Chinese New Year is a really good time to get out of China. Since we stuck around last year for CNY and heard and saw all the fireworks, it seemed like a great idea to get out. With our friends the Frosts, we booked a 6-night, 5-day trip to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), the southern part of Vietnam, and to a beach resort not too far away called Phan Thiet.
Things went a little awry the first morning when we arrived 2 hours late at 3:30am. Our car-service driver had given up and had gone to bed. We took a taxi to our hotel, went to bed about 5am, and got up for breakfast at 9:30. Due to the cold I had just caught, I went back to bed as the others went out to see the markets and other nearby sights. In the early afternoon, we went out on a tour with about 10 other people in a very uncomfortable, hot van to the Palace of Reunification, with a helicopter on the roof and telex machines in the basement where actual war communiqués had been written. The tour was lame. We got off it, found a restaurant and enjoyed some Vietnamese food. Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) rocks.
I want to say Saigon is unremarkable for many reasons. It looks like a lot of Asian tropical cities of about 8 to 10 million people, however it has some lovely things about it: a pretty river running through it and some nice parks and lots of tree-lined streets. The history nearby is what is most intriguing. We took a tour of the nearby Cu Chi tunnels http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C%E1%BB%A7_Chi_tunnels . This is an area 70 KM from Saigon where some of the heaviest bombing in the Vietnam War occurred. Daily and for several years, heaps of bombs were dropped here as well as the defoliant Agent Orange. The Cu Chi people resorted to building an extensive tunnel network and literally lived underground. There is a good museum here with the actual tunnels still intact that we can crawl into to get a feel of how small it was in there. These people were living, cooking, eating and suffering with severe malaria and dysentery in there for several years. The guerillas (the Viet Cong) also fought hard and set many traps to foil the American GIs. There were many gruesome looking traps to injure as many as possible. They told us that if one American soldier was injured, the others all stayed with him, so it was easy for them to come up and capture or kill the group.
Later in the afternoon we visited the War Remnants Museum, formerly called the War Atrocities Museum. It comes highly recommended and is the #1 reviewed tourist destination in Vietnam on TripAdvisor. Out front, there are some tanks and helicopters so I thought this was more the gist of the museum. It was not. It was 4 floors of galleries of photographs by photojournalists from Life and Time Magazine of brutally graphic scenes of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians being murdered and tortured. There is an entire gallery of photos of children with severe birth defects from Agent Orange, both American and Vietnamese. The birth defects have carried on for 3 generations. There are jars filled with conjoined twin fetuses. I was overwhelmed and in tears and had to leave part way through. I had been separated from Bob who had our backpack with our tissues in it, so I sat in a chair and composed myself, wiping my face with my hands over and over. I know this museum has an anti-American slant but my take on the whole thing is: War is bad.
On February 18th, it was New Year’s Eve and we had reservations at our hotel’s rooftop bar to watch the fireworks at midnight. As opposed to China, fireworks are regulated and not going off everywhere willy-nilly for weeks on end. (At this writing in Shanghai on March 10th, they are still going off more than two weeks after the New Year and a few days after Lantern Festival, the last night of the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival Celebration.) There was a large municipal fireworks display and we had a fantastic view from the 30th floor.
Up early in the morning, we headed off to Phan Thiet and the very Vietnamese resort of Ocean Dunes. It was a 3.5-hour journey partly on a large freeway, partly on very bumpy roads through residential neighborhoods and then a smaller highway passing businesses and quite a few dragon fruit plantations. Upon arrival there was a terrific New Year’s Dragon dance performance by some local children. We were disappointed in our rooms but found the grounds and the beach to be top notch. We walked on the beach past hundreds of Vietnamese playing in the ocean with their clothes on, perhaps as they don’t want to get any sun, perhaps they have no money to buy suits but frolic they do, for hours and hours. The food was pretty good and cocktails were fine! Siobhan said the resort was a little bit like the Fawlty Towers of Vietnam. There were cigarette burns in the carpet and crooked pictures in the bar. The hotel was mostly occupied with Vietnamese families but there were also quite a few German tourists. It was nice to see all the families playing there at the beach.
Siobhan and I taught Martin and Bob how to play May I?, the card game we play every Wednesday with Brits Abroad and we relaxed at the beach and got some reading done. Bob floated in the ocean as many hours as possible.
Siobhan and I went out on an epic bike ride (as only she and I can do) on Friday while Bob and Martin played golf. We borrowed 0 speed cruiser bikes from the hotel and were told by the bellhop, “You can’t ride to Mui Ne. It’s too far and there’s a really big hill.” Of course, that is exactly what we did–getting the worst sunburn either of us has had in years. My hands got burned and are still peeling 2 weeks later. It was at least 20 KM each way. The Vietnamese are so friendly–as they passed us on their motorbikes we received many “hellos” and peace signs. We discovered that this Mui Ne town is full of Russians and most of the signs were as such. There are some resorts and well as some guesthouses and the place is full of backpackers. We went out on an easier bike ride just around Phan Thiet our last day there and saw a little more of the city. Simple life here–so many folks just relaxing on plastic chairs at long plastic tables. It was a great trip and we love Vietnam.