As I stood in the que at immigration in Ho Chi Min airport I was wondering if they were even going to let me in.
I had planned to head to the Vietnam embassy in Manila to secure a months Visa, however a delayed flight meant the embassy was closed when I arrived.
So I qued up at the border with no visa and no return flight booked.
After a grilling from the border guard my passport was stamped and I was in! Albeit with a 15 day visa rather than the 30 I had planned for.
So now to trim down a month long plan into 15 days!
I hopped in a Taxi and made my way to my hostel,
The first major difference I noticed in Vietnam was the sheer number of western faces, around. It was a bit of a shock having been to some of the more off the backpacker trail locations before.
There are upsides to a lot of westerners though, everyone wants to sell you a tour of some description so it seems backpacking around is going to be a breeze. I’m quite happy to be a sheep for a bit, pay some money and let other people sort everything out for me!
I had planned to buy a motorbike and use my month to ride from one end of the country to the others, but with a 15 day visa there really wasn’t time so tours could be the way forwards.
The other upside is western foods and drinks, mainly an Irish bar I found that sold magners!!! I had cider at last!
I got chatting to the guys who worked at the hostel, they were attempting to make some new cheap cocktails to sell and I was happy to volunteer to be a sampler! They recommended heading to the Cu Chi tunnels.
These were the network of tunnels used by the Viet Kong during the Vietnam war (or the war of American aggression if your Vietnamese)
They were selling a tour there for $10 so off I went. I filled the hour long bus ride by chatting to an American girl called Hannah who lived in Cambodia who was able to give me some great advice for when I found myself there.
We also watched a Vietnamese propaganda video from the 60s about the tunnels and it was really interesting to see things from the Vietnamese perspective. What little I know of the Vietnam war is from TV and Cinema.
We got to the tunnels and again I was struck by how many white faces there were, the tunnels are quite a hit with the tourists!
We began walking around the complex, many of the tunnels and entrances have been enlarged to cater for tourists, there are a few entrances left intact however, and we were able to try our hand at fitting into the entrances. While I managed to fit, I’m not sure id have managed it in the 5 seconds a Viet Kong soldier would have needed to make it in.
As the hatch closed I found myself in pitch darkness with no space to move, there was a tiny entrance to the tunnel itself that I could have crawled through but it was very frightening, even for the 30 seconds I was enclosed.
I tried to imagine how frightening it would be with bombs dropping and guns firing above me. It didn’t bear thinking about.
We were able to explore some of the other slightly enlarged tunnels aswel, the further in you went the smaller they got, there was no natural light and the heat was so oppressive, there wasn’t enough room to stand or turn around, and these had been enlarged!
I admit I got out of them the first chance I got!
We were shown some of the various traps the Viet Kong would leave for the Americans, our guide explained the traps weren’t designed to kill, they were designed to maim soldiers to enable them to be captured and traded back for supplies. They were ingenious in there brutality and simplicity.
The tunnels were seen as a propaganda sign of resistance during the war, the Viet Kong and fighting back against the American aggressors, however more than ¾ of the resistors died within and around the tunnels. Many civilians hiding.
We were told how the Americans would send dogs to find the tunnels, who would then be captured by the Viet Kong and be used to track the Americans. The Americans would drop bombs and gas on the tunnels, but the tunnels held and the gas came out of air holes hidden around the jungle. It was very sad being there thinking of all the killing and fighting.
That evening Hannah and found more cider and ate some traditional Vietnamese Pho and Dumplings. Pho is pronounces Fff, or as Hannah explained, like starting to say fuck and stopping yourself quickly. A rice noodle soup with various meat and vegetable, very tasty.
The next day I wandered around the city, marvelling at how European areas were, there’s even a Notre Dame cathedral!
The arcetecture in areas was very reminiscent of colonial Delhi! But its a really pretty city and I get a really good vibe from it.
I visited the war remnants museum and was shocked at some of the photos and stories the museum tells. Massacres and death. War crimes from both parties and unspeakable brutality. A very sobering place but I’m glad I went to learn more.
I booked myself on an overnight tour around the Mekong Delta, The Mekong river is the 2nd longest in the world and runs from china, through Thailand and Cambodia into Vietnam. The delta is a huge maze of waterways where the locals live off the river, fishing trading etc.
I visited a land market, marvelling at all the fruit, meat and fish on offer. Vegetables ive never seen before!
I was even treated to the site of seeing a pig floating down the river, presumably it had fallen off one of the many boats that ply the Mekong waters.
I visited a factory that made popped rice and coconut candy, popped rice is ingenious, superheated sand is added to the rice causing in to puff up, then filtered away to be reused, no oil whatever!
We were also treated to some happy water (rice wine) and some snake wine. Rice wine which has been brewing for 5 years with a dead snake within it! They were both very potent!
We spent the night at a local homestay, I had a great walk along the river and though the neighbourhood. It was just a residential neighbourhood, but it was great see how local Vietnamese people live. The houses are all very open due to the heat, so walking along the road I was able to see right into people living rooms and see them hanging out on hammocks watching TV, a long way away from the privacy people desire in their western residences.
The following morning we took a boat along to a floating market, a huge gathering of boats on the river with each boat advertising there wares like flags on a long pole. Ive never seen so much traffic on a waterway before!
Before heading back to Ho Chi Min (or Saigon as the locals still call it) for the night I was treated to some Traditional Mekong Delta BBQ food, Rat. It as surprisingly tasty, although there were a lot of bones and lot a huge amount of meat!
Ive really enjoyed my first few days within Vietnam, The streets are full of more motorbikes than ive ever seen, The food is amazing and weirdly everything is advertised in American dollars rather than the wonderfully named Vietnamese Dong.
Im feeling really positive about the next 10 days and may well regret the 2 week visa!!