Hue - Hoi An - Saigon - Phnom Penh
20.08.2007 30 °C
It's been a fair while since my last post, and so there's plenty to catch up on! My last update was way back in Hue, which from Phnom Penh seems a long long time ago!
The next day in Hue we took a tour around the surrounding area, including one of the many imperial tombs the area is well known for, and also some of the less visited (and cheaper!) sites too. The tomb was built for emporer Tu Duc in the 19th century, although seems much older. The whole thing is in remarkably good nick, and there was so much to explore it felt like we could have spent all day there. Essentially, the tomb site was for burial purposes, and also for something like an alternative living area during the Emporer's life- I'm not sure how much I'd like hanging around where i was to be buried but there we are. The tombs also accommodated the Emporer's 186 wives and for his concubines - it's a wonder he got any Emporer-ing done at all with all that going on but there we are.
Anyway, another of the stops was a vantage point on a hill used as a checkpoint by both the French and Americans. Our guide let us take a few pictures, then told us a potted history of Vietnam, as well as his own story (which isn't the propaganda I refer to in the title, that comes later!). He had served in the South Vietnam Army as an officer towards the end of the war, and had been packed off to a 're-education camp' after Saigon fell to the North. After 2 and a half years he was finally let out, but has never been allowed to work in state jobs so spent time farming, working as a cyclo driver and finally a tour guide. Even his son isn't allowed to work. All of this in stark contrast to the billboard-sized propaganda that decorates the road-sides depicting happy Vietnamese united under a loving, paternal 'Uncle Ho'. Actually, the blatant propaganda is what has surprised me most about Vietnam. Before I went I thought that flags with sickle and hammers, and propaganda and a very biased official interpretation of history were all stereotypes.. but not so, these things are alive and kicking in Vietnam, even today.
Our next stop, Hoi An, turned out to be extremely leisurely, and quite a break from the rest of the trip thus far. In fact, we had something of an ulterior motive to spend as much time there as we did in the form of some fantastic tailored suits made by a very flamboyant Mr Xe. Of the three of us, Mark was the most tempted, and is now hauling around an evening suit, a business suit, a waist coat, a pair of smart shoes, several ties and 5 shirts (one of which Mr Xe made for free, I think just because he liked Mark!). Lucy and I can't be too scathing however, we also had a few things made, but for the price we paid, it would have been rude not to...
So whilst we waited for our stuff to be made we wandered around Hoi An, swam a bit and drank beer for 3000 d (10p, glorious!). Then we spotted that our hotel ran cookery courses, so we though 'hey there's a good idea', and for 5 hours the next morning endured the worst rip off I'd ever seen. Essentially, the morning catching our own fish, learning about vietnamese vegetables at a market and cooking vietnamese food turned into about 10 minutes sat in a boat, watching someone buy some vegetables in a market for about 5 minutes (all in Vietnamese) and chopping a carrot. We were unimpressed, and managed through a 3 pronged middle class tactical complaining strike to get half the cost knocked off. Oh well, these things do happen I suppose.
We departed Hoi An one bag-load heavier each (planning to store them in Bangkok while we go to Laos, so not too long to haul them) on a monster 26.5 hr bus ride to Saigon. It was awful. 26.5 hours is a sorrowful experience, and after we had finally arrived and gone to sleep I woke up with a horrible leg cramp, the kind I hadn't experienced since I was a teenager. We recovered pretty quickly though, and the next morning trotted off to visit the Ho Chi Minh City (as it has been called since 1975) museum, and the reunification palace. It was here that we marvelled at the party propaganda, with most accounts written to include things like 'American Imperialists', and 'Japanese Fascists' (referring to the occupation during WWII). Oh and 'puppet regeime' and so on. The same continued at the Reunification Palace which has been maintained as it was when the president of the South ruled from there until the end of the war so it's all like a very retro James Bond set, especially the bunker in the basement with lots of old radio equipment and telephones and typewriters. In the room entitled 'war room', decorated with maps, I couldn't resist punching Mark on the shoulder, just so I could say I fought in the war room (that's a Dr Strangelove in-joke by the way, if anyone hasn't seen it!). Our guide recited a party-tilted script all the way through, and the video at the end also treated us to some splendid party music (the only words I could make out were 'Vietnam Ho Chi Minh') which sounded like it had been written by a committee.
The next day we went to the Holy See of Cao Daism, which I can't even begin to explain, so I'll leave it to wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cao_Dai, and also the Cu Chi tunnels, a preserved, claustrophobic hideout of the Viet Cong. We had a little scramble around in the tunnels which actually span 200km in length, and are 3 stories deep including hospitals and sleeping quarters. When you're down there with a few friends and a torch, it's quite fun to explore tunnels on hands and feet, but when B52s are bombing up above (the craters are still visible) and there are thousands of other people down there, I imagine the experience would have been somewhat different.
Yikes, got to dash as the net place is closing, but will report more soon!