Once again, I've had a mail slippage. It's been 3 weeks since I sent a big update on what I've been up to. So you won’t know for instance that I have now seen the oddest thing to date being transported on the back of a mortorbike: a coffin (I presume it was empty). Now, as I write this I feel pretty rough. Not really sure what's wrong with me- feel a bit tired out with a cough, runny nose, and it's really hot here which can be unpleasant at times. I'm sure it's nothing though.
I left my story in Hue, shortly after Maggie Thatcher and myself had disenbarked from the train. We visit the Kinh Thanh moated citadel and its forbidden purple city, which was almost entirely destroyed during the Tet Offensive in the war. The following day we take a boat trip down the purfume river to see some of the Royal Tombs; 1. Thein Mu Pagoda, a famous 21 metre octagonal tower, 2. Take a scary motorbike ride down a dirt path to the Tomb of tu Duc, an amazing complex which was never even used as a tomb, 3. Tomb of Minh Mang – up and own lots of steps in this serene complex.
Pop fact: I read about a lady who had hired a driver for the day. She said to him “Ok, I’m going for lunch now, so you can take a break now, but be back at 1pm to take me to the Tomb of Tu Duc.” He looks back at her, not understanding, so she clarifies: ‘1pm. Tu Duc”. She goes to have lunch, then at 1pm, her driver comes back, presenting her with 2 live ducks.
We continue on minibus to Hue, up the scary Hai Van pass, where the sheer cliffs don’t deter the drivers from continuing to overtake around blind corners. Driving here can really be a hair raising experience. We are sucked into staying in lovely Hoi An for several days. It is a clothes shopping mecca – over 200 tailors who can nock you up a suit within a few hours for 20 – 30 dollars. Jo goes shopping mad, and I get in the mood as well, getting a couple of nice tailored suits (and the rest). The tailors all have Next catalogs for you to browse thru and look for styles that you like the look of. The town in some ways is like some bizzare tailored next shop- the catalogues themselves are traded for almost $100! When we leave we post back a massive box of clothes back – the postage cost is a lot, but worth it.
We do some half harted ‘tourism’ in Hoi An, in between shopping bouts – we check out the famous Japanese Covered Bridge, Quan Cong’s temple and pretty Phuc Kien Fujian assembly hall. We also visit the ruined temples of Myson, but I think “ruins fatigue” has already begun to set in. It is “women’s day” in vietnam on this day, so lots of hatted women are wandering about, looking at the ruins, while the men do all the work.
Getting to Nha Trang involves a long 14 hour bus journey. The city itself isn’t much – a bit like a dirty version of Surfers Paradise. It’s dirty, with lots of beggars and touts on the beach. We see on guy with no arms or legs hobbling along the beach begging. One place that we ate at had rats running freely around the place. Jo comments to me that maybe that’s why my pizza had such an interesting flavour. Lovely.
The colder climate in the mountainous Dalat makes a pleasant change. We take in a packed day tour of the town, taking in the Truc Lam meditation Centre, Prenn Waterfalls (with infamous “Dalat Cowboys” – vietnamese dressed up as cowboys, who give tourists rides on their horses), Linh Phoc Pagoda (wth a giant dragon made out of beer bottles, a funny monk in a wooly hat that followed us, and a buddah statue with a crayzy neon halo), Dalat Flower Garden, the peculiarly kitch “Valley of Love” , the countercultural “Cray Guest House” with rooms in very bizzar shapes”, and Emperor Bao Dai’s summer palace. The very sad thing about Dalt, however, is that almost all of these attractions had their own mini- zoos with a motley collection of wild animals in pathetically small bare cages. Particularly sad was a malayan sun bear that we saw. He had a bare concret enclosure, with metal bars reaching up to the roof. He did the most amazing thig, climbing up the walls, across the wire mesh roof, and then sliding down the pole in the middle, fireman style. Jo was particularly taken with him, and as the poor thing rwached out to us in despiration through the bars, Jo stroked its paw.
We continued our bus trek on to Ho Chi Minh city, the centre of which is still called Saigon by most. I didn’t know what to expect here, hearing stories of a really hectic city, with pickpockets etc – but at no time did I feel unsafe. Though in some parts of the city, the amount of motorcyle traffic is to be seen to be believed. There’s 3 million bikes, I believe, with road accidents claiming many lives a week.
We take a cyclo to the War Remnants Museum (formely American & Chinese war crimes museum), which is not for the faint hearted. I was surprised by the (relative) lack of anti-american bias considering. More than anything the museum showed the surrering that can result from war. However, some of the specifics of the war; the My Lai Massacre (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/trenches/mylai.html) , the use of Agent orange biological weapons, daisy cutter bombs etc was just terrible. The worst thing was probably seeing the mutated babies that were in jars.
The Reunification palace is famous as the place where NVA tanks crashed through the gates in 1975, before raining their flag, showing finally that Saigon had fallen. The brilliantly preserved buildig is, with bomb shelters etc is fascinating. Our guide wears an Ao Dai, which is the national vietnamese dress for women, and are very popular amongst school students & non-agricultuaral workers & they really are the most graceful piece of clothing. We also visit the hectic Chinese “cholon” district of the city to see the Thien Hau Pagoda, which was very active and we almost chocked on the massive amounts of incense being burnt.
We have a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, a quite unique structure: a series of tunnels built in the hard earth of the district, from where the VC fought an intense guerrila campaign – and was the scene of some of the most intense fighting/bombing/poisoning in the war, as the stategic position was just a little ouside Saigon. As a claustophopbic, I was a little anxious about venturing down theunderground tunnels, but I was able to go through some. I backed out of going through one tunnel that stretches for 120 metres, and you have to crawl through, but managed the rest.
On the same day, we visit the Cao Dai Holy See, the centre of a peculiar religion with 3 million Vietnamese followers. It is based on incorporating most of the main religions, with its own “crossing over” style twist, where seances are regularly held, the result of which means that French Writer is one of their main figureheads. We see the midday service, with lots of bowing and chanting.
The next day we are woken early to the big band sound of a funeral procession outside our hotel, but we needed an early start for our 3 day trip to the Meknog Delta anyway. Our tour starts with a tour of some of the islands in the Mekong rinver – we stop at Mekong river where we see coconut tofees being made, taste local fruits and hear traditional song. We take a rowing boat thru the jungle, alongside lots of mudskippers. Fortunately seeing no snakes, but we do see a dead dogfloating buy us at one stage. We see a bee keeping villageand have honey hea. Our boat arrives at Can Tho as the sun sets, passing the most amazing scenery, with lots of local villagers waving at us, often as they bathe in the river.
The following morning we cruise to Cai Rang floating market, the biggest in the lower river. They sell their produce onlarge boats, with a bamboo pole with the fruit dangling down signaling what they are selling. Vendors in smaller boats try and sell us drinks, one of which is a bootleg verision of Redbull called “Cow Butt”. I kid not. We see rice noodles being made and stop to climb a mokey bridge ( a precarious bamboo bridge made by locals to cross the river – these are dying out as they are being replaced by concrete bridges). We go for a walk to see the Thot Not Sork Sanctuary, and are followed by lots of local children, that grab our hands, and make jewelry out of leaves, in the hope that we will buy them a coke. We finish the day at Chau Doc and climb Sam Mountain in time to see the sunset across the landscape of the Cavern Pagoda, over the paddy fields to the Cambodian border.
After another early start we see a floating village and fish farm and Cham village, where encounter some more kiddies begging “one pen! One pen!. Weleave the tour and begin our boat journey to Cambodia. We get stamped out of Vietnam, and continue on to the Camboadian border post, where we get stmped in (13 stamps). It was suprisingly stress free. I feared a frontier style outpost with greasy guards with droopy moustaches who would try their damdest to extort money out of us.
We’re now stying in a nice place overlooking the lake in Phnom Penh, where we’ve been able to catch up on the news via satelite TV. Yesterday was a hectic day, and not an easy one to take in. We Visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Uk, where 17,000 of the prisoners of s-21 were sent to be executed between 1975-78. There are about 130 mass graves, ony 80 of which have been dug up. In the middle is a glass memorial stupa that is filled bith skulls, bones and clothing. Walking round you can see rags of clothing and bones sticking up through the ground. It was a deeply upsetting place to be, even more so because of the many children begging – a continual drone of “some monee , wateer…” . I felt it was too soon for the site to be turned into some sort of grim tourist attraction, and deeply uncomfortable bing there. The day continued with a trip to The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide (formerly prison s-21) which documents the role of the prison in the killing of 3 million Cambodian during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. On the drive back, we pass a man who is probably the most disfiguerd that I have ever seen. I can’t even look. To top off the day, we watch the film “The Killing Fields”. We had both read the book, and were a little dissapointed by the film, which was limited, I believe, by it’s length. At present I’m still reading “Decent Interval”, a history of the fall of Saigon, written by Cia’s Chief Stategy analyst in Vietnam Frank Snepp, a book that is banned in the West.
Well, that’s about it. Off to Snookyville (spelt differently) on the coast for a couple of days R&R. Hope all is well. Write to me & I’ll try my best to reply.
Back to the studio,
Mark Seddon, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.