Thursday, May 31, 2007

Good Morning, Vietnam

Written by Lynn

After spending the better part of a couple weeks in Cambodia, we headed into Vietnam. We had gone back to Phnom Pehn after Angkor Wat with the express purpose of getting our Vietnamese visas. This took a couple days, only because when we went to the embassy I wasn't really paying attention and didn't turn away while one of the officials was accepting bribe money. This meant that all the other tourists there got their visas the same day, we were told to come back in three. Oops..........

We caught the bus into Ho Chi Minh City when we finally managed to get our visas together. HCMC sits in the southern region of Vietnam in the Mekong Delta. Also known as Saigon, HCMC was renamed in 1975 after the Vietnam war was over. I could go into some detail here regarding the war and the high esteem the Vietnamese people hold Ho Chi Minh in (affectionately called "Uncle Ho"), but Gilles is a lot more passionate about this subject, so I will leave this to him.

HCMC is basically another big city in SE Asia, nothing on first appearance to hold your attention. But what you have here is a city that has managed to recover in less than 2 generations from almost complete destruction during the Vietnam War. While here you can take in a lot of history, and from a perspective we aren't usually party to in North America. The war museums and other monuments are DEFINITELY not pro-American. The most important museum to visit is the War Remanents Museum. It has a large number of photographs and memoribilia collected from the war, as well as a few tanks and fighter airplanes. There is also an exact replica of the "tiger cages", a series of tiny cells that was used to house suspected Viet Cong while they were being questioned. Great detail is given to describing the types of torture used to extract information. One of the hardest things to see include a group of photographs of Americans slaughtering Vietnamese. There is one photo of an US soldier moving a body, which he holds up with one hand. There is basically nothing left of the body but the head and an empty bag of skin. You can also see here several human feti preserved in formaldehyde that were aborted due to deformities caused by the spreading of Agent Orange in the country side of Vietnam.

Agent Orange was herbicide used by the Southern Vietnamese Army and their American allies as a defoliant. Since the Viet Cong (elements of the communist Northern Army) were skilled at guerrilla fighting, and the main advantage the US had during this war was air power in the form of helicopters, removing ground cover was deemed a strategic advantage. 42 million litres of dioxins, including Agent Orange, were sprayed over sections of Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, devastating pristine forests and creating wastelands and rice paddies that could no longer produce rice. Agent Orange is the most notorious of the defoliants used due to its proven nature as a carcinogen. Exposure to it dramatically increases the risks of Hodgkin's Lymphoma, non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. There has also been a multitude of other diseases that have causitive links to Agent Orange, which is to say that exposure to it means you have a better chance of contracting any of the following - Type II diabetes, prostate cancer, multiple myeloma, spina bifida, skin lesions, renal cancer, testicular cancer and the list goes on. Here in Vietnam one of the most dramatic effects of Agent Orange is as a teratogen, meaning that the DNA of exposed victims is deformed and causes birth defects in the next several generations. Surprisingly it seems that the birth defects are getting worse. The children of Vietnam vets would often only be missing fingers or toes, their grandchildren are often born without limbs. Part of the reason for this may be that Agent Orange continues to be present in the environment, so that levels in successive generations are higher now than they were in the people originally exposed. In the area of Da Nang, Vietnam, Hatfield Environmental, a Canadian company, found in 2006 that the levels of dioxin were 300 to 400 times what would be considered acceptable. The companies responsible for producing Agent Orange, including Dow Chemicals and Monsanto, are still embroiled in several law suits of veterans and their families claiming for compensation. In 1984 there was a settlement worth $180 million, which entitled the most severely affected US soldiers to a whopping $1,200 each to help with their medical costs. In 2005, the Brooklyn Federal Court threw out a lawsuit filed by Vietnam victims of Agent Orange seeking financial compensation from the US government and the companies responsible, saying they had no legal claim.

After the museum the next stop is to go out to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Over 200km of this underground network was created by the Viet Cong for the purpose of hiding from the Southern Vietnamese army and the US military, a good majority of it located just 70km away from Saigon at the terminal end of the important Ho Chi Mihn Trail. The importance of these tunnels to the resistance force (the National Front of Liberation of South Vietnam) can not be emphasized enough. It was begun in 1948 as a way to hide supplies and rebels from the occupying French forces. The series of tunnels dug labouriously in the hard clay were gradually expanded to include housing, hospitals, communication tunnels and supply huts. By the early 1960's the tunnels housed 100's of people literally right beneath American troops. The NLF exhibited incredible levels of ingenuity in both hiding and protecting the tunnels, disguising air holes as termite mounds and setting up a series of booby traps around entrances. These traps, which composed mainly of pits that were hand dug, contained everything from sharpened bamboo stakes, to vicious looking metals wheels designed to rip apart the legs of any soldier hapless enough to fall in. The tunnels themselves were extremely narrow, often too small for the average American to fit into (the picture to the left shows the actual entrance to one of these tunnels). Life within the tunnels was horrendous, exposure to mosquitoes, malaria, cholera, scorpions and rats a constant issue. On the other hand, other than intensive blanket bombings undertaken in the late 1960's for the express purpose of destroying the tunnel complex, soldiers housed in them were safe from most forms of US military attack. The tunnels themselves became such an important and successful tool in the NLF resistance that the American commanders had to design a specially trained group, the so called "tunnel rats", to try and combat their effectiveness.

These days a small section of the tunnels has been turned into a museum where you can transverse just 900 metres (more than enough) in the low lit tunnels that have actually been expanded for tourism purposes. At 5'5" I could barely squeeze through bent over at the waist, Gilles at 5'11" had to bend almost double to make it through. Gilles also took the opportunity to try firing an AK47, though he decided against spending the $60 to fire the hand held rocket launcher.

I think the most incredible thing about Vietnam is that the people are so friendly and welcoming to tourists. Only 30 years after the war, in a country that is still suffering from the effects of what happened, we found that most were happy that we had decided to come and appreciate what is truly a beautiful country.

After HCMC we headed up the coast, visiting the beach towns of Mui Nhe and Nhe Trang. These places are famous for their kite- and wind-surfing, though the weather wasn't so good for this at the time we were there (as evidenced by the following picture that demonstrates how hard it was raining). In Nhe Trang we met up with a couple of other tourists, Wolfgang and Stefan, and embarked on a decidedly ill advised trip to the local bar where we indulged in a horrible drink called a "bucket". Basically you get a plastic bowl filled with ice, place several shots of whatever you have at hand, usually rum, then top it up with red bull and sell it to unsuspecting tourists. So for the first time in 7 months we had a bit of a rough time rising in the morning. More surprisingly it was me who had to usher Gilles home, who happened to be more drunk than I have EVER seen him. Next day - straight to the beach for some recovery time............

From here we took an overnight bus to Hoi An. First off, the buses here are NOT designed for sleeping on, so getting in at 5AM after a restless 12 hours of upright snoozing is not my idea of a good time. But Hoi An was worth it. A beautiful town in its own right, with a UNESCO protected "old town", you can also rent bikes to ride around out to the lovely beach and the surrounding villages. Secondly, the town is famous for its tailors. You come here to buy, buy, buy. For a little over $100 I got 4 pairs of tailored pants, 4 tailored shirts, 3 dresses (one in silk) and a pair of shorts. Gilles likewise indulged having several spectacular dress shirts created. We found a good tailor, and were very sad to leave our new friend, Thuy, who helped us out. While here we also rented a scooter to go out to Marble Mountain, a surprisingly lovely place with enormous caverns created into temples with carved buddha statues adorning hidden little nooks and crannies. We bought some incense sticks to help us ensure good luck on our future travels from some of the older ladies (obvious betel nut addicts from the pictures) at their insistence (as in they followed us around sticking the bundles into our faces until we decided it would be easier to buy them than to put up with this for the whole day).

From here it was an overnight train (immeasurably better than the bus, being that we had sleeping platforms, though since we were in the top ones we were unable to sit up for the 12 hour journey) to Hanoi, the last stop on our Vietnam tour. In Hanoi we booked our tour of Ha Long Bay and spent a few days wandering the streets while waiting for this to depart. Our big outing was to see the Ho Chi Minh Masoleum and Museum. The museum is basically a shrine to the life of Ho Chi Minh, the downstairs being taken up with photos, letters and various memoribilia from his life. The upstairs is a bizarre, but wonderful, Dali-like extravaganza that highlights Vietnam's struggle for independence and the underlying socialism that formed the basis for "Uncle Ho's" life long quest for nationalism. You can also line up with literally thousands of Vietnamese that are here to file past and view the preserved body of Ho Chi Mihn, which is set up Lenin-style in the corresponding building. Before entering all of your cameras, cell phones and other electronic equipment is confiscated to prevent photo taking (this photo was "borrowed" from another website), and then you file past a number of guards (a total of 3 who searched my purse for smuggled camera equipment) and signs cautioning you to be sober and respectful. When you get to the room housing Ho Chi Mihn absolute silence is enforced, and you are to briskly walk past the body, pausing only to pay homage briefly before being ushered onwards. I think the experience of seeing so many locals overwhelmed by the presence of the great man was more impressive than the body itself, which resembles a figure from a wax museum, though in remarkably good condition, considering he died in 1969.

From here it was on to Ha Long Bay, the Bay of Descending Dragons. The bay itself has more than 1900 limestone monolithic islands topped with jungle vegetation, which rise from the surrounding ocean to tower over the boats full of tourists travelling beneath. Over 95% of people who come to Vietnam participate in a outing in the bay, and rightly so. Staying overnight on a boat so that you can watch the sun set over the bay was definitely a highlight of our trip. And for $45 for a 3 day trip, how can you complain?!

Well, Vietnam was a beautiful country and a wonderful experience. It is apparently the least expensive country to visit in South East Asia (which is really saying something) and they love their foreigners here, being well aware that the tourist industry is responsible for a large part of their national gross income. I'd highly recommend it to anyone, though I would suggest that you try to get out to Sapa or further into the Mekong Delta than we did, as a trip along the coast basically means going from one hectic city to another. From Hanoi we flew back to Bangkok to visit with our friends Tracey and Michel before taking off to Hong Kong, our final stop in Asia.

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