After a pleasant 6 hour bus journey from Phnom Penh, I cross the border into Vietnam and arrive in Saigon. The bus guide tells us over the microphone that Saigon has some of the “worst traffic in Asia“, he isn’t wrong. Within moments of him saying that very sentence the driver is forced to jam on the brakes to avoid hitting a car that has just pulled out in front of us. The guide who was standing at the time, takes a heavy fall onto the floor of the aisle, microphone still in hand. Flustered and embarrassed he stands up to reveal a huge rip in his trousers, left buttock exposed. Stifled laugher ripples throughout the bus.
Everything I’d heard about the crazy traffic in Saigon was true. Tens of thousands of motorbikes zig zag precariously through the streets, carrying anything from 1 to 6 people. Sometimes you will see an entire family on one bike, other times you will see people transporting refrigerators, water tanks, chickens or pigs.
Never before have I seen such a brazen disregard for road safety. The makers of the “Police Camera Stop” TV program could get an entire series worth of footage after spending just one day in Saigon. Everywhere you look there is something unusual or comical.
Remember kids, a puppy is not just for Christmas, its for life. Unless of course, its for Christmas Dinner.
This shot is for you Mum! (I know how you love those hats).
First stop is the Vietnam War Remnants Museum which provides a graphic and gruesome photographic account of the Vietnam war and some of the horrific acts committed by the Americans on the Vietnamese People.
As I arrive the heavens open and a heavy storm consumes Saigon. The torrential rain, thunder and lightening provides an even more foreboding atmosphere within the museum. The museum is essentially an anti American propaganda vehicle and it shows the conflict from only one side. However it’s a powerful and disturbing display and as I look over the photographs of GI’s shooting, beheading, burning, beating and blowing up Vietnamese families and villages I’m left with a feeling of shock and repulsion. The Agent Orange Dioxin used to destroy crops and cause famine was truly an evil invention. Even today there are thousands who still suffer hideous deformities from direct or hereditary exposure to Agent Orange. When you hear the US talk about weapons of mass destruction and how they want to protect the world from chemical and biological warfare its easy to see how hatred can by roused by some nations. The hypocrisy is startling, no-one has caused more pain and suffering with such devastating weapons as the Americans themselves.
This now iconic photo shows a young girl badly burned on the back by Napalm running and screaming through the streets. Its been a depressing afternoon, I head back to my hotel in search of a distraction.
That evening I meet another single traveller staying at my hotel. Greg is a 31 year old graduate from Cambridge, on a 10 week break from his small business selling coffee from a mobile coffee shop. He is funny and intelligent and has a similar itinerary to me. We connect immediately and go off into the night looking for some fun.
After a 5 game unbeaten run playing doubles at a nearby pool hall we head off to the inappropriately named “Apocalypse Now” nightclub. Like most Asian Nightclubs, its rubbish. The most exciting part of the evening was our motorbike taxi journey around Saigon. Despite the chaos I didn’t see one single collision. There is a system of avoidance, and somehow the bikes never come into contact, its like a kind of bizarre inverse polarity like when two magnets repel each other. There must have been dozens of near misses on that journey, but after you’ve been riding around for a while its becomes quite good fun. A couple of beers and the usual and unavoidable banter with the local prostitutes later and we call it a night.
Following morning and I’m collected from my hotel at 8am by a coach to take us to the Cu Chi tunnels, 2 hours drive away from Saigon. Throughout the war the Viet Cong fighters used an elaborate and ingenious network of underground tunnels to hide from the Americans and transport themselves and equipment around the jungles. The network stretches over 250km and are formed off three layers of tunnels, 3, 6 and 10 meters underground. The tunnel networks lead to various underground bunkers, containing weapons, hospitals, sleeping quarters, and importantly they all lead to the river. The Americans never discovered the tunnels and they are still regarded as the best and most cunning tunnel network in the world. Even the South Vietnamese army who were fighting with the Americans have a deep respect and pride in what the Viet Cong had constructed. Our tour guide is a Vietnam veteran called Mr Bin. He showed us the jungle area and the booby traps used to trap and maim the GI’s., usually consisting of grass covered trap doors with sharpened bamboo spikes underneath.
The tunnels themselves have now been widened to allow western tourists to visit them. Here is the western entrance.
The original Vietnamese entrances where far smaller and barley big enough for a small western child to fit into.
Its easy to see how the tunnel network was never found.
Our guide told us of the ingenious ways the Viet Cong evaded discovery. The Americans brought in dogs at one point to try and sniff out the scent of the Viet Cong. The VC simply waited until they found Marlborough cigarette ends butts smoked by the Americans, nearby they would be able to find toilet paper the US used to wipe their asses. They smeared themselves in the excrement when they heard the dogs to disguise their own scent. Disgusting, but effective. Some of the tunnels actually led inside American Army bases. Unable to attack the bases due to being severely outnumbered, the VC would simply slip into the bases at night and steal guns and ammunition.
I walked through a section of tunnel that was around 150meters long. I don’t mind telling you it was bloody horrible down there. Pitch black, disgustingly hot and sweaty, full of insects and really, really uncomfortable. I was crawling on my hands and knees for about 10mins, I couldn’t wait to get out. God knows how they managed to stay down there for so long.
I emerged from the tunnel dirty, sweaty and covered in bugs.
A German lady wiped this giant centipede from my shoulder, and I proceeded to flap around like a flightless bird patting myself and wiping all the cobwebs off myself shrieking like a girl.
I stayed in Saigon for a couple more days, but this was largely due the fun I was having with Greg. During one of our many conversations over several beers he told me of a small island off the coast of Vietnam called Phu Quoc. “Its paradise” Greg explained, “an undiscovered gem of white sandy beaches with turquoise waters, hardly any western tourists and not yet ruined by major development”. It was all the persuasion I needed. I headed to the airport the very next day and took a 40minute flight south in search of the first beach of my expedition.
Phu Quoc must be similar to what Thailand was like 30 years ago. There are no proper roads, the electricity only comes on from 6pm till 2am, there are no major hotels, no big resorts, just miles and miles of beautiful untouched beaches with the occasional guesthouse.
I meet a Welsh chap called Ashley, we hire some motorbikes and we go off exploring this beautiful island in the glorious sunshine.
Yes I know… give me a handlebar moustache and I could be in the Village People.
Ever seen cows on the beach before?
The clay roads where difficult to navigate, especially with the added obstacles.
We found a small resort called Mai Pheung. Myself, Ashley and a German lady called Katrina where the only guests. We had this beautiful beach entirely to ourselves for 4 days.
The obligatory sunset shots.
Its was my first beach in two and a half years,. After a long and often tiring expedition of China, Cambodia and Saigon I took no shame in spending 4 whole days in a hammock reading, listening to music, swimming and even skinny dipping. Midnight swims under the stars every night. It was heaven.
Of course with the smooth also comes the rough. Here are just some of the bugs that I found in my room during my nightly bug patrol room sweep.
One night I found a spider with the leg span the size of the palm of your hand. Look at your hand stretched out and then imagine a spider sitting in the palm of it, that’s how big it was. Thankfully I was able to utilise my heavy South East Asia Lonely Planet book to disable the oversized arachnid and dispense of him down the toilet. I was slightly concerned that he might attempt a revenge attack the following morning whilst I was “taking care of business”, thankfully I immerged unscathed.
Next stop…. Nha Trang where I will take the Mama Hahn boat trip, dance the night away under the stars and begin a 4 day magical motorbike trek of the central highland mountains and discover “the real” Vietnam.