Author Archives: bigclimblittleclimb

Churr Bru

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Home again home again jiggity jig.

 

294 days, six countries and more miles than Google calculator can be bothered to deal with.

 

Here’s a final map of our complete route (and no, Jesus was not born at every yellow star…) Start and end in Auckland and do a kind of almost-figure-of-eight around both islands. Big BIG stopover in Wellington, our home from home.

New Zealand Final

(Nb. There was also two weeks in Tonga but that was too complicated map-wise. Just imagine it yeahh….)

 

From there it was a flight to Kuala Lumpur and then wiggling overland up to Hanoi…

Asia Final

 

Flight back to Kuala Lumpur and then HOME. And home is just as good as we remember it.

Churr everyone and hello again.

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Lantern Town

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Pretty lights and calm nights - Hoi An the Lantern Town

Pretty lights and calm nights – Hoi An the Lantern Town

A million moons ago, when we were marooned by the rain in Tonga and seriously considering building an ark, we met a few travelling Norwegians who asked us about our plans and on finding out that we were going through Vietnam, turned and said, ‘Just wait until you get to Hoi An. It is the most beautiful place that we have ever been to. ‘ (Isn’t Norway beautiful??) ‘You won’t want to leave’. We nodded and smiled and politely registered their opinion but at that point in time, we had no idea. Hoi An was just two syllables that sounded a bit like an Asian condiment. We didn’t forget though, and despite trying our utmost not to arrive in a place with high preconceptions, it was a good thing that Hoi An met and surpassed all our expectations.

Casual commute

Casual commute

It’s picture postcard old style Vietnam in all it’s glory: hanging baskets, multi-coloured lanterns, mollusc hats, Chinese temples, ancient tea shops..it’s every cliche that the camera-wielding tourist could ever want. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and for a modest fee, you buy an admission ticket that allows entry to five heritage sites, including a traditional musical concert or stage play. To be fair, it is a steal, although hard to know what to choose as the town is saturated with historical buildings. We were lucky enough to catch a traditional music performance in an old wooden hall, decorated with bright lanterns and guilded Chinese calligraphy. Virtuoso musicians on bamboo flutes, zithers and animal skin drums; operatic singing; and traditional dance-drama.

Lanterns and a typical street by the river

Lanterns and a typical street by the river

Our wily entertainers

Our wily entertainers

Operatic singing and traditionally dressed musicians

Operatic singing and traditionally dressed musicians

Vietnamese dance-drama

Vietnamese dance-drama

The water-carriers dance

The water-carriers dance

Another string to Hoi An’s bow is the proliferation of shops offering tailor-made clothing, and there are more than 200 tailors in town. Obviously, Celyn and I being the high-flying yo-pros that we are, we bought five trouser suits and some snakeskin moccasins each (um…) OK, so we might not have splashed out, but you can find some beautiful clothes, including handmade shoes and silk ao dai (the traditional Vietnamese tunic and trousers).

At one end of the Old Town is the grocery market, a walk through which is akin to running a gauntlet. It is definitely the domain of the female and there are hundreds of women sellers, all sporting the typical woven hats to protect them from the sun, clucking and cooing at one another while they barter back and forth. Women carrying two heavy baskets balanced on their shoulders saunter past, some sleep in the shade of their stall, others call out for you to come and look at their wares – ‘Hey lady, lady. Come buy something’. How can you resist? All the while, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians push for a passage through, which was near impossible and every so often you would feel a light tap on the back of your leg and turn to see a moped carrying a family of four patiently trying to run you down.

Some market sellers

Some market sellers

Selling pho (rice noodle soup) at the roadside

Selling pho (rice noodle soup) at the roadside

The actual food in the market was plentiful; greenery and bright vegetables everywhere, live chickens in cages, baskets of ducks with their legs and wings tied shaking and quacking nervously amid the chaos. Hoi An is famed for it’s food and cooking courses and we had planned to do one – an excursion that started in (semi-)disaster but ended rather well. On one of our two precious days in Hoi An, we arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed at a course that we had booked the day before only to be told that the chef was ‘too tired’ and couldn’t be bothered so could we come back tomorrow? We were leaving the following morning so were turned out into the streets rather like Oliver Twist when asks for more gruel (we hadn’t  had any breakfast). All was saved in the afternoon as we managed to find a restaurant with space on a short afternoon course and, as it was pricier than we had hoped, we did this strange ‘sharing’ of the work. I.e. The chef did the cooking, I stood around and looked professional in a nice white apron, and Celyn was put through his paces as he scribble down everything that was being done. Still, with a finished menu of fresh spring rolls with pork and shrimp, grilled fish in a banana leaf with lemongrass, and pork in a clay pot, we left feeling thoroughly educated and very full. Nyom.

Imminent digit damage
Imminent digit damage
Just call me Nigella..

Just call me Nigella..

Team effort finally paid off..

Team effort finally paid off..

Hoi An was beautiful by day, but magnificent at night. All the shops had hanging coloured lanterns which lit up like luminous balloons when the sun set.  Little girls bedecked in gorgeous traditional silk dresses sold candles in coloured card which were set afloat and bobbed on the dark surface of the river. Music floated down the streets and people gathered on the illuminated bridge to watch the reflections below. In the darkness, with only lantern and candle light against the inky blackness, you couldn’t tell where the ground met the river or the river met the sky. It had this sort of other-world-ly feel. Either that or it was like the Green Fields of Glastonbury just after sunset.

A lantern seller and his son at the night market

A lantern seller and his son at the night market

Even the street signs were picturesque!

Even the street signs were picturesque!

Stopping for some 'fresh beer' - brewed in Hoi An and costs about 12.5p

Stopping for some ‘fresh beer’ – brewed in Hoi An and costs about 12.5p

Some of the lights on display

Some of the lights on display

I think the pictures speak for themselves.

Last Roll of Film

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Saigon.. city of motorbikes

Saigon.. city of motorbikes (3.5 million to be exact)

So is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?

 

Come to Vietnam and look around and you would be forgiven for not knowing which is the official and which is the preferred name. Both are everywhere and the locals seem to flutter inconsistently between the two. Still, it is officially Ho Chi Minh City as of 2nd July 1976, following the end of the Vietnam War and the creation of Vietnam as a united communist state. However revered Uncle Ho may be, the Vietnamese are quite happy to use both Saigon and HCMC.. probably a matter of ease, innit?!

 

As with most large Asian cities, HCMC is chaotic but charming. There’s plenty to do and see and an aura of the exotic fills the city; a rural-urban melting pot of commerce and culture mixed in with fading ghosts of a colonial past. Yes, we were here to experience Vietnam, but our first mission was to brush up on our history, an easy task in a city brimming with stories.

 

 

First stop, War Remnants Museum. To be honest, none of us really knew any concrete facts about the Vietnam war. We knew a couple of basics and were well aware of the infamous horror stories about ‘naaam and the revolutionary repercussions that it initiated all over the globe, but we still needed to know the who, what, when, and why about the whole thing. Although informative, the museum was by no means 100% comprehensive and inevitably was unashamedly biased. Despite essentially being a propaganda museum for the Vietnamese Communist regime, we did manage to glean some important facts and we tried our hardest not to be any more anti-American than was necessary. I’m not even going to attempt to give any sort of potted history (a la ‘Facing the Killing Fields of Cambodia‘) – my knowledge is gappy, dubiously informed and peppered with enormous holes. We’re making our way through a selection of pirate copy books (see below) so with any luck by the time we come home we’ll be doctorate-level informed.. (I’m being serious, Ed). In the meantime, if you want background info, see Wikipedia. Or talk to Fiona Walker – she knows about this stuff.

 

What really struck us about the museum was the proliferation of photography. The 60s and 70s saw huge advances in photographic technology – cameras were more sophisticated, print more widespread, and the first colour photos were appearing in journals and magazines. So much of the museum collection comprised documentary photographs. One of the largest exhibits was ‘Requiem’ – a collection of war documentary photos taken by 134 journalists from 11 countries. The works ranged from army base boredom to individual pain to large scale destruction. The link between these photographers? The war had killed them all.

Many of the collections were under the name ‘Last Roll of Film’ as the photos had been developed from crushed and destroyed cameras found next to the photographer’s body. There were anecdotes from those who had worked with the various photographers telling of their personality, their bravery as well as the circumstances of their deaths.

Knowing the back stories and the bravery of the photographers was hugely moving and made the already brilliant photographs incredible. The photos told stories that demonstrated the sheer futility of the war, the pain, fear and desolation of all involved. Some I don’t think we’ll ever be able to forget: the GIs interrogating a wailing boy who at the moment was weeping as he was led to believe the shot he had just heard had killed his father: the mother and her four young children swimming to safety across a swollen river: a soldier posing holding a tattered shirt, attached to which is grisly remains of a Viet Cong guerilla.

Qui Nhon, Vietnam, September 07, 1965 – Taken by Kyoichi Sawada, he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize with this image

 

Another gallery, the ‘Vestiges of War Crimes’ pavilion, depicted in grotesque detail the mistreatment of civilians during the war. This includes photos of mutilation, napalm burns and torture of both civilians and fighters. Among the images was the iconic ‘Napalm Girl’ –  Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc running on a road after being severely burned by a napalm attack.

 

Trang Bang, June 8th 1972

Another, and perhaps the worst, gallery presents a montage of photographs of the ‘second generation’ victims of the war – those children born after 1975 who were affected by the 75 million litres of toxic defoliant sprays dropped on the country during the war. The chemicals were nicknamed ‘Agent Orange’, a combination of the code names for Herbicide Orange and Agent LNX, used as part of the US’s chemical warfare programme. Vietnam estimates that 400,000 people were killed or maimed and that 500,000 second generation victims have been born as a result. The whole exhibition was a grisly portfolio of photographs in addition to some deformed foetuses preserved in jars.

I don't know if you can read this, but this is a letter from one of the Agent Orange victims to Barak Obama.

I don’t know if you can read this, but this is a letter from one of the Agent Orange victims to Barak Obama. The full letter can be found if you click here.

Many of the perpetrators of these atrocities were on display outside – B52 aircraft, US Army Tanks, a selection of different sized bombs. It seemed almost fitting then that as we wandered round these grim remnants of war, the bloated raindrops that had been threatening all morning burst into a fully-fledged thunderstorm. Deafening thunder and whips of lightening – what a fitting soundtrack to a war museum visit.

 

Bomb collection - the massive one on the right is a seismic bomb

Bomb collection – the massive one on the right is a seismic bomb

Chinook (I think) helicopter

Chinook (I think) helicopter

US Tanks

US Tanks

 

There were a few small rays of hope in this horror, however. The following day we continued our history lesson with a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. En route we were taken to a handicraft workshop, where those who suffered from Agent Orange deformities were employed as skilled artisans. They made and sold beautifully crafted bowls, tablets and various traditionally decorated nicknacks. Yes it may have been overpriced, but still reeling from the graphic War Remnant Museum photos, it was worth it.

A decorative blind created by victims of Agent Orange

A decorative blind created by victims of Agent Orange

Onwards and upwards to Cu Chi. In a nutshell, the tunnels at Cu Chi are part of an enormous and intricate underground network built by Viet Cong fighters. The tunnels were the Viet Cong’s primary operational base and the site of many military campaigns during the war.

 

Our tour started out with a propaganda video, so subjective it was laughable, promoting the heroism of the Viet Cong soldiers. The young soldiers, many of them female, created homemade traps for ‘catching Americans’ and received awards for the number of ‘American Devils’ that they had killed. Set to WWII comedy tin-whistle music, we apologise but it was hard to take this seriously. The smirks quickly dissipated as we were faced with the real deal…

A bamboo trap used to 'catch Americans'

A bamboo trap used to ‘catch Americans’

The actual tunnels were multifaceted – used for communications, shelter, and most importantly, combat. As the war dragged on, the Viet Cong soldiers continued building so the tunnel system became increasingly complex;  kitchen areas with tiered smoke exits, wells that reached down to the water table below, air vents and even ‘hospital and recovery’ areas. The evident dedication in the building of the tunnels as well as the fierce resistance to invading forces clearly shows the ethos of the people of Cu Chi – a hard-working community who lived off the land and whose duty it was to defend themselves against any unjustified invaders.

More traps ...

More traps …

The . trap

The folding chair trap

The ..

The water trap .. somewhat reminiscent of ‘Saw II’.

The entrances were expertly camouflaged so that snipers could attack the enemy and then seemingly ‘disappear’ into thin air. We saw one opening that was no larger than an A4 sheet paper, others were coffin-esque sets of steps that descended into the inky blackness. We had the opportunity to explore a section of the tunnels as part of the tour.. one of the less delightful experiences we’ve had. As you can imagine, the air is stifling in the tunnel and seems about 10 degrees warmer than the already baking above ground temperature. The tunnels are too small to turn around in (Viet Cong stipulations said that they should be between 0.8 – 1.8m tall and 0.8 – 1.2 m wide) so once you’re in, you’re in. As ever, Imogen completely freaked out, most likely due to the fact that it was pitch black, there were people ahead and behind so if you panicked and wanted to get out you couldn’t, as well as a host of other irrational fears (“Is Vietnam earthquake-prone..??”)

 

Sniper hole tunnel entrance

Sniper hole tunnel entrance

Our guide demonstrating the 'crouch' - why we 'lazy toilet' westeners could never spend a prolonged amount of time in tiny spaces

Our guide demonstrating the ‘crouch’ – why we ‘lazy toilet’ westeners could never spend a prolonged amount of time in tiny spaces

Entering the tunnel

Entering the tunnel
Emerging from the other end

Emerging from the other end

Congratulations to Celyn who didn’t burst into tears and make for the first bit of natural light (I managed 20m, well done me) and instead groped his way in the darkness right until the end of the twisting tunnel. The sweat and grime clinging to him when he emerged is testament to the foul conditions of the tunnel, something to remember when you hear about the months at a time that Viet Cong soldiers had to endure in the dark and dank.

 

 

As with our visit to the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, there was a lot to take in and we’ve but scratched the surface. We’ve both stocked up on history books and war stories in an attempt to grasp in more depth the details of Vietnam’s past. As my grandfather said to me before we left, ‘It’s a lot harder to research a place before you go. Once you’ve been there, then it’s easy..!’. True that, BP!

 

Recommended Reading:

‘The Tunnels of Cu Chi’  Tom Mangold and John Penycate

‘Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War’ Michael Maclear

‘The Quiet American’ Graham Greene (a little off topic but a good story)

‘Three Moons in Vietnam’ Maria Coffey