My mind goes into high gear as anticipation and excitement collide mid-air while strapped firmly to the light blue cloth of a United economy seat. Head back, tray table upright, seat forward; we’ve heard it all before. The aircraft makes its final descent. There are few moments that get my blood pumping like touching down in an unfamiliar area. The unexpected becomes the expected; you just don’t know what it is.
You know you can count on the chaos. Throngs of motorcycles, plumes of exhaust fumes, honking horns, animals commanding equal road rights, and people; regardless of when you arrive the city beats to its own drum. Manic becomes the new norm.
Saigon is a sprawling city; hot, sticky. It’s the kind of place I knew I was going to love before I even looked around; it had that feel. My reading of “A Quiet American” had helped promote the romance of Saigon and build in my mind a set of expectations; all of which would be surpassed.
My hotel was classic french architecture, albeit rundown, and the man in charge beamed at me as I arrived; his smile enveloping me further in the warmth of the city. My balcony looked out over a boulevard and as my eyes-lids became heavy it was the melody of noise that serenaded me to sleep.
A chaotic blaring sound of silence.
I woke to a city distinctly Vietnamese. The inhabitants of Saigon are cashing in on the tourist trade but not at the expense of their own traditions. Even in a tourist area it was impossible to find an omelette; this breakfast staple had been disregarded. Instead it was Pho Bo; and Pho Bo was everywhere. The local daily kick-start of beef noodle soup.
My first day I was immersed in stories and sights of the war….the “American War”. I went out to an area called the CuChi tunnels. The guide was ex-military and seemed to have retained a fair bit of internal aggression towards his old enemy from the north; and the US. He appeared to know what he was talking about but his credibility took a hit when more and more he sprinkled non-facts throughout his spiel. He was a jovial man with a flair for the inappropriate who loved boobs and let anyone who had any know this frequently.
The tunnels are fascinating; it’s a place where imagination can easily get the best of you.
They are an immense network of connecting underground shafts. These in turn form part of a much larger network that is a serpentine below much of the country. The tunnels were the epicenter of several military campaigns during the war; among the most famous being the Tet Offensive in 1968.
The tunnels were not only used as a place to seek shelter and protection but also served as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were one of the keys in their resistance to American forces, and helped to counter the growing American military effort.
For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels must have been a nightmare. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and rodents. Soldiers would spend their days in the tunnels and exit during the night to gather supplies or engage in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing they would be forced to remain underground for days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels with malaria being the most rampant.
I entered one of the tunnels and immediately felt claustrophobic. The tunnel is only slightly bigger than me at a crawl. There is no possibility of standing. The heat is stifling and there is no natural light.
I descended alone as the thought of a panicked stranger in front of me, becoming frozen with terror, was unnerving. Being trapped in there with no available exit in any direction, crawling in darkness, encased in dirt; I waited till all others had left the area before making my descent.
It is unimaginable to think of men by the thousands crawling through these tunnels, living for weeks among them, suffering dehydration and sickness; dying. My tour of duty was only 50 feet long but it was enough, to think accurately, of how it might have been.
Like a mole my head popped up from the earth; not a soul to be seen.
I had waited to experience the tunnels solo and it now appeared I had written the storyline for the rest of the day. The two-hour bus journey to CuChi would end up being one way as I find myself having been left behind.
Having never hitchhiked in Asia before I wasn’t sure of the protocol. The thumb had often been the symbol of bad manners in other countries so I waved whenever I saw an approaching vehicle.
I got a lot of waves accompanied with smiles in return.
After a while a van did stop and I managed a lift for the two hours back to Saigon. The odd thing was that the guy seemed so distresses at having me in his vehicle I was surprised he stopped in the first place.
If you don’t like the look of me; don’t stop.
Vietnam on initial impressions is not the friendliest place. I think it’s because there doesn’t seem to be many monks here in comparison to the rest of Indochina. Maybe the lack of a religious doctrine overseeing every aspect of daily life is the cause or maybe a generational resentment lingers; whatever the reason Vietnam is certainly no Laos.
Later in the trip, while on board a train, a three-foot tall Vietnamese lady called me a “stupid man” as she thought my backpack was in her berth; it wasn’t my backpack!