On my way to breakfast I met the lady from Singapore. We exchanged contact details and agreed to link up in Ho Chi Minh City.
I hoped I’d find the others – or some of them – at breakfast but everyone had gone and I had a deserted meal.
Cheap accomodation had been arranged for me in Dong Hoi and after breakfast rail travel to Ho Chi Minh city was organised, together with a taxi to the station tomorrow morning. I needed to travel sooner rather than later to be on time for the link up before my remaining link to the expedtion flew back to Singapore.
I was picked up at midday and taken to another hotel on the seafront much more central than the last one. The room was windowless, taking me aback a bit, but it was only for one night and hadn’t I so recently spent 4 nights underground? Besides: the buddhist shrine by reception appealed to my sense of humour, what with the beer cans included in the offerings there. Shrines like this were throughout Vietnam: a fat jubilant figure on top of an ornately carved polished wooden furnishing embellished with coloured lightbulbs, surrounded by figurines trinkets food flowers and yes;- beer cans.
After nightfall I took a few photos outside and returned to find 2 Irish women with a tale of being ripped off by a taxi driver. That driver who took me to the hotel, the one with the unreadable meter and now this. 3 incidents in the same town I thought.
And there was still a taxi ride to the station in the morning. It went well enough, as far as the station. Trouble free in fact to the point where I thought I’d tip the driver when we got there. That was when he insisted I hadn’t already paid and the whole thing descended into an incomprehensible argument which the **** seemed to be enjoying! Then a crowd was gathering and I was running out of time so I had to pay twice! One of them got me in the end.
If the railway system had been halfway as complicated as Chinese ones I wouldn’t have made it but being Vietnamese it was doable.
Goodbye Dong Hoi: the record town for rotten taxi drivers; at least as far as my travels were concerned. The opposite end of the scale from the cave porters whom I had the highest regard for. Later I read that taxi tipping wasn’t normally done it Vietnam it seemed.
I had the middle bunk in a six bunk cabin with a family in there and it was going to be a seriously long haul down to the south. On the face of it more of an ordeal than the night train out of China, but the youngsters again were good to me; cheering me out of the black mood I was in. They were teenagers, brother and sister.
I think at one stage the brother was ribbing the sister about having a crush on me. That was around the time she played me a pop song though her ipad or whatever, that I happened to love. I could of course be wrong about the crush but then there was that girl in China who told me I was handsome. Mindblowing but nice. It seemed the same in Asia as in Europe: the younger folk being kinder than older folk.
After the town’s colourful frenetic suburbs gave way to a parallel road and the rice paddies farms and tropical copses of a coastal plain the railway ascended into winding views of secluded beaches and bush covered headlands by a sunlit azure and turquoise sea, where the forested inland mountains came down to the coast.
Later on clouds gathered over the mountains and the scenery slid towards subdued hues, night and the south of Vietnam. There was a town too with a pagoda and a white statue of what looked like a Buddhist Goddess beyond as tall as an office block. But I can’t swear to that since this was a country of more than one religion.
A peculiarity of the landscape here were the graves. They’d crop up literally anywhere, from formal graveyards, to groups of them on the edges of towns or farms, to solitary ones. In fields for example. Often it seemed they’d just be determined wherever the occupant fell.
A recording on the train intercom brought me round. This city was ‘growing up’ it proclaimed, as an early morning landscape of scruffy suburb and urban wastes slid past the window. Much was made of how whatever lay outside was maturing and moving fast in the right direction. Well, we would see. Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City, or still Saigon, depending on one’s politics.
At the station I thought I might get a photo of the engine and got to the front while wondering about the risk of doing that in this country. I couldn’t get the camera ready in time to sneak off a surreptitious spot before the engine driver spotted me and didn’t like it. Then a guy in uniform casually strolled past me. I’ve got to say that if the intention was to dissuade me without arresting me it was very well done. The signal was get out while one still can.
Like Hanoi the city station was a lot smaller than the equivalents in London and as for China… Anyway the plan was to get through a few backstreets between the station and a main road slicing diagonally across the city centre. Since I wanted to save money and there was a backpacker district at its other end indicated by a gathering of map symbols one should head in that direction while taking note of hotels on the main road.
It worked better than I imagined for while making my way through a jungle of shabby buildings I came across a small neat cheap hotel just before the main road. Ideal for purpose. Only one problem: my room was another windowless one. Still, after the sweaty night on board the train and paying an extra charge to get in early I showered and caught up on sleep well enough.
Like Hanoi Ho Chi Minh City was full of 2 wheeled traffic rather than 4. I’d thought Hanoi was bad enough but this place was just unreal. When I tried to cross the main road to get something to eat I just couldn’t find an opening in the never ending stream of mopeds, scooters and motorbikes. I had to be helped across like a little old lady by a policeman!
The following day the further I went in all the heat the madder it became. I saw things I could hardly believe. Entire families on one scooter. A mother texting while driving while her small son in a spanking new communist uniform stood in the footwell eyes front! Did I really see that? A roundabout was devoid of any right of way apart from wedges of traffic gaining ascendancy by threatening collision, although there were police and traffic signs, largely ignored. Organised total chaos! But somehow I didn’t see an accident in this city. Everyone on wheels seemed to understand some invisible code.
The breaking point for me was when there was a jam at a junction, one scooter getting bored with this deciding to outflank the problem by driving on the pavement, followed by a horde of them! Nowhere was safe. That reminded me of something and I became insane myself with the utter mad hilarity of it all; regaling European passers by by mimicing a relevant bit of Ben Eltons ‘The Young Ones’. Where there’s a television advert involving a manic road safety guy whose message is along the lines of ‘imagine this overripe tomato is an old lady and (something else soft and squishy) is a young boy’, then he whips out a hammer and whacks them into a mess, the sentiment being: ‘Think once. Think twice. Think! Don’t drive on the pavement!‘
The pavements were not so safe anyway, what with commercial concerns making an obstacle course of them by extending their wares out to the road, all in true S.E. Asian fashion. Add the odd rat – I saw one scuttle under some goods – and the odd tiny bonfire – like some token religious sacrifice – because there are no litter bins, and the pavements had their own problems.
Amidst all this wandered the occasional old Vietnamese lady selling her wares or going about her business in the traditional way;- in a broad conical hat with her items in baskets either side connected by a pole across here shoulders, or pushing a bicycle converted into a mini kiosk.
Locals helped me across the roads again until I learned to watch out for them crossing and tag along; although when I tried old fashioned gallantry with two Vietnamese ladies by standing between them and the oncoming hordes I was promptly shoved to the other side and controlled like some errant child. I think we shared the same sense of humour though, judging by our laughter as we parted!
I got down to the the other end through a more opulent centre complete with ‘Starbucks’ and a few parks. Across that was the backpacker district with tourist centres. Not being familiar with the country I arranged a trip in one and had a nice long conversation with the girl there. I wanted to get back quickly though because I’d tried to contact the woman without success from Singapore who was on the caving trip and who might meet me here.
So of course I got lost getting back, retraced my steps, then a guy rolled his scooter out just in time to block me while he could see I was in a hurry. “Wait” was his sentiment with a cheery smile. “No!” was mine which seemed to surprise him but I’d spotted a gap and bypassed him.
All to no avail. When I got back I realised I’d left the paper with her phone number on it at the tourist office. We managed to communicate by email when I got home but it wasn’t the same.
Morning and I was ready, but where’s the taxi? It’s late. Late enough to phone the tourist office where I’d had that conversation with that nice girl. It all amounted to nothing I learned. No I didn’t want to go down there on the back of a bike! (Fer Chrissake I take some risks but that was flirting with death!) A taxi was the lesser of 2 evils and I had to get one fast! This sort of arranged misunderstanding could be a normal hazard in this part of the world.
The taxi was one of the better ones and when we’d threaded our way down that road I’d walked yesterday – yes through that insanity of traffic – I found the operators in a laid back mood about my late arrival. There was still time I was assured and I was led through several alleyways to where the group was to depart.
I’m writing this nearly a year later and don’t remember much about the sequence of sights in and around the city. There were a fair number in the Mekong Delta region which is where Ho Chi Minh city was on the edge of. The backpacker district was used by the tour operators as a district wide post office with tourists being sorted and moved around like parcels in a complex way to the embarkation point through alleys and streets choked with traffic and people. But these guys had expertise and somehow it worked.
The main purpose of heading out of town was to see the Chu Chi Tunnels. The Vietcong had become experts of concealment through tunneling and this place was the prime example. It was up towards the Cambodian border which necessitated a long drive along shanty sided roads full of 2 wheel traffic and accidents on the verge of happening, but I only saw the aftermath of one of them.
Tunnels of concealment were begun across Vietnam in response not to the Vietnam war but to earlier French Indochina hostilities. By the time the Vietnam war got going they were an enormous network of not only tunnels but underground hospitals, sheltering places, shrines, everything a community needs in fact to keep going. They kept being extended and the Chu Chi Tunnels were only a part of the whole thing, although these tunnels were a major nest of trouble for the Americans and served as a base for the Tet offensive.
The tunnels themselves had become the focus of an outdoor museum complex set in bivouacs and bunkers in a wood. There were token American weapons such as a helicopter and a derelict tank, a display of the kind of ordinance dropped on the Vietcong and examples of booby traps. Surprising how punji stakes and variations on that could be laid out in such a variety of ways. They had to be coped with not only on the surface but undergound too by ‘The Tunnel Rats’: a unit formed by the Americans to get into the tunnels and flush out the Vietcong and the NVA.
There was a firing range where one could fire weapons such as a Kalashnikov and a machine gun using live ammunition. One had to buy the bullets so several of us formed up to do that, then the group fell apart when it was realised how expensive they were. By then firing had started with a deafening noise which didn’t help any fallback plan and after checking the prices myself I decided it was more trouble than it was worth.
Sampling the tunnels turned out to be much more of a success! Entrances could be anywhere, within a hut or a camouflaged piece of nondescript ground. The Vietnamese tended to be slim and smaller than the average westerner so the tunnels tended to be tiny. Some had been enlarged 30% for the tourists but getting through was still a daunting proposition. Hadn’t I just been through a fantastic ordeal of a cave system though? I was up for it and down I went! One had to make progress on all fours and could never see far but there was always a lamp on the edge of the tunnel floor in front for guidance and light. Once in awhile there was a way out to the left but I kept going. Not so easy with the heat which wasn’t left behind and was – if anything – intensified by the cramped spaces I was crawling through. Plus there was no shoring up of these tunnels, it was all bare earth, which according to one report I read was firm enough for this. Let’s hope the report was right now that I wasn’t sure how far down I was. What must it have been like to be bombed in these tunnels?! From time to time there were sudden drops or ascents of a few feet in height. There were people crawling along behind me. I announced I was going to stop for a water break and – having clambered up it – sat on one of the ascents for that purpose. “Right who have we got?” 2 guys were following came the response from the tunnel at my feet. The end was not far beyond that. The verdict when we emerged was that out of 10 trying this most had left at the earlier exit points and 3 of us had made it through the whole 120 metre length. Not bad!
An associated sight in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon was the ‘War Remnants Museum’ down some quieter tree shaded streets. Where I got a thumbs up on the camera from a guy who sold me a coconut and where the American influence remained, in the form of ‘COWBOY JACK’s’: an ‘American Dining’ establishment with ‘Chicago Pizza’ and so on. The museum was a modern building with impressive weaponry out front;- helicopter, tank and self propelled gun, proclaimed as being very destructive, but within the emphasis seemed to be on the personal effects of war rather than weapons and tactics. Although I’m interested in the latter the former is just as valid if not more so and one needs to be reminded that ‘war is hell’ really. The closest thing I saw to hell in there was a gallery of photographs of victims of ‘Agent Orange’. The controversial defoliant used in the Vietnam war. Since returning I’ve seen large bare patches of terrain on Google Earth near the coast, like miniature deserts that seem too big to be coastal sand dune areas, but the victims, many of which were unborn…. Hideous diseases, growths and deformities. Only a modern artists depiction of the denizens of hell comes close.
The Vietnam war was a distant conflict on the other side of the globe when I was a teenager. One could still feel it as a threat at that time though since it was heavily televised, people got very worked up about it what with demonstrations not only in the US but in London outside the American embassy. It seemed something one felt lucky not to be part of if living in Britain, especially if you were a teenager near the age where one could be called up. Now I seen more of the reality of it, in a country that seemed to be recovering well compared to where it was.
From hell to attempts at heaven. One being a ‘Cao Dai’ temple and its grounds, which stretched into the far distance along tree lined straight broad roads. This was a religion native to Vietnam itself and although it had millions of followers the temple complex at Tay Ninh was surprisingly impressive, in terms of the resources that must have been needed.
The grounds were massive, the design of the entrances guarding the long straight roads across the wooded grounds to similar gateways at vanishing point were orientally ornate, but it was the colour that really got to me. The main temple seemed to possess the opposite approach to religion from the brooding grey solidity of the European structures I’d been used to. The Catholic churches I’d seen in north Vietnam were colourful in the sense of being sandy yellow but here:- puffy clouds in a pastel blue sky decorated the ceiling down the length of the aisle, yellow walls and blue balconies flanked the worshippers and there were many pink columns, each with writhing black dragons, with red bellies and mouths. Was exuberant the right word to use here?
A Cao Dai website included in it’s worldview the statement that ‘Cao Dai’ does not seek to create a ‘grey world’. No kidding! What that meant was a world where all religions were the same. Instead they were in favour of harmony between beliefs. Something to be approved of. The colours of some of the worshippers robes emphasized this, namely the priests at the front of the congregation. Yellow signified Buddhism, blue for Taoism and red for Christianity. These were the 3 principal colours of Cao Dai. This belief system was also broadminded regarding its saints, which included figures as diverse as Confucius and Muhammed and as unlikely as Julius Caesar and Victor Hugo. I’m not making this up.
Similarly, aspects of these religions were incorporated into Cao Dai. Ethics from Confucianism, karma and rebirth from Buddhism and organisation from Catholicism.
The words ‘Cao Dai’ were in fact a Taoist epithet for ‘High Tower’. In otherwords the supreme god. Represented by a divine eye in a triangle, which appeared in the windows of the temples and on a huge sphere the congregation faced.
One had to remove footwear at the edge of a broad paved apron surrounding the temple. Once inside though one was encouraged to take photographs from a respectful distance at the rear or upstairs in a gallery. Surrounding gardens and small colourful towers offered pause for reflection.
Vin Trang Pagoda in large garden in the My Phong commune of My Tho town was another attempt to create heaven. This was a land of giants in a garden. Gigantic statues of 3 deities: one 50 feet high, one reclining and an accurately named My Tho Buddha (fat white giant) were around the pagoda. This was not actually the ‘Gautama Buddha’ who founded the religion and taught balance between sensuality and severe asceticism. My Tho Buddha was the eptitome of contentment and abundance. Poor but somehow fat; whereas many in the surrounding shanties of this region were poor and thin. In fact it was difficult to find anyone overweight in this part of the world who lived here.
Vin Trang Pagoda was constructed in 19th century. It’s not a Chinese pagoda, tower shaped but was rather like a miniature palace, embellished with every kind of ornate woodwork, carving and statuary; more or less surrounded by very well kept gardens: exotic vegetation, flowers, pot plants and pools.
The day I saw it was one where the enervating heat seemed to be relieved a little by a wind producing blue skies and white clouds, matching the white of the statues. This gave an outsize mystical quality to the place for the gigantic brilliant white statues almost seemed to have materialised from the brilliant white clouds above, like gods who’d decided to visit the temporal world on condition that they could do so in the comfort – bear in mind the gardens – of a pocket of paradise. Or were the clouds their thoughts? One was directly over the head of one.
Outside this lay a heavily populated corner of Asia with its problems and perils. Often it seems that the poorer the country is the more dominant the religion is. I don’t believe it’s solely down to ignorance. It might also be a manifestation of a collective attempt to realise the kind of existence very difficult if not impossible to achieve in this life.
Not long after that we were taken through ‘the floating market’. A conurbation of barges with big eyes painted on the front of most of them to ward off evil; or maybe the odd bad deal involving dodgy produce. There was so much of it being exchanged here. A guy next to me in the tourist boat summed it all up: “don’t ask me how but somehow it all seems to work.”
This was all in the Mekong Delta; a level land of rivers huge and small, the bigger ones crossed by elongated graceful modern bridges. People, two wheeled traffic, palm trees and dwellings ornate and scruffy were everywhere and my memory of that now is a kaleidoscope of many things: a market cum restaurant area where the fish to be eaten were in a moat and displayed in tanks, including a pair of pike. A cruise up a palm fringed creek. A agricultural garden where rice paper was made and there were toads, an island with a restaurant where there was a downpour and crocodiles, since it was a farm of them.
There was a wildfowl reserve where one was led on a stroll across a canal misty with heat haze and canoed around swamps choked with water weed to spot the birds. For me the swamp vegetation and the haunted feel of the waterlogged woods were just as much of an attraction.
A wind in this region seemed to produce a cooler feel to this part of the journey; relatively anyway. Maybe because the delta stuck out into the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. The irony was that the hottest part of my journey had been the furthest north, a heatwave in China, and this felt like the coolest, the furthest south I was going towards the equator. Now I was heading north again.
© D Angus 06 17