Vietnam was always on our list of countries to visit, but I must admit to having been slightly nervous about it. Not because it was Communist or “different” from home- by then, Cesca and I had been through all sorts of strange cultures including Muslim nations, Eastern Block style Communist havens and even Australia. What was actually getting us nervous was the constant reports from our friends about the Vietnamese unfriendliness. Time and time again people, who had already been through Vietnam, would display a sort of nervous laugh and glance at each other before answering our questions. This was exacerbating our reaction to another incident right back before we even left English shores.
To visit Vietnam you need to preorder your visa before we leave the UK, we were told, or they would make us come back home to get one. Ok, Cesca went to the embassy and dropped off the forms and I went to collect them a few days later. Like all London embassies, the Vietnamese embassy is a large white Edwardian looking building in the heart of the leafy upmarket suburbs of central London. It has that old fashioned build style that spoke of riches, as the rent on such a large patch of London’s soil must be staggering. I was admitted into the building and directed to a teller-like booth behind which sat a very very rude man.
“You give me the form!” he screamed at me when I bid him good day.
“My wife already has done that, I am here to pick –“ I managed before he interrupted me.
“You fill out form!”
“I already have,” I said sternly, “I am here to pick up our passports”
He looked up at me levelly and, registering my face, started flicking through passports in the pile next to him. He found mine and took out the next one, which I took to mean that it was Cesca’s.
“You give me 100 pounds now!”
I opened up my wallet.
“No credit card!” He yelled.
I handed over the amount in cash. He took it and angrily stamped out a receipt and then pushed the items over the counter towards me.
“Thank you,” I said and opened the second passport to check it was indeed Cesca’s.
“You get the hell out of my embassy!” He said waving me away. He really said this.
I remember wandering home after this abusive tirade and wondering quite how I would find Vietnam when I got there. This worry was increased even further into the realms to actual dread when our visas ran out before we managed to get to Vietnam. This had been due to meeting some great people in Laos, who had easily talked us into seeing the southern part of the country.
As all travellers do in such times of dilemma, I consulted the Lonely Planet for advice; both online at their forums and the print edition of the LP Cambodia. It cautioned us to relax. Not only could we get a visa in Siannookville, the beach capital of Cambodia, but we could get one same day. The advice was prophetic and our hotel arranged the entire service alongside my ordering lunch while sunning myself in a deckchair. The passports arrived back, visa ready, within two hours. All for less than the UK visa cost and that had taken 3 days.
And I didn’t get shouted at by anybody!
Good bye Cambodia
We hopped on the bus from Phom Peng to Ho Chi Min city. After all the stories of Vietnamese bureaucracy and the callous treatment metered out by its London contingent, I was expecting a nightmare border crossing, perhaps even questioning. In actual fact the crossing was so relaxed that the entry stamp person forgot to stamp us and just waved us through and it was only when a guard smoking by the door into the country pointed this out that we nonchalantly went back and got the rubber pressing.
That was it. So much for border control.
The bus flew through the countryside and dropped us off in the tourist district of Ho Chi Min city. Again the lonely planet came to the fore, this time the LP First Time Asia, and we checked out the hotels listed. They all seemed fairly close, but you can never tell with LP maps as some are miles off. A taxi driver offered to help,
“Oh that hotel,” he said smiling and whistled through his teeth eyeing the amount of luggage we had – a lot. “That is long way away, 25 minutes walk.” He looked into the distance in the hotels direction as though imagining the walk through a desert.
“How much?” I asked.
“Oh…five dollar,” he said.
Cesca and I looked at each other and nodded. We had just spent the better part of 2 months in South East Asia and we knew when we were being touted (“gouged” as it is called). With a smile, we left the taxi driver, yelling constantly reducing numbers, after us a went into a local bar. The bar’s owner had been watching the tourists being preyed upon by the touts.
“You watch them,” he said pointing with a smile. “They rip you off”
“Thanks,” I said and ordered some drinks.
“We have just been in Cambodia,” Cesca ventured as he opened the fridge to collect our Pepsi. “We know all about being gouged”.
“Good for you,” he said, “One guy, in here the other night, had a big bill but not enough money. I sent him outside to get some from ATM. He go get a taxi. The taxi tell him, ‘oh its miles to ATM I take you’. Drives him round and round for ages. Finds ATM. He then pays $20 to come back here. I say, ‘What took you so long?’ He tell me. I take him outside and point across road. ATM is right there!”
We all laughed.
“Yes, taxi take him around block 10 times and back to this ATM!”
He offered us our drinks.
Saigon beer, a great little drop
Eventually a little walking and investigatory work found a small street lined with cheap guesthouses and we took a room in one of those for $15. For that price in Vietnam you get a basic hotel room with AC and TV. There isn’t really a true backpackers level below this where you can save even more and get just a bed, instead Vietnam has multitudes of these mini hotels. Some strange feature they all have is that in tax is paid on the amount of land you have built on. Therefore all hotels are exceedingly thin and very tall. They also don’t believe in lifts. Staircase after staircase awaits you. We soon learned to try for lower rooms. One advantage of the upper decks is that if your hotel does not have WIFI you can often leach it from multiple broadcasting networks in the area. WIFI is very easy to get in Vietnam.
Our first task was to change our flights to Bangkok and India as our itinerary had changed enough to mean that we could no longer make those date. This required we visit the offices of Cathay Pacific. I was expecting a similar nightmare to the last occasion we tried to change flights, which resulted in us being mistreated by Quantas in Wellington, New Zealand. In contrast, Cathay Pacific were very helpful and professional and we were out of there quick smart.
That done, we walked back to the tourist quarter on foot. The streets were thronging with more scooters than I could count and crossing the roads became an exercise in forced nonchalance. The trick is that scooters will drive around you if you walk slow enough, cars and busses will run you over.
Try crossing this road at night, easy?
On our way back we found a French Bakery on a corner, which was serving all sorts of delicious cakes and buns. Yummy! That evening we ate in the tourist quarter on the corner, and watched as the world went by. Every two of three minutes a tout would appear out of the hordes of people and try and sell us something. Normally I would send these away and nurse my Saigon beer, but one guy caught my eye. He had a stack of books for sale. One was the Lonely Planet Vietnam. I asked how much,
“10 dollar” He said getting the book from the stack. I took a look, it was the standard photocopied fake, but quite a good one.
“I will give you 4 dollars”
He managed to look like I had just insulted his mother.
“Not possible, I buy for 8 dollars”
“I have seen this for sale for 4 dollars across town”
He managed this time to look like I had called his grandma a liar.
“This is latest edition, very good quality”
I smiled, “4 dollars mate, that’s what I will pay.”
He picked the book back up in disgust, placed it back in the stack and walked off into the crowd.
I nursed my beer and Cesca and I chatted, then our food arrived and we munched happily while people watching. A few minutes later the book seller arrived back at our table.
“4 dollars, ok!” he said.
I passed over the notes and he passed the book. Then he gave me a really big smile and walked off.
“Perhaps you should have gone for 2 dollars,” offered Cesca.
“I suspect he pays only 10 dollars for 20 of them, or somesuch,” I replied thumbing through the book and eyeing the remaining pizza.
The next day we went to visit the War Remnants Museum in the north part of the city centre. This large collection of buildings is hidden by a high wall. Its location is obvious – it’s the one with all the touts outside. We arrived to find it closed for lunch, so we took that as our cue to go find a good bite ourselves.
The newly acquired LP suggested the French Style Cafe called the “Le Finetra de Soliel” that was supposedly a short walk away. After ten minutes of fruitless search we were about to give up when a sign over a indistinct door caught my eye.
The non descript entrance
The sign was the name we were looking for, but where was the cafe? I ventured inside and Cesca followed.
“It can’t be up there,” she said.
“Si a Todo,” I replied, which means “Yes to everything” in Spanish and had become somewhat of a mantra for trying new things. We went up the stairs.
At the top we found a filthy corridor more like something out of a crack-den episode of The Bill.
Down this and the second corridor on the right revealed the secret: a beautiful and very high class cafe was hidden up here!
We ordered some food and drinks and laughed about the secretive nature of this place, from the small sign, the dingy door, the dodgy stairs and the dangerous looking corridor. Si a todo had come to the rescue again.
We returned to the War Remnants Museum.
This museum is split into a number of differing parts. First comes a large section about how the war started, and how the American’s and French are mainly to blame. I found such finger pointing to be quite refreshing. The Vietnamese have no doubt about who caused the war. Wall after wall showed broken UN resolutions and promises by the Imperialists.
After this came a section dedicated to the war photographers on both sides who had died in he conflict that was called “Requiem”.
We had met the man who set this exhibition up, Tim Page, when in Cambodia where he presented some of his work and answered questions from the crowd. Seeing the actual collection after meeting one of the dead’s friends was much more emotional and we spent a good hour in there.
The next section is the main building and here things got a little more grisly. This was the section about War Crimes. Specifically, American war crimes. From the famous massacre of Wai Lai, where the US killed all the men, women and children in cold blood execution style and then tried to cover it up. It also showed a wall of the horrible effects of the various “agents” the US dropped on the country, including the hideous Agent Orange, which contains the deadly poison Dioxin. Hundreds of thousands have been affected by this stuff getting into the water, or even getting some directly on them. The resulting birth defects are terrible.
Also in this section was wall after wall of US weapons and an explanation of their power.
There were many people in the museum when we visited, mainly school children on outings. What they make of such horrors is anyone’s guess.
The next building was a graphic representation of a prison from the Diem Government (the US backed government that the VC fought against). The accusation was that the Diem regime had been bloodthirsty in putting down political activists and had gone so far as murdering them with the Guillotine which was on display out the back.
Finally came the section dedicated to those countries that opposed the Vietnam War. Posters, pictures of rallies and flags from all over the world showed what the world thought of this war once the facts started to come out.
It was in here that I saw something that really got me misty. One glass cabinet contained a collection of US war medals won by a Sergeant in the US army. It was displayed alongside a letter from the man, saying how sorry he was for what he had done and how he had been wrong.
Although the War Remnants Museum is difficult to stomach in places, it was here that I first got the sense of pride the Vietnamese have about this war. For them this is the war that earned them their country back and put paid to generations of foreign masters, be they French, Japanese or US. The Vietnamese really did see the war as a war of liberation, in exactly the same sense that the US see’s the War of Independence and I started to feel better about it. Crossing a river of blood in the name of freedom is something I think most countries would accept and think was a price worth paying.
So, whereas all my life I had seen the Vietnam war from the US side and had been indentured in the shame the US feels about losing, here suddenly I saw the same horrors but seen from a perspective of honouring those who fought for freedom. No guilt at all. Similar to how my country honours those who died fighting the Germans in WWII, be they killed in the Blitz or on the battle fields.
I suddenly realised that Vietnam was not going to be like I had expected and I was rather glad about that.