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Ho Chi Minh City

We arrive in Ho Chi Minh City to be greeted with a down pour that had us wishing for Noah Minh's Arc

storm 28 °C

“Mate, that’s getting bigger” I say to Milo and everyone agrees with a concerned nod. “It must have been in his food” someone else comments as Milo holds up the culprit. Milo’s face starts to look like a boxer after 4 rounds. Some kind of wasp had bitten or stung his lips and his face is slowly but surely reacting. We hop back on the bus after ‘not’ enjoying a lunch at a restaurant geared for tourists, feeling like I was in Disneyland’s Epcot. Our concern for Milo grows along with the swelling as we think it might spread to his throat and affect his breathing. I think to myself he’ll be OK, and try to pay no attention to it to avoid adding to anymore anxiety than he already has. It’s only another 2 hours to Ho Chi Minh City and he can see a doctor when we get there.

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It’s late in the afternoon and grey when we arrive in Vietnam’s Southern Capital. Not just because of the weather, but also from the run down grey buildings that line the main highway into the city. Once named Saigon, the Communists renamed it in honour of their great leader Ho Chi Minh, after the fall of Saigon following the withdrawal of American troops at the end of the Vietnam War. There is nothing in HCMC I’m really looking forward to as we are only here for one night and unfortunately there isn’t enough time to pay homage to the Australian Soldiers who fought and died in the Battle of Long Tan, just outside of HCMC. It’s just another big city.

My raincoat doesn’t do much except to...well it doesn’t do much

Our afternoon walk around the city is cancelled as Rod and Fabian take Milo to the hospital to get some treatment for the sting. He’s in the 12th round but at least the swelling had stopped by the 9th. Sam, Jenny, Toula and I decide to check out the Benh Thanh markets just across the way from the hotel... When I say across the way, there is a huge round-about in between with around 8 exits. There is a science, tempered with some blind courage to crossing streets in Vietnam which I will explain some other time. We make it to the markets alive, with a sense of achievement of someone who has cheated death.

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The market is disappointing as the heavens open up with a torrential afternoon storm common in the tropical climates. Most of the market stalls are packed up as the locals obviously knew that there would be a storm. We wander around aimlessly as we wait for the downpour to stop, or at least ease, but it doesn’t. We are scheduled to meet up in the foyer of our hotel to go out to dinner in less than an hour so we decide to brave it. Remember that 8 exit round-about? We are about to cross that in torrential rain with less than 50ft of visibility. We try and find an exit that is not flooded but they are all pretty much almost knee deep. We put on our rain jackets (I offer Toula mine but she refuses), and we take the plunge, almost literally. We step out and are instantly drenched. My raincoat doesn’t do much except to...well it doesn’t do much. Luckily there aren’t as many scooters around but there are still the suicidal taxis and did I forget to mention the busses?! We wade our way through the round-about as we cross the flooded streets, obviously disregarding any pedestrian lights.

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We get to the hotel, absolutely drenched, but at least it’s not cold. I find it amusing, until I find my wallet swimming in my raincoat pocket. We quickly get changed and meet the others in the lobby, in which time the rain has stopped but the streets are still flooded. Rod takes us to backpacker road, a part of HCMC where backpackers hang out and do what backpackers do, but not before getting lost. We take the wrong turn and realise we’ve been walking for longer than we should. The water is almost up to our knees in some sections and there’s no other way than through it. I don’t even try and think what’s floating (or submerged) in the water when suddenly I see Sam is stopped ahead. She has cut her toe after a little stumble and with the questionable flood waters, I piggy back her to the nearest chemist and get some antiseptic and bandages. With that drama over, we arrive at our destination and sit down to our last meal together as a group. We would be parting ways the next day. The German guys, Milo and Fabian will continue onto Singapore and Bali. Fabian in particular is looking forward to a bit of luxury after the last ten days of hotels, bungalows, public buses and Tuk Tuks. Nick and Amber head down towards Australia and New Zealand for another two months of travelling and Jenny is heading the same way for almost the same amount of time. Yes I am jealous. Toula heads back to Switzerland to rejoin the rat race and Rod is still deciding between leading another tour and calling it quits to travel himself. We head to a bar after dinner to have a couple rounds of drinks but everyone is too exhausted to pull off a big farewell night and so we head back to the hotel. I think everyone is ready to part ways with travelling on a schedule.

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The next morning, Nick, Amber, Toula, Sam and I decide to catch a taxi to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of HCMC. We haggle, trying to find the cheapest way to get there and manage to arrange a flat rate with a taxi. The trip is long, almost 3 hours. At some points, we look at each other, thinking we might be lost but with the driver’s lack of English, we decide the only thing we can do is sit back and enjoy the suicidal driving. It’s not like he’s trying to rip us off as we are paying a flat rate and I’m sure he’d rather be doing something else other than giving us a mute tour of the Vietnam countryside.

At least it’s a break from the heat outside; too bad it feels like I’m buried alive

We finally arrive at Cu Chi tunnels and after some calculation, we figure we have less than an hour to get through the tour of the Tunnels. Nick and Amber have a bus to catch and with the notorious HCMC traffic, we have to leave enough time to get back. To add to this, Nick realises he has left his camera in the Taxi but there’s no time to go back and get it as we push our guide to power through the tour. “Here is a typical Viet Cong booby trap”...”Oh that’s nice and sadistic...Next!” He gives us a history of the tunnels, pointing out how large and elaborate they were, stretching for miles underground. There are bomb craters still clearly visible and I can only imagine the fear and noise experienced by those who lived in the tunnels as the US B-52 bombers carpet bombed. Nick and I try and go down a VC hole in the ground which is less than shoulder width. You basically have to lift your arms straight up in the air and slowly submerge, holding the cover above your head. Even I struggled with my small frame but Nick somehow managed to do it too.

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We approach the part of the tour where you actually go into the tunnels. We have an option of 30 or 100 foot tunnel. With not much time left, we choose the shorter option. We climb down maybe 10 feet into a hole where it drops into a dimly lit tunnel, just enough for me to squat and walk hunched over. As I slowly move forward, I slowly hunch down a little more and I look back to see that Nick is already on his hands and knees. Another 10 feet and I’m on my hands and knees and we get to a point where even I struggle to get through. I turn my head as much as possible to make sure Nick gets through, and I can’t even see Amber who is behind him. It’s cold and damp down here. At least it’s a break from the heat outside; too bad it feels like I’m buried alive. If you are claustrophobic in the slightest, I suggest you skip this part of the tour. I really don’t know how the VC lived in these conditions, sometimes for months on end. I see the light coming from above and I’m back on my feet at least, even if I’m walking like a baboon that’s just done fifty squats. We end up coming out of a hole in the floor of a hut. I see Amber is quite shaken by the experience and we all agree that we took the best ‘shorter’ option. The guide tells us how scary it can get when a person starts to panic in the middle of tunnel and there are people in front and behind. Panic spreads and that’s when people can get injured, trying to push forward or backwards in such enclosed spaces. Is it just me or are Asian guides trained to tell you about the dangers of doing something AFTER just doing it?

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We estimate that we should be able to make it back in time for Nick and Amber’s bus but it’s bad news for Nick’s camera as it is nowhere in the taxi. We have our suspicions about the taxi driver but there’s nothing we can really do as he is our only option back. The ride back seems to go by so much quicker but in the end, we have spent almost 6 hours in a taxi today. We farewell Nick and Amber in the hotel foyer, ensuring we all have each other’s contact details. Jen, Sam and I decide to grab some lunch and have a wander around in the same market we went to last night. All the stalls are open and we have some time to kill before Sam and I catch a flight to Da Nang tonight. I’d had my eye on these satchel bags made of old Rice Bags. These things would go for over $40 back in the US just for the novelty and at less than $5 here, I was a winner before I bargained it down to $3.

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It’s 4pm and almost time to catch our taxi to the airport. Once again, we say farewell to Jenny and Toula as we throw our backpacks into a taxi. I have mixed emotions as we negotiate peak hour traffic to the airport. As much as I’ve enjoyed making new friends and sharing experiences with them I’ll never forget, I’m looking forward to travelling alone with my favourite travel partner, Sam. The airport is old and disorganised and to add to that, our flight is cancelled and we are moved to a later flight. While I sit sulking and cursing, Sam weaves her magic as an ex-travel agent and somehow manages to get us onto an earlier flight. Unfortunately that flight is also delayed and to add to THIS, I find out a little too late already having paid for one, that if your flight is late by over an hour, the airport provides you a free meal! The airport may be old but at least it knows how to keep flyers happy. There are TVs everywhere playing (old) movies and shows and even free internet booths (although a carrier pigeon is quicker). It’s the effort and thought that counts right? We finally board and the flight is uneventful. We arrive late at night in Da Nang after flying for a little over an hour. We would only be here for a night as we head straight to the old city of Hoi An first thing in the morning.

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Posted by Al Jam 13:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged market city vietnam tunnel cu chi ho minh hcmc thanh benh

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