Mekong river and Phu Quoc island
02.04.2011 - 06.04.2011
And so it continued…
From the Mekong Delta we went back to Saigon where we delved into the American (Vietnam) War at the very moving museum in the centre of the city. Despite its evident bias against the USA, it provides several thought provoking displays on the war and offers a very useful counter reference to the perceived wisdom of the west.
After the museum the logical progression is to head the Cu Chi tunnels, which, after the HCM Trail, is the pre-eminent example of resistance to the USA forces in the south of Vietnam. Just 40km from the centre of Saigon these tunnels represent one of the greatest challenges to the US army during the war. A huge network of underground tunnels in which Viet Cong guerrillas along with normal members of the population lived and planned numerous guerrilla raids into Saigon.
As you lower yourself into the entrance of one of the mechanically widened tunnels the heat and the darkness close in, forced to proceed one-by-one, your body quickly becomes contorted into a very uncomfortable squat-waddle. Forging into the darkness feels like you are dropping into another world whose door lies just beyond the silence. Having scrambled and crawled along in the utterly claustrophobic conditions for 10 minutes a slit of light hits the darkness and the exit is a welcome sight.
Pulling yourself from the calm dark abyss below into stunning sunlight you immediately look back to admire how far you have come expecting to be somewhere completely unrecognisable. However, the bag you shed to get into the tunnel entrance stares emphatically back at you not 20 meters from where you are. To think people lived for months at a time down in these tunnels is beyond the confines of what most can even imagine.
After the first 2 and a half weeks well over 3000 miles had been racked up since we left Guangzhou. With Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, approaching the executive decision was made to head to the nearest beach paradise, in this case Phu Quoc Island.
Now paradise islands tend to be much the same; beautiful beaches, tropical cocktails and a whole lot of doing nothing. This was how it transpired until we came to getting off the island. After 5 days it was time to get on the road again and that meant heading back to the mainland. Problem was that all transport was rammed due to the biggest public holiday of the year.
So come 8am on a chilly morning (forgive me if 5 days on an island meant that my recollection of exactly which day remains a little off) we climbed aboard a small boat to take us on the 2 hours crossing back to the mainland. Designed for maybe 70 people (we were seat 56/57 and we were right at the back) this boat must have had closer to double that on board. Outside the cabin 20 people we perched (literally) on the prow of the boat, sat on small plastic chairs and clinging. The same was true of the isles. Every available piece of space was taken and marked accordingly. As we headed out to sea the seas had got up and were rough…despite the chaos I was just glad I was on the inside.
For about 10 minutes it was ok, then it happened. Almost like an orchestra conducted in perfect harmony the unmistakeable sound of heaving and vomit screeched through the air. The smell was unbelievable; the Vietnamese it seems have very weak stomachs. For 2 hours this went on leaving me on the edge… determined to keep my dignity (insert sarky comment of your choice) I stood up to keep my eyes on the horizon. Stomach settled I turned around to sit back down, just in time to see the lady sat next to me holding her defecating baby over a bag… make your own conclusions of where I would have rather been.
Just glad to be out of what we affectionately named HELL, the ‘short’ 4 hour trip to the border town of Chau Doc in which I was destroyed by mosquitoes seemed the most joyous of all adventures.
Early next morning we set off on a 5 hour boat trip up the Mekong River into Cambodia and its capital Phnom Penh. As we slipped silently along the lifeline of millions of locals, there was ample time to reflect on Vietnam.
As a destination it is fascinating; history, culture and beauty collide here like few other places on earth. The surge of energy as you hit the major cities of Hanoi and Saigon is addicting, as is the tranquillity and beauty of the Mekong and Ha Long Bay. Having said that the experience I will take away with me most from Vietnam was those 4 days in the highlands. Seeing Vietnam without the tourist gloss and seeing, albeit fleetingly, underneath the sheen into its heart was a special experience and one that comes with the highest of recommendations.