Trompe le Monde: A Round the World Tour Diary

An online travel diary so people can keep up to date with what I'm doing and where I'm going.

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Location: Home, United Kingdom

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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Ho Chi Minh City

"Saigon, shit, I'm still only in Saigon. Every time I think I'm gonna wake up back in the jungle..." - Willard, Apocalypse Now.

Yup, I'm now in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, playground of the American GI's during the war. It's all greasy neon, sweaty honkies and hookers out there, so I'm in here, on the computer, like any goods maths student should be.

Yesterday we visited the Reunification Palace. This is a large building built on the same site as the former French Governor's palace. The Frogs had their building knocked down when the Vietnamese kicked them out, and after the dust settled, the South Vietnamese built their Presidential palace there. From here, US-backed bad guy dictator Diem ruled with an iron fist and refused elections and reunity with North Vietnam, leading to the American War. During said war, this building served as official headquarters. You can see all the various offices, meeting rooms and waiting rooms that were attached to the Presidents and Vice Presidents of South Vietnam, periodically assassinated as they were. You can also go under the building, to the basement. Here there were lots and lots of war rooms and such, all of which are still there today. It's pretty cool wandering around there, although they are basically just empty green rooms with desks, old phones and filing cabinets, and Vietnam maps on the walls. Still, you can get a sense of the history of the place.

Talking of a sense of history, today we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This was a vast tunnel network attached to the end of the Ho Chi Minh trail and to Cambodia during the American War. There were so many guerillas and such in the area that the American forces eventually made Cu Chi a free fire zone, and bombed the crap out of it. It looked like the surface of the moon or something by the end of the war, judging from the pictures. A large number of US and South Vietnamese Troops died in the area, and a far larger number of Viet Cong also passed away, as it was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the whole war. As part of the tour, you get to crawl 100m through tunnels twice the size of those actually used, and lit up by electric lighting. And believe me, with my claustrophobia, this was not a fun experience. If we hadn't had the enormous good fortune to be at the front of the line of our tour group going through the tunnels I don't know what I would have done. As it was, it was cramped, horrible and hot as hell down there. The actual tunnels used by the VC were 60cm by 80cm, unlit, and the ground would have course have been shaking from the bombs. The bombardment was the reason the tunnels were so small: any larger and they collapsed. They must have found that out through trial and error. Capable and willing to go through things like that, it's no wonder the VC beat the Septics in the end. Amazing.

Finally, a note of surreality. Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is a saint. Yes, that's right, a saint. Cao Daism is a uniquely Vietnamese religion founded in 1924. It combines elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity and Taoism into one bizarre whole. About 2 million Vietnamese are Cao Daist. The Cao Dai religion has three saints, none of whom would have been aware of it, andtwo of whom died before it was founded. They are: A Vietnamese Poet Laureate, whose name escapes me, Victor Hugo, 19th century French novelist, and Sun Yat-sen, Chinese nationalist revolutionary instrumental in the overthrow of China's last dynasty. Why are they all saints? You may as well ask why Cao Daism is absolutely against killing of any kind and yet used to have its own large private army... These Vietnamese are crazy...

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