(sorry I know, I couldn't help it it just slipped out, honest... *hangs head in shame*).
I was in Saigon for three days and I have to admit that it is one of the scariest places I've ever been to.It's also one of the most confusing. Even the name is a conundrum, sometimes it's referred to as Ho Chi Minh and sometimes Saigon, though there is not discernable pattern to the choice. Since Saigon is easier to type I'm going to stick with that, though to my romantic sensibilities this name conjours up images of colonial beauty and elegance, whereas today's Ho Chi Minh is most definitely more 'Apocalypse Now'. My flight arrived at around 9pm and after a worrying 10 minutes at immigration; during which a rangey man in an official looking uniform silently looked from me to my passport photo and back again, over and over, I was eventually let into the country. (He had absolutely no sense of humour and my oh so witty comments about jungle chic did not go down so well.)
At this point, I was attempting in my fragile little mind, to juggle the conversions of four different forms of currency. I'd had to use American dollars at the airport to pay for my visa, so changed my left over ringgit to both dollars and Vietnamese dong at one of the many hundreds of money changers that line the streets of Kuala Lumpur. I've finally worked out that 200,000 dong is roughly $10, and is approximately 7 of your English pounds, but that took a while to sort out in my mind and I don't even want to bring ringgit into the equation- we'll leave that in Malaysia. Suffice it to say that I was in no fit state to bargain with the taxi driver who attempted to rip me off royally for my hair-raising ride to the hostel. Luckily a lovely English speaking Vietnamese man stepped in and prevented me from parting with too much cash but I was quite shaken by the experience.
The first thing you notice about Vietnam are the motorbikes. They're literally everywhere and as far as I can tell, don't seem to obey any traffic laws at all. I tell you trying to cross the road is beyond terrifying- shamefully, the first time I attempted it a little old lady had to come over and help me across! The technique that the locals use is to walk very slowly, not make any sudden moves and hope that the bikes wont hit you. With no lights at the pedestrian crossings you have to pick your timing carefully and not panic as the great shoal of traffic weaves around you. The bikes are used to transport everything, from huge cages filled with chickens and ducks, to Buddhist shrines. I've seen a family of five all crowded onto one, two children packed in between their parents and one sitting on the handlebars.
Everything about this city frightened me. The constant beeping of horns from the tide of scooters, the incomprehensible warren of street, the pavements of which are constantly blocked by more scooters either parked, in motion or in the process of being repaired. There are people everywhere with trays of cigarettes, fans, sunglasses and every other piece of tat you can imagine. They come up to you while you're trying to eat and most of the time a shake of the head just isn't enough of a deterrant for them. I felt like a bewildered child, bumbling along the streets, trying to make some sort of sense of the noise and the bustle.
In an attempt to escape the mailstrom for a while, and in order to get in some much needed culture, I took a day trip to the Chu Chi tunnels. On the way we drove down the road where this infamous photograph was taken.
Chu Chi was a key area during the war. Despite it being in the South the Vietcong had a stonghold here, which was a worry for the Americans, especially given its close proximity to Ho Chi Minh. Now there are still sections of the intricate tunnel system remaining and it has become quite the tourist hot spot. There are some excellent, if disturbing displays of the various ingenous bamboo traps which the Chu Chi guerillas secreted all over the forest and in the rivers, ready for an unsuspecting American soldier to fall into (shudder). They've also made special 'tourist sized' tunnels, for us giant westerners. These are twice the size of the originals, yet you still have to bend double in order to shuffle through. How the villagers managed to get through them with weapons is beyond me.
At the end of our visit, we were treated to a grainy black and white video, which looked as though it had been made in the 1940's, though of course it was created much later. 'The evil Americans wanted to destroy beautiful Chu Chi, but little Chu Chi would not die" and other equally brilliant phrases peppered the voiceover, accompanied by visuals of Vietnamese women harvesting rice in picturesque paddy fields, or picking fruit from bountiful trees, before showing images of the destruction left by the Americans after Napalm or Agent Orange had been dropped. As propaganda films go, this one was rather compelling. It showed pictures of school girls weilding machine guns. One such warrior, who could have been no more than 14 years old, was awarded a medal for being 'champion American killer' having taken out tanks with her carefully placed mines. The American girls in the audience, who had earlier been so keen to clamber over a destroyed tank and have their photos taken on what had been the American crew's firey coffin, were suitably silenced by what they were seeing. Finally.
All in all, I've decided that I'm just not cut out for the city life. So as soon as I could, I found a bus and was on my way out of Saigon and off to Da Lat.
Da Lat is a strange little place. It's set in a series of stunning hills in the centre of Vietnam and the average temperature here is around ten degrees cooler than in the rest of the country. This means that it has the perfect climate for growing more European-style crops. There are tiers and tiers of potatoes and spinach, strawberries and cabbages growing all year round.
I was sitting in a cafe, eating breakfast one morning, when a man approached my table with a small black portfolio. This was Titi, one of the original 'Easy Riders' a group of motorcyclists who have been taking people on tours of rural Vietnam for the past fifteen years. I'd already been accosted by others of his bretherin, who seem to line every doorway in the winding streets of Da Lat, but Titi was more insistant than the others and besides, I was tied to my place by my half drunk cup of coffee, and so I looked at his book of testimonials and I thought, why not. At this point, I'm fairly sure that my Mum is yelling all sorts of perfectly valid reasons at her monitor- sorry Mum, but my sensible side is being thoroughly quashed at the moment. I've never been on a motorbike before and the idea has always frightened and intreguied me, so rather than shrink away and make excuses, I signed myself up for a two day tour of the central highlands on the back of Titi's old Honda.
It was one of the best things that I've done so far- though I'm not entirely sure that my arse would agree with me. I can't imagine any better way of seeing the remote areas of Vietnam than on the back of Titi's bike. He is an amazing guide, stopping regularly to show me the crops, elaborate temples, or local crafts people at work. I saw silk worms being raised and their cocoons spun into silken threads before being woven into patterned cloth on great looms. I've walked in tea plantations, seen curry trees and looked out onto the blue hills with their plateaus of coffee which stretch as far as the eye can see. Almost every house that we passed had bamboo mats outside, covered in coffee beans that were drying in the sun. According to Titi, the government relocated a lot of ex soldiers from the North and gave them coffee plantations here in the highlands as a form of reward for their loyalty during the war. Now these people are earning a fortune and Vietnam has become the largest exporter of coffee outside of South America.
Fresh curry pod filled with seeds
The downside of course, is the impact that the ever growing coffee industry is having on the local wildlife. Until the end of the war, this area, including Da Lat itself, was covered in jungle complete with tigers, elephants and all manner of other exciting beasties. The only people living here were those that Titi now refers to as 'minorities', local tribes people who used to live off the forest. They are still here in their little bamboo villages, with their chickens, cows, pigs and children roaming about in the dust, but their jungle is gone and they now work in the plantations for the wealthier landowners. As we passed them on the bike, with their sickles and their conical hats, driving their buffalo or cutting granite slabs out of the hillside, carrying sugar cane or driving their carts, they all waved and smiled cheerfully, occasionally calling out a greeting as we flashed by. It was such a relief to have the wind in my face rather than the constant bombardment of people trying to sell me things. Around every corner, there was another stunning vista: hills and lakes, paddy fields and rivers all flew past my greedy eyes. Even the barren hillsides, which still bear the scars of the chemical bombs are beautiful in their own way. They serve as a reminder of the damage that Agent Orange is still causing here, in what used to be no man's land.
The tour with Titi ended all too soon, in the coastal town of Nha Trang. My two day adventure with him was definitely one of the highlights of my trip and, in the end, was far less terrifying than simply walking around in Saigon.