Originally published on facebook – November 11, 2010 at 7:22am ·

Mui Ne to Saigon – day 36

Early morning bus to Saigon which I almost miss as it arrives early and I’m still sitting in the restaurant next to my guesthouse eating breakfast. They wait for me as I run for my bags, out of breath and sweaty as I get on the bus. The bus breaks down about 5km out of Mui Ne in a little town called Phan Thiet. We sit in the middle of the road, traffic on all sides of us without any air or air conditioning for about 20 minutes while the guys work on whatever is wrong with the bus. They get it fixed somehow and we are back on the way. I run into Owen  (a guy I’d met in Mui Ne) on the bus and he comes with me as I find a hotel to stay in in Saigon, it’s small and pretty crap but for $8 it’s the cheapest I find so I take it. I drop off my bags and we go for a little wander to the Ben Thanh Market. It’s packed full of people and a prime place to get pick-pocketed so I keep my bag close in front of me, full of tourists and locals it’s a place where I could buy all sorts of souvenir stuff, tea, coffee, food, cheap (read ugly) clothes and more. I’m not really in the mood to shop as I don’t want to ship anything else home and would otherwise have to carry whatever I buy around until I get home so it’s best if I avoid these types of places right now. We get out quickly, wander a little bit more and then head to a bar near my guesthouse and play some pool and have some beer until Tiger shows up, he took the later bus from Mui Ne. We meet up with some people he kinda knows and go for sushi (go figure), it’s quite good actually but expensive compared to the price of the street food I have been mostly eating. Nice treat.

Saigon – day 37

F.Y.I. Saigon is actually officially known as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), but everyone still calls it Saigon.

I slept in which was great and found a camera cable so I can upload pictures again. I walked and found Vietnam’s version of the Notre Dam Cathedral, much smaller then the one I saw years ago in France and the alter is blocked off way in back behind all the pews so not really much to see and not great picture taking. I continue to walk, wandering a bit, enjoying being in a big city again, relearning how to cross the streets,  the traffic is crazy just like Hanoi but it doesn’t seem as loud which is nice, maybe because the streets are much wider here so the sound isn’t as trapped.

I visit the War Remnants Museum, this is a heavy place. It specializes in researching, collecting, preserving and exhibiting the proofs of Vietnam War Crimes and their consequences. Through this the museums stated intention is to promote peace and world solidarity. The museum shows numerous remnant proofs in 7 different exhibitions, mostly shown through photographs. Pictures don’t lie and pictures can say a thousand words and boy do they. There is a section on “Historical Truths” showing photos of acts of violence committed by American GI’s that contradict Geneva Conventions etc and are officially recognized as war crimes. A section on “Aggressive War Crimes” covers the My Lai massacre and is particularly hard for me to see, I was surprised by how hard it hit me and had to take myself outside for a few minutes of fresh air to get my tears under control. Tough stuff. Back inside the museum I peruse another section which is a collection of documentary photos by 2 Japanese photographers (Bunyo Ishikawa and Nakamura Goro), some very beautiful, horrific and haunting imagery. Another display which was quite emotional for me was a requiem for journalists killed during the war. 134 journalists from 11 different nationalities were killed. Many of the photos displayed are from their very last rolls of film, some even taken mere minutes or hours before they themselves died. Others are pictures that you might recognize, having been on the covers of magazines at the time, or just having become iconic over time. There was another display documenting what imprisonment conditions were like for Vietnamese during the war, fairly similar to what I saw at the “Hanoi Hilton”. Another showed in photos, letters and banners from people all over the world, the types of protests held against the war in Vietnam. Some of you fabulous people are old enough to remember and even to have participated in some of these actions, kudos to you. It was a very moving and educational experience, tough but worth it.

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I head back to my guesthouse to get ready for Halloween night, wasn’t able to find anything costumey and felt a bit subdued but went out anyways. I met up with Owen and Tiger and some of the kids we’d had dinner with the night before. We went to the party but it got closed down quickly as it was in a residential neighborhood and was way overcrowded and loud. We decided to head for a bar, everybody was really drunk and I just wasn’t feeling it. It turned out to be a “discotheque” not my scene, I tried for a bit but wasn’t digging it, headed home by 1am, pleased to escape the inanity of drunk 20 year olds.

Saigon – day 38

Since I may be the only westerner in Saigon today without a hangover I decide to create my own walking tour. Picked out a few places in Lonely Planet that sounded interesting and headed out. After a good breakfast to give me energy I walked about 7km to the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Well it sounded like it was going to be spectacular but when I got there it was smaller then I anticipated and not in very good repair. It is quite old though, built in 1909, and is jam packed with colourful statues of heroes and divinities.  Outside in the temple grounds a very large turtle was being kept in a concrete pen no larger then 3′ x 5′, not ok with that personally but I think it’s meant to bring prosperity to the temple. To me it just seems cruel and I don’t understand how this cruelty is reconciled with Buddhism, it just doesn’t sit right with me, so deep breath, practice acceptance and tolerance for ideas I don’t understand and turn around quickly. I take lots of photos inside the pagoda of statues and some of the many altars, it’s pretty cool when you look past all the crap and (literally) garbage crammed into the place.

My next stop is Giac Lam Pagoda, about 10km away and I take a taxi there to help save some time, there is lots I want to do today. It dates from 1744 and is believed to be the oldest in the city. The architecture and ornamentation have not changed since 1900. It is a fairly large compound with a garden area and the largest seated Buddha I have seen so far. He’s at least 30 or 40 feet tall, pure white and beatifically beautiful. I watched 2 men walk circles around him for about 5 minutes, they showed no sign of stopping anytime soon. I assume they were praying for something, as each time the passed in front of him they would bring their hands in prayer to their foreheads and bow their heads 3 times, still walking the whole time. One building was wholly dedicated to ancestor shrines. Glassed in cubbyholes, rows and rows of them with urns, pictures of the deceased and offerings to them of fruit (plastic), money (fake) and candles (electric).

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From Giac Lam I thought I could walk another 2-3 km to the Giac Vien Pagoda, it’s supposed to be situated by a lake and there are apparently hundreds, if not thousands of Buddha statues. Unfortunately my Lonely Planet map fails me utterly, not supplying enough street names or details for me to figure it out, I could have taken a taxi but was stubborn and wanted to find it myself so I wasted an hour or more with no luck and gave it up. Had a great time being stared at a lot, obviously I was in an area that not many tourists walk around in, safe though, no worries. I needed to get to a bus station to find out about buses for the next leg of my journey and wanted to make it early enough in case it closed. Hopped on a motorbike taxi and got taken to the station, found out my info, all good. I knew there was another temple quite nearby I was interested in seeing so once again I started walking. Once again L.P. maps failed me miserably. From what I eventually figured out, the name of the street I was looking for changed about 3 years ago, somebody forgot to tell the editors. I wander up and down streets that seem to be specifically for motorcycle maintenance and hence a wee bit sketchy, and dirty as hell. I do find the Pagoda eventually but it has closed, maybe about 10 minutes previously, no one is around, bummer too because it looked quite lovely from outside.

It’s around 5:30pm and getting dark soon so I want to head back to the backpacker district. It’s about 8 km away so I find a motorbike taxi and negotiate a pretty good price. I go to get on the bike and ask the driver for a helmet, he shakes his head no, huh…ok. I go for it anyways and soon wish I hadn’t as I can smell the alcohol coming off of him in waves, oh shit. Traffic is crazy and he’s even crazier and as soon as we get to an area I recognize I ask him to stop and get off the bike, I’m happy to walk from here. I take myself out for dinner and have an early night, big morning the next day, I’m headed to the Cu Chi Tunnels with a tour group to try and give underground another shot, maybe I can kick this claustrophobia thing.

Saigon – day 39

I’m not sleeping very well in Saigon, waking up every hour or 2, maybe because of the noise, maybe because I’m being bitten, I think this bed has bedbugs, joy.

View from my window…..

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Up early for the tunnel tour I grab a Bahn Mi Opla (egg & baguette sandwich) and iced coffee from a street stall, my favorite breakfast over here. I eat it watching the world go by as I wait for the rest of my tour group to join me. I’ve signed up for this tour because of my previous experience with claustrophobia (a phobia I didn’t know I had) at the Vinh Moc tunnels. I want to try again and maybe get past this fear. I’m hoping being with a group of people and a guide might help. I am herded onto a bus with about 15 other people. Our guide introduces himself,  tells us about our itinerary for the day and shares with us that he fought with the South Vietnamese (alongside the Americans) during the war. Our first stop was a surprise for all of us since the tour touts hadn’t mentioned a word of it to anybody, we are visiting a factory where handicapped people are making variety of “tourist” crafts (think lacquer bowls, eggshell paintings etc.) I don’t even go and look, I know it’s a cash grab. Instead I wander around what appears to be a complex of factories all producing different things. I stumble into an area where cigarettes are being put into packages by an automated machine. I video it because it’s kinda cool watching it go step by step and nobody says boo to me, even when I am standing inches away from rapidly moving machinery. Ah, the lawlessness, the freedom, the lack of safety concerns, I love Vietnam.

Back on the bus we drive for a bit and I nap as usual so miss the scenery. I do however, wake up in time to see rows and rows of trees on either side of me. each tree has a spiral carved through the bark of the trunk that leads to a small coconut bowl which is attached to the tree. Turns out these are rubber trees, one of Vietnam’s largest exports apparently. We’re close to the tunnels now so I manage to stay awake until we get there.

We disembark from the bus and pay our entrance fees. First we are led to a movie viewing room where we learn about the history of the Cu Chi area. The movie is in black and white using what are probably actual videos of the time, it’s grainy and quite heavy on the idealized communistic state that Vietnam was, so much so that at times it’s almost funny, but horrible too. It begins with how peaceful and lovely the area was, farmland and a popular day-trip destination for picnickers from Saigon. Quickly it moves onto scenes of the devastation caused by the “evil” American GI’s. After the movie we do a walking tour of the area, we are shown what used to be a trench, now grown over with trees and other vegetation, and a crater from a bomb dropped by a B52 bomber is just a 4 or 5 foot indentation in the ground now. We gather around a small wooden lid that is on the ground, partially covered by leaves. It’s actually a hidey hole, used by the Vietnamese if they were caught away from a tunnel and needed to hide. It’s a pretty small hole in the ground and our guide tells us that only people about my size (he used me as an example) can fit in it. We are invited to try it out if we want and are encouraged to take pictures, I decline to enter, no way, it’s about 3-4 feet deep and maybe 2.5-3 feet wide, not going to happen.  But some people do it. We are also shown a tunnel entrance that is still in it’s original form, unlike all the others in the area this one has not been enlarged for western bodies to fit into. It’s stupid small, maybe 2.5 feet high and 2 feet narrow. The Viet Cong had to crouch down into a squat, bum almost touching the ground and then duck walk along to traverse these tunnels. Some of them are 8km long or more, when they needed to rest, they laid down flat. Wow. The tunnels are built small so the Americans couldn’t get into them, not having the incredible flexibility and small stature of the Vietnamese. Genius really. The subterranean web of hospitals, kitchens, living quarters and armories once stretched from Saigon almost to the Cambodia border. In the district of Cu Chi alone there were around 200km of tunnels.

Next we are shown a series of traps the Viet Cong used to use to hunt animals with but then translated this knowledge to hunting Gi’s. They’re brutal, the clipping armpit trap, the folding chair, the fish trap, rolling leg trap and more. I won’t describe them here but imagine lots of metal spikes and you get the picture. In case we couldn’t visualize it there were paintings of Gi’s falling into these traps above each one.

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Finally it’s time to go into the caves, they are enlarged slightly so it’s bigger then the earlier one we saw, maybe 3.5 feet high and only about 40 meters long. I go first, right behind the guide, I want to get this over with. First we enter a chamber, it’s quite large actually and I’m fine here. It has benches cut out of the stone that line the walls all around the perimeter of the chamber. I’m not sure if this is just for us or a feature that was used by the Vietnamese.In one corner there is a hole in the floor, 3 steps lead down into the tunnel. It’s pitch black and very warm. We stumble along a little way, the guide has a flashlight but he doesn’t turn it on! Why???? I can’t see anything and am not liking it, the guide stops and I almost lose it, I ask him to please turn the light on and keep moving, I guess he hears the panic in my voice because he does. I manage somehow to take a quick picture of him in front of me so you guys can all see what it was like (you’re welcome).

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I want out, badly. Up ahead I see daylight, it’s a side exit and I’m out it in a flash, standing at the bottom of a metal ladder my knees are super weak, my heart is racing and my hands are visibly shaking. I take a few deep breaths and actually consider going back in but just can’t face it, I’ve done enough. I breathe some more trying to get my knees steady enough to get up the ladder when another girl pops out of the tunnel behind me, she’d had enough as well. She’s rapidly followed by a few more people and I’m happy I’m not the only one, though I seem to be shaking the most. At the top of the ladder I am pleased with myself, that I actually managed to go back down into the tunnels after my first experience was a good feeling, even if it did shake me up a lot, still…good enough, I did it. After the tunnel we are herded over to a refreshment area where we are given tea and a snack of tapioca root. It’s kind of mealy or pasty tasting and is palatable by dipping it into a mixture of peanuts, chili and sugar. We head back to the bus, back to Saigon.

Arriving back in Saigon mid-afternoon I have some lunch and then decide to go for a massage. There is a school nearby where blind people are taught the art of traditional Vietnamese massage. I’m excited and looking forward to it after my tunnel experience. I pay the $2 fee and am lead by a blind person to a room with tables and dividers between them. It’s a bit of a bumble as she first leads me to a table someone is already on so I take her elbow and have to peep between curtains until I find an empty table. She hands me a small towel and leaves the room, I suppose I a supposed to get naked now, so I do, what the hell she can’t see anything, the towel is too small to hide much anyways. I’m lying on a table right underneath an a/c unit set to arctic levels, ok not so relaxing so far, just go with it Laila. She comes back and it begins….worst massage ever. I actually considered getting up and leaving mid-way but didn’t want to hurt the poor girls feelings. But it was just so lame, just sort of a fast stroking, then hitting me with the sides of her hands or a cupped palm. Maybe the odd poke here or there, no reason to it whatsoever. The worst part was when she came to do my face and keep trying to smooth my brow, I couldn’t help squeezing my eyebrows towards each other as I struggled to stick it out. Couldn’t wait for it to end, oh well.

After my “massage” I definitely needed something to relax me so I went to a bar near my hotel and got a beer. Actually a few beers. Saw a guy sitting on his own so invited him to play some pool with me. Ended up staying at the bar for 5 hours, quite a few beers and countless games of pool. Met a guy from Italy, 3 guys from Duncan BC, an English guy and 2 Vietnamese women who were excellent players, sharks really. But they played with me for fun, not money and it was a good time. Later we were joined by some Vietnamese guys who were phenomenally good and super nice as well. Lovely last night in Saigon, I left the bar a little drunk and went to sleep one last time with the bedbugs.

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