Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Ho Chi Minh City

It had been a long journey south, but we made it to the end of our open tour bus journey, arriving in the much-famed, huge, chaotic city, once known as Saigon. I thought it was a total faux-pas to still refer to it as such, but most people - including locals - still refer to the city as Saigon, maybe out of habit, maybe because it's less of a mouthful, I don't know. What was also instantly clear about this city was that it seemed so much more like a capital than Hanoi - it's size, the Reunification Palace, the wealth of high-end shops, everything. Hanoi has some catching up to do, there just aren't the hints of decadence in the north. HCMC has a great little 'tourist pocket', if you will, full of budget hotels, bars, souvenir shops, and a LOT of people roaming the streets trying to sell photocopied books, sunglasses and other cheap trinkets. It gets a little frustrating when you have several people approach you whilst you're trying to eat your dinner, but they are always friendly and I instantly felt bad watching them wander off in search of anyone who might pay a few pence for their wares.

We went on a walking tour of the city, which was rather challenging in the intense humidity, but definitely worth it. Having a look around the Fine Art Museum and the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City was interesting, as the war with America is such a huge focus, but also highlights how far Vietnam has come since then, being able to build up such a beautiful, clean city that is increasingly growing in popularity. This line of thought was compounded after a day trip to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels.

We had yet another amazing tour guide, 'Slim Jim', and he knew more cockney-rhyming slang than me! He alone had quite a fascinating story; he was an English teacher for twenty years in a small town in the Mekong Delta region, and had backed the South in the war. Later, he became a tour guide and has greatly improved his English, and wants to go back and teach again in another few years. No hint at retiring; the hard-work ethic is in the Vietnamese blood.

Slim Jim showed us this massive tunnel site, a couple of hours drive away from the city. The tunnels were barely big enough for the tiny-framed Vietnamese soldiers, and the ones that we got to go in had been made twice the size, 'for all the fat Westerners'. It was only a 100 metre stretch, and I'm annoyed at myself that I was only 5m from the end was claustrophobia made me escape from one of the early exits - if I'd realised how close I was, I think I could have made it! It goes to show how tough conditions were though. I found it a little odd how Slim Jim had chosen a job to tell everyone about the amazing feats of the VietCong when he had been opposed to them during the war, but there was no bitterness that his wishes hadn't been realised. In fact, no matter what 'side' anyone we spoke to had been on, there seemed to be no ill-feeling amongst the Vietnamese - any ill feeling was reserved for the Americans. I'm not saying I agree with Communism, but, for now, it seems to be working for the Vietnamese.

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