So that was Vietnam.
Nineteen days of being exposed to a very different and often bemusing culture..
I cant say I’m sorry to be leaving, it’s probably been about the right length of time for me.
Any longer and the frustrations and petty annoyances that have so far been amusing would start to morph into big issues and I really don’t want to leave on those terms, cause we’ve had a laugh, seen some really interesting stuff and learned a lot.
But Vietnam for me is a place of continual frustration.
Yesterday we took one of the Iconic ‘Trips’ to the Cuchi Tunnels where a ragged army of peasants defeated the worlds biggest Super Power. The trip allow’s you (us) to actually go into the tunnels and experience first hand (though admittedly, only a cursory glance) what life was like for a whole generation of people who were born Farmers and died Soldiers.
The key to the Tunnels (and in fact the defeat of the USA) was down to some fairly simple factors.
1. The Vietnamese were small and the Yanks BIG (the vietnamese marvelled at the Hairy arms of the Yanks) and as such the Americans couldn’t squeeze through the tunnels.
2. The Vietnamese used everything around them as a resource and lived off the land. They ate what grew locally (no organic veg Boxes being delivered) and drank the local water. The Yanks shipped in, often by helicopter, everything, including water to wash in.
3. The Americans were predictable. They started their war first thing in the morning and knocked off at five o clock when they commuted back to base for a Burger and a Beer.
4. Perhaps most importantly, the land belonged to the Vietnamese and they were committed to defending it. The Americans didn’t understand what they were fighting for.
I’m sure there are other factors but these seem to me to be the important ones.
You may ask. “When did he become an expert”?
Well, anyone who grew up in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ was well aware of the Vietnam War and most of us I suspect, marched or demonstrated against the war at one time or another.
Also, Ive been reading a book about the Cuchi Tunnels by Tom Mangold who was the BBC correspondent in South Vietnam during the war and his knowledge is priceless.
The actual Cuchi Tunnel trip is offered at every Hotel and travel agents in Ho Chi Min and the price varies depending on where you buy the deal. Primarily the entrance fee is 110,000 VND which can be paid at the entrance gate but the Trip includes a guide who is apparently knowledgeable about the tunnels and the war history. Plus a coach which pick’s you up from your Hotel and drops you off again, somewhere in district one.
In theory, the smaller the group size, the more expensive the trip. We paid 250,000 VND for a group size of about 12 -15 but when we got there our guide amalgamated us with another group so the group size doubled. Had we paid the 500.000 VND required by the hotel, iI for one would not have been happy.
The travel time from pick up was about two and a half hours. 30 Minutes of which was spent driving around Saigon collecting passengers from various Hotel’s.
Then there was a toilet stop at a Disabled Craft Centre where we could ‘buy things.’
This is a real dilemma because you want to help people whose lives have been blighted primarily by the use of Agent Orange but the item’s they produce are far too big, heavy and inappropriate for most westerner’s to take home.
They have absolutely no problem with using guilt as a sales tool which I find slightly disturbing.
The ride was quite uncomfortable with the bus lurching and jumping around on the uneven roads.
What made it worse were the 4 people on the back seat, right behind us.
Ive mentioned in previous Blog’s some of the disgusting habits some people display in public with nose picking and spitting at the top of that list.
This mob were obviously an A cappella Sniffing band or at the very least they were all professional Beat Box musicians cause the noises they could make were insane.
The lead singer was obviously the older lady who ‘Belched ‘ constantly.
Initially I thought it was some one using a straw to sucking the last dregs of Cola out of a plastic cup. But when I looked she had nothing in her hand.
Then I thought she must have a Tracheostomy pipe which needed clearing but her throat was (as yet) uncut.
Later we observed her walking around Cuchi belching all over the shop.
The gentleman with her was the rhythm section.
He coughed continuously and regularly from behind my seat, parting my hair with each bark.
I haven’t had so much Saliva on my head since i was the page boy at my aunties wedding and my mum used a good glob of spit to keep my hair from sticking up at the back.
She used to call it. “A Spit Lick’.
Combined with a clean Handkerchief (though in all honestly I don’t know why) it often replaced having a wash.
At that time washing was a bit hit and miss.
Our family had very little hot water, bathing only once a week when the big gas geyser in the bath room would be lit. Everyone was a bit frightened of it and we lived in fear of being clean but burnt to a crips on Sunday evenings.
So we had what my Mum called. AP&C. Armpits and crutch.
Those areas would have a cursory wipe over with a flannel and we were good to go.
The rest of the band chipped in with the odd Sneeze or Sniff where appropriate.
Our Guide seemed reasonably knowledgeable about the Tunnel’s and the history of conflict in Vietnam, particularly the American war which he talked about in triumphant tones and which I suspect, would be quite uncomfortable for any Americans present. I assume they anticipate that before they book up?
He started the narrative on the coach speaking through a mike with a small amplifier on his waist (like someone from a shopping channel) that made everything he said distinctly tinny.
His command of English wasn’t good and it was difficult to follow all that he was saying, especially as the old lady behind me decided to talk (and belch) all the way through his delivery.
So by the time we got there I wasn’t much wiser than I had been at the start.
The tour round the tunnels complex was interesting though it was delivered in a very Vietnamese way. Shades of Dads Army in its organisation and delivery.
The “Film’ we would all see was obviously in Black and White but it was played on an old 22 inch Tv and the sound track was so badly warped it was almost impossible to understand.
Ironically the value of the tunnel was their size and the difference between Vietnamese fighters and American was constantly emphasised.
So why use European Mannequins dressed as vietcong fighters?
Half way through we were taken to a rifle range where you could shoot several different rifles and judging by the noise, which was deafening, there were plenty of takers at 40,000 VND a bullet (minimum 10). What we needed was ear protection.
On the return leg we were given the opportunity to crawl through part of the tunnel and this was probably the highlight of the trip. Hot and claustrophobic it really demonstrated what their life was like.
A taste of Tapioca root, the staple diet of the fighters and a tea made from Bamboo leaves proved just how ghastly life must have been.
Then it was back on the bus for the 2 hour ride home.
One of the other obvious frustrations here in Vietnam is the Traffic. The lack of any regulation and specifically the billion’s of scooter rider’s whose sole purpose in life is to mow you down.
It’s hardly surprising I don’t want to return to a country that has attempted to kill me on so many occasions. Very John Yossarian. (Catch 22).
Once whilst I was walking along the pavement a scooter rider decided to use it as a short cut to avoid waiting at the lights (yes some do wait at lights, but most don’t bother).
Another was driving the wrong way down a one way street with no lights when I stepped off the pavement on a zebra crossing with a Green Man telling me I was safe to go.
Safe to go! That just doesn’t apply here.
Another frustration for me is the use of surgical masks.
I did some research and there are different explanations why they are worn but the most likely explanation is to avoid inhaling pollutants or germ’s. (Some say it is to keep their skin pale as dark skin is seen as unattractive).
On both counts I am baffled.
Firstly the masks are often ill fitting and are designed for single use, so donning the same one every day doesn’t help.
Secondly, if they didn’t Sneeze all over each other, there would be no need to take such drastic precautions.
Look, just put yer hand in front of your mouth when you Sneeze or cough! Right.
I wonder if the French rules on wearing the Burka would apply to some one wearing a full face mask like the do here?
Further proof of their insanity is demonstrated when you see a whole family perched on a motor scooter with young children stood at the front and Mum sat, side saddle, clutching an infant.
You do wonder about people who put a face mask on their kid’s face but don’t put a crash helmet on their heads?
There are clear difference of culture which both side’s find amusing.
Jaki has been the centre of attraction with her blond hair and Ive lost count of the number of photo’s we’ve cameoed in with Asian families.
Nothing typifies the difference in culture more than chop stick’s a tool that is brilliant in its simplicity yet breaches so many of our etiquette rules around eating.
“Sit up straight” My old Mum would tell us, don’t slouch over your food.
Yet here, that is exactly what you need to do in order to get noodles from bowl to mouth.
Of course, you cant cut food up with Chopsticks so it is held, and bitten into edible pieces. I watched a lady eating braised pork at breakfast and she had a large slice hanging out of her mouth like a Labrador’s Tongue before bitting of a piece and letting the rest fall to her plate.
Her mate was tackling a huge bunch of noodles which were dangling from her mouth like a Blackbird with a beak full of worms.
It’s also a Communist Country so they are happy to employ ten people to do one person’s job .
Though the Achilles Heel’ of communism was laid bare here.
When they had rice cooperatives’, everyone got paid the same so there was no incentive to work as you got paid anyway. Now each person owns their own plot and keeps (subject to tax) all of their earnings, increasing the rice crop several fold.
We’ve met some really friendly people, though most I must admit rely on tourism for their living.
Ive seen a country that has pulled itself up by its boot straps despite horrendous barriers.
But it’s still a Country in a state of flux.
They no longer look to Russia and China as their allies.
Most people tell us they are preparing for war in the South China Sea by building Battle ships with which to fight the Chinese.
They love America and want more US Tourists.
They dislike the Russian who they say are aggressive, rude and drink too much.
So I leave with mixed emotions but mainly with relief, Im glad to be back in Thailand where I just feel more comfortable.
I would find it hard to go past Thailand to get to Vietnam.
Sorry Guys but thanks for the experience.