suddenly appeared from the ground. The trapdoor is so small you have to squeeze into it. It was like watching the witch doctor rise from the ground in Live and Let Die.

The US tried everything to destroy the tunnel system that was ruining their war. Soldiers would enter the tunnels but be shot. They flooded some of the tunnels but didn’t know that the VC were shrewd and had foreseen this event; the tunnels had multiple levels, eventually leading down to the river so any flood water simply drained away effectively. It may have left them wet and miserable but their lives were never threatened.

It’s not exactly a wet dream for claustrophobics. I have a healthy fear of dark, confined spaces. We had the chance to walk through part of the restored tunnel system and after much deliberation, we decided to go for it. You descend into the darkness with only partial light to guide the way. Through the entrance you descend to the first level about 3m below ground, then carry on down to about 6m. I was starting to feel a bit twitchy when the Canadian in front had a panic attack and tried to back up. He was convinced there was no exit ahead, and in the heat and darkness his nerves blocked rational thinking. Luckily we were able to gently persuade him to continue, that the quickest exit lay ahead. After about 1min, which seemed an eternity, we emerged at one of the exits, hot, sweaty and a whiter shade of pale. I’m glad I had the balls to confront my abject loathing of underground tunnels but I will never, ever do that again!

Cu Chi Tunnels

The VC were expert at surviving in a hostile environment, using the land to defeat the US army. With meager resources they created a series of brutal but creative traps. The most loathed by the US soldiers was a front door trap that swung down with sharp nails. The soldier would instinctively grab the wooden pole to protect their face and the lower portion, hinged to give it free movement, would then ram sharp nails into the soldier’s stomach and groin. Nice. The see-saw trap was nasty as well – a pit is dug and sharpened bamboo spikes are impaled in the ground. A revolving roof is added, so when the soldier walks over it he falls down and is speared.

I consider the Vietnam War, albeit based on a limited perspective, as one of unjustified aggression by the US against Vietnam through fear of the spread of Communism, the same reason they condemned the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to defeat the Khmer Rouge. I have no sympathy for the US leadership but I have a lot of compassion for your everyday soldier who was forced to fight in a country they didn’t understand, in a hostile climate and with gruesome deaths awaiting. It must have been complete hell fighting on both sides.  After our visit we had an immense respect for the resilience of the Vietnamese. They went through hell but refused to back down and demonstrated incredible sacrifice and bravery to endure years of violence.

love jamer & muneeza x

  1. Tuan says:

    Hey mate, I certainly did read it! You and JD never a match made in heaven. I want photo evidence of my commonness as I never met anyone named Tuan whilst I was over there :0).

    Sounds like you guys are having a great time, we miss you loads so come back soon as Katrina and I need a night out and need some babysitters!!

    Take care guys and see you soon.


    • jamerguk says:

      Blog updated with your commonness mate!!! Ha ha. Seriously, you’re like the mafia.
      Missing you guys as well and can’t wait to see the adorable Ella. Love the name by the way mate. Ella Ngo, got a ring to it
      Take care and speak soon. Love to the ladies

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