After a fabulous month in Thailand we have to leave for visa purposes and fly back in to get another 30 days so we decide to go to Vietnam, probably apart from New Zealand, the place most people have liked best on their travels. So we have a certain level of expectation, even if we have no idea what it will be like. What I was totally unprepared for though was the strange energy we found, particularly at the beach – energy, I believe is left from the war.
First it’s Saigon
Many people had told us Ho Chi Mihn City (or Saigon as everyone still calls it) is not great and a couple of days is more than enough. As always on our first visit we have ‘new place stress’. Of all the places on this trip Vietnam is the one we know the least about. – we have no idea about the language, the food, culture and customs. We’re pretty scared. Thankfully we settle in OK in our first hostel, My My. Madame who runs it is away with the fairies, the place is in chaos and shambollic but our room, if small, is clean and very central.
We find places to eat (OKish food) and to watch football. It’s a relief to be away from the sex tourism of Thialand. There seems to be more westerners than in Bangkok but later we realise that’s because all the tourists in Saigon pack into just a few streets. There’s a time-warp feel, it could easily be the 50s or the 60s. You can feel the legacy of the French everywhere in Vietnam – from the writing which seems like a Chinese type language written in French to the buildings. In fact the buildings are the same wherever we go – small bungalows with French doors (often people park cars and bikes in these ‘front rooms’, palatial European style villas, or very tall thin buildings with an art-deco feel. Words are often split up by syllable – Viet Nam, Sia Gon, Ca Phe, mo tor bike.
We book a city tour (though of course Madame at My My didn’t book it properly so that was a shambles at the start with a hastily arranged taxi dashing us to try and find our coach). We spend many a moment loving motorbikes – by far the defining characteristic of Vietnam, watching their crazy riding, many people wearing zipped up hoodies, breathing masks (everyone wears masks here anyway), and helmets despite the 35 degrees heat. Whole families on bikes!! We are surprised that Vietnam isn’t cheap – similar to Thailand. And try as hard as we can, we cannot get anyone to understand that we could possibly want to drink coffee with unsweetened fresh milk and diluted with hot water in a large cup!!
The war tourist attractions….
First stop on our tour is the War Remnants Museum. I feel ashamed that I had not thought more about what such a recent war would mean for this country. Whilst relations with the US are now deemed to be good, they make no attempt to downplay the war here – instead its key to Saigon’s tourism.
The museum was amazing. The first ‘media’ war, it was made up of photos and descriptions of what happened. Some displays made me cry, some made me despair at how cruel humans can be. Mostly it made me angry – that those still living with the effects of Agent Orange do not have adequate medical care, that US aid was tied to economic reform, that chemical weapons continue to be made. And that war to preserve the economic interests of the west continues, just in other parts of the world. One hour in this museum totally re-affirmed to me why I am a pacifist. There are pics of the museum on our Vietnam PhotoBlog.
On our return visit to Saigon we go to the Cu Chi Tunnels which were built to allow the Viet Cong to move around the jungle outside Siagon unnoticed. This is my kind of sightseeing – where you literally walk through history. Tourists can now go in the tunnels, made bigger to allow us to get through. We can take no more than 50m. Over 16,000 people lived in them for years. Again we have some great photo’s in the PhotoBlog.
We also go to the presidential palace – a typical 60s communist like building if ever I saw one. I love the military planning room best – the big map of Vietnam and the world with Asia in the middle on the wall; some very old and pink phones in a line next to the desk. Most of the time it doesn’t feel at all as if this is a communist dictatorship, just a country that is still developing. Capitalism is very much living here, even if the shopping is a smidge limited, and you don’t get a sense of people being less free than any other poor country – reports I’ve read say that most young people don’t mind not having free speech so long as they do ok economically. Still, I don’t blog here, am careful what we put on Facebook and accept that some websites are blocked
So we leave Siagon for the beach….
With typically bad timing, we arrive in Vietnam just before Tet – the Vietnamese/Chinese New Year. All trains to the north are booked up, all coaches three/four times the normal cost if you can get on them. So we have to stay down south. We decide to head to Mui Ne, a new beach resort only 5-6 hours from Saigon (that’s a short journey for us now).
Luckily we book a fabulous place to stay – Mui Ne Backpackers. It’s a complex with dorms and private rooms. The dorms are probably the best we will stay in. Mui Ne itself is only 5 or so years old, created to be the new Vietnam holiday destination. The hotels are the picture of ‘paradise’ – what I imagine Hawaii will be like. It’s a surf centre so the tourists are all very young, body beautiful. It’s clean, efficient, comfortable, excellent wifi (tho web accessed Facebook and BBC news sites are blocked which gets to be very annoying). I get more down than I have at any point in this trip.
Why this energy?
As the days at Mui Ne pass I start to think about why I am so down. After an initial real unhappiness I’d settled into general emotional close down. I’m not the only one. We comment how the Vietnamese we meet here all seem closed – not rude but not friendly. Despite the idyllic location all our fellow backpackers look miserable, there’s virtually no chat in our dorm or in the hostel, let alone smiles. In the bars or sitting by the shore no-one smiles, everyone looks sullen and closed. Closed is the word. I try to describe how I feel and what I’m picking up to Pat. Its like the lights are on but there is no-one home I ponder. We talk to no-one except a fab couple from Scotland we meet in the pool. In my closed state I spend time lying on my bunk listening to meditation and hypnosis downloads.
Now I know at this point many of my mates will think I’ve gone off again into my new age madness, but I truly believe there are energies around us all which effect our moods, and I felt that this place had got a total energy block. So I decide to google what happened here during the war. What I find out somehow doesn’t surprise me.
This area seems to have been a defining line between north and south. It was the site of two major offences when the North pushed into the south – during the Tet offensive in 1968 and also in 1970 when a nearby US base was attacked. Tens of thousands of people died around this area; more were made homeless. The horror and destruction was immense. Yet, unlike Siagon, there are no reminders, no memorials. Or maybe there is , there is that terrible energy feeling of shut up shop…..
We head to the hills…..
After a week or so of, well, nothing, we head to the Vietnam highlands and the honeymoon town of Dalat (or Da Lat). We had imagined something like Harrogate, we couldn’t have been more wrong. It was big and busy and at night totally mad and loud! As many bikes as Saigon with whole families on them.
As it was cold there (during the day it was hot but at night we were really cold) all the kids were wrapped up with hats and scarves. They looked wonderful and won the cutest kids competition hands down, particularly those with sunglasses and hats with animal ears!! We book the last available cheap(ish) room in Dalat; we pay nearly $50 for a room that normally costs $8. It’s not very nice….
There’s a lovely lake in Da Lat so we spend a day walking round it and the town. We go on a day tour to the hills – or so we thought. Theres us and about 15 Vietnamese teenage girls! All they want to do is take photos of each other in poses which seem to be derigeure in south east Asia; we want to take photos of the countryside! Although we have a total language barrier they are wonderful and so kind to us and we love them. It makes a memorable day from what would otherwise be a fairly boring day out.
The energy is so different in Da Lat than Mui Ne and Saigon. Maybe that’s more what Vietnam is like. I’d like to think so.
Bus travel is where it all happens in south east Asia ….
After a few days in Dalat we get the night bus back to Saigon. We get picked up by a very small bus at our hotel at midnight. We think this is the bus all the way to Saigon which is up to 9 hours depending on traffic. Patrick pays the driver with our last few dong. We start to panic; it’s a Vietnamese bus for Vietnamese. Why should be worry? Well because they are tiny and we hardly fit on the seats. Whole families are sharing 2 seats and we almost need 2 seats each!!! We look at each other resignedly.
Then the bus pulls into a bus station. Turns out we are just on a shuttle. Now we’re worried because we had paid the shuttle driver. Everyone is Vietnamese, no one speaks English. Everyone else queues up to pay the fare and gets tickets for the big buses; using gestures we are told by someone in a uniform to get on one of the big buses and take the back seats. He transfers our bags. At least we fit into the seats on this bus!
The bus is packed, kids asleep in the aisles, whole families sharing seats. When we were in Saigon we bumped into Alan who we first met in India. He told us about a bus journey he did from Cambodia to Hanoi. His bags were thrown on the top of the bus with nothing to hold them on. People slept in the aisles and were sick the road was so bumpy; no one cleaned up the sick. And even better, live pigs were carried in the hold!!!
So we are lucky – just hot and cramped. We go to sleep. After a couple of hours the driver stops in the middle of nowhere and decides to check tickets or take fares. We have nothing – no tickets or money. As the driver makes his way up the bus I’m getting more and more scared, I think I’m going to pass out. What will we do if he boots us off the bus. He takes the ticket from the bloke next to us on the back seat then ….. turns back down the bus. I guess it wasn’t hard to recognise the westerners who had already paid!
I decide I know Saigon…
So we arrive in Saigon about 5.30am, far earlier than expected having not slept much. I turn into one of my brothers deciding I know exactly where we are without looking at a map and we will not get a taxi to our hostel but walk. With all our gear. It may be early but blimey it’s already humid. We set off. We walk around in circles but I’m determined. After about half an hour I remember we bought a map from a man without arms thanks to Agent Orange at the war museum (that was how he ‘sold’ the maps). We get it out and ask an early morning jogger where we are (Saigon like many Asian cities is full of people taking exercise outside early morning and evening. The park is an open air gym with equipment and public aerobic sessions. Our fav was the old Lady going some on a walking machine whilst texting). About an hour after we got off the coach, dripping with sweat, we stumble on our new hostel. It feels great to be home!!
Saigon is actually loads better 2nd time around. Our new hostel is brilliant, (a modern tower block where everything works – air con, wifi, showers. It’s a 12 bed dorm but comfy and clean) but its very impersonal and once again reception shambolic. We don’t really talk to anyone else and my melancholy returns. We have breakfast one morning in the sky cafe and I cry and cry and cry. I fear the sad energy of Vietnam has returned.
A trip to the Mekong Delta cheers me up though and we enjoy the boat rides, even if the seats on the 2 hour bus ride are broken. Back in Saigon that night we try and find a TV showing a big Leeds game but no one shows uk cup games. We cannot get radio commentary as the BBC is blocked in Vietnam. Leeds are hammered so it’s probably a good job.
A last minute understanding of the Vietnamese – maybe the lights are on…
So we head to the airport to get a plane back to Thailand and 30 more days on our visa, relieved to be moving on. I get chatting to a bloke on the plane who had the honour to get to know some Vietnamese during his trip; indeed he fell in love and was just worried whether it could work and what people would think. He gave me an insight I wish we’d had earlier. He said his love had told him. “Why would I want to leave Ho Chi Mihn City? I love it here.” Then she confessed she’d never been anywhere else – at all! Never seen the seaside or the hills. They don’t have American TV blasted at them every day so they don’t see images of other lives as much as in many other countries. She had no concept at all that life could by any different to Saigon, in fact she couldn’t imagine at all how it could be different, so just accepts what is and is happy with that. In many ways I am jealous. Maybe I have got it wrong; the lights are on, it’s just that unlike me they are not constantly shining them out infront of them searching for something else.