Email 13th January 2008

Vietnam - set 2, with captions by Fish
Fish's photo collection index.
Fish 2008 - This is no Vietnam

Dear FishHeads, Freaks, fans and the Company,

The tiger was in my sights. Safety off and ratcheted to fully automatic. The AK 47 kicked in and I squeezed off a couple of singles and then a short controlled burst. The sand spurted up and my armourer advised me to raise my sights. The next volley took the tiger out. I had only 30 rounds, expensive at $38 but that's what tourist traps and dream chasing is all about. I was firing at targets on the range at Cu Chi, famed for it's tunnel complexes built in the mid '60s and used as a staging area and hiding place for Viet Minh troops fighting the Americans and their "puppet soldiers" until the end of the "American War" in '75.
I'd seen it unfold on the black and white TV in the living room of our family home in Dalkeith. Now I was on the ground in a country I'd always dreamed of visiting, walking well-cleared and defined jungle trails around craters created by B52 "Arc Light" strikes and past various fenced man traps and thatched roof buildings that housed armament workshops, field kitchens with remote underground piped chimneys, communications and briefing centres and video rooms that endlessly looped old propaganda films hailing the "hero America Killers" in scratchy black and white footage made up of post war reconstructions and occasional genuine shots. It was blunt and obvious and a bit cringe worthy in places. Cu Chi was a revered place and pushed on the war-beleaguered populace as the shining example of Vietnamese survival and resistance. Now populated by mannequins carrying dummy AKs and standing under tent canopies in motley uniformed groups which we were guided through by similarly dressed attendants as part of the Disney World meets Guerrilla warfare experience.
This was more of a "VC World"! (theme tune for TV advertising is so obvious I couldn't help but smile when it popped up in my head! :-D)
The tunnels ran for over 250 kilometres underground at one point, all the way from the Saigon river to the city itself and into the American and ARVN bases in between, including the airport. It was a phenomenal piece of engineering.
On my trip round "VC World" one of the "games" is to identify the entrance to part of the tunnel complex. They're well camouflaged by leaves and jungle debris. My guide and the "guerrilla" attending the test stood by with self satisfied looks on their faces as I monitored the ground. Within two minutes or less I'd found it. A wee bit of intuition (it couldn't be close to surrounding root systems), a slice of luck and a sweeping foot had them gutted ("you must have seen the string that pulled the hatch up!" - I hadn't)
Next was the "have a laugh at the big tourist" bit as I was offered the chance to squeeze down the tiny opening.
Down I went and they had to stop me going fully down into the tunnel. I was pretty chuffed!
The Vietnamese tunnels are incredibly narrow but a section had been widened for Westerners to undergo the underground experience.
Another "VC" asked me if I wanted to go in and asked if I thought I could manage the half way marker of around 50 metres or the full trip of nearly 150. He asked if I had a heart condition! I went for it and followed him down into the labyrinth below ground. I couldn't get on my haunches and had to crawl on hands and knees the full distance. It was hot, humid, dusty and claustrophobic as I dropped levels through tight shafts in the darkness and scurried along through the tunnels for the full length. I emerged proud, sweaty and covered in shit and was glad I'd made the decision to wear my tropical British army fatigues for the visit. Such a poser :-D
I had my photo taken in the tunnel by my "VC" guide which together with the shots of my AK 47 experience and the proof of my ability to get into a tight situation should be worth a couple of pints in the Plough!
I didn't buy the VC uniform or the helmets on offer in the shop on the way out but I did carry the thought that amongst all the fun and dressing up I was walking in an area where, despite all the propaganda of survival, ingenuity and resistance during the American war and the current celebration of Cu Chi as a victorious battleground over 25,000 Vietnamese civilians and soldiers had died.
I was sombre driving back east through the young rubber plantations and paddy fields that were only in the past 10 years or so starting to get to grips with a soil that had been poisoned by defoliant chemicals and seeded with unexploded ordnance.
Ho Chi Minh city was an hour and a half away in frantic traffic. Thankfully this was my last day before heading to Phan Thiet for my last 6 days of holiday on a beach.
I'd arrived in the city two days before and checked into the renowned Caravelle Hotel directly in the city centre. I looked out of my 15th floor room down onto the Opera House with the twin spires of Notre Dame cathedral only a couple of blocks away. Another in my "must do" book, I headed down to the 9th floor bar which had an outside section and a balconied area famous as a hang out for journalists, photographers and associated press and media people during the war. This was one of the drinking dens of the likes of Tim Page, Michael Herr, David Halberstam, Sean Flynn, Peter Arnett and other celebrated writers, cameramen and women as well as various spooks and flotsam carried in on the tide of the war. I read the last pages of Neil Sheehan's "Bright Shining Lie". Another denizen of this bar, it seemed apt to raise a vodka martini to their memory and my own. I imagined them standing at the balcony watching the Tet offensive explode over and through Saigon city in '68. For a fleeting moment I was there in my imagination before I was bumped back to the renovated Caravelle with its shiny cold cocktail bar and appropriately priced 5 star hotel drinks menu (plus 10% VAT and 5% service charge). The polished chairs and tables and the tidily dressed waitresses in authentic Vietnamese costume serving in this sparsely populated 2008 establishment didn't fit with my dream.
Now called the Saigon Saigon Bar (so good they named it twice?) and advertised in the brochures placed all over the hotel as "simply the best bar in Saigon", it had that corporate brand name feel that was sold on T-shirts, coasters, teddy bears, tote bags, golf balls, golf club covers, beer mugs, etc. (the mugs were also in your room with an option to buy!). The blue and yellow logo was everywhere. Worst of all were the framed black and white photos you could buy of old Saigon, all of which had someone placed in the scene "wearing" a blue and yellow "Saigon Saigon" T-shirt! There was even a photo taken on set of the remake of "The Quiet American" featuring Michael Caine and with an extra scanned with the obligatory logo on his shirt. I don't think Sir Michael would be impressed. I certainly wasn't. After two martinis (they were shaken not stirred! ;-)) I made my escape before the cynicism took complete control and my money ran out.
The hotel room was as you'd expect, practically a suite with a mini bar that radiated danger. The miniature cognacs were 4 quid a shot, as dear as a hotel in Western Europe but plus the 10% vat and the bloody 5% service charge. It was the first hotel I'd ever had cigarettes on offer in the room. Worst of all was the Mars bar in the fridge, a snip at over a quid plus...! Munchies could be expensive! :-D
It was the first and only hotel in Vietnam that I was charged for internet access at $15 plus.......! It was their own connection and even though I typed in the registration I still had the service charge!
It made sense when I went down to breakfast and saw the full range of suits on display with only a smattering of tourists. The Caravelle came across as a business hotel rather than a pleasure zone and as such was engineered for expense accounts. At 5 quid for two cups of coffee in the lobby lounge while I waited on my guide, compared to less than a quid for a cup outside the hotel I felt the hotel should be renamed "The Golden Fleece".
Needless to say I didn't eat there though I did sit down in the fancy restaurant to peruse the menu and the wine list before walking out.
They were charging about 30% more for wine in house than I'd paid on my travels so far and even on the high number bottles at 150$ plus they didn't even have the year of vintage marked or a precis on the wine itself. Definitely my least favourite hotel, not only in Vietnam but for quite a while. Classy but sterile and overpriced.
I wasn't sure of how I'd react to Ho Chi Minh City. I had my nostalgic dreams but also immediately recognised it as the Gomorrah of reputation. The notice in my hotel room which said the "visitors must not be in the rooms after 10pm" reminded me of my old digs in Fochabers in forestry days. A problem with connecting to the internet had a young girl come up to help me log on and I was a wee bit surprised when on entering she turned the interior lock so as to keep the room door open. I kind of understood but also read the signs.
All confirmed by my first sortie into the streets. For all the official condemnation and crackdowns that are supposed to be going on I have never seen so many hookers for years. Not even Hamburg comes this close to what I saw in the blocks round the hotel. I was continually hassled by pimps and cyclo drivers all offering "ladies" and was even kerb crawled by a chubby lass in hot pants who followed me on a scooter for over 50 yards, refusing to take "no" for an answer. I'm no prude and have nothing against the oldest profession in the world (in my past I have often tasted those sweet fruits) but it started to become a pain in the arsenic - even had an evil looking pimp hit me in front of two policemen! I wasn't there to get my rocks off and especially not as dumb as to climb on a scooter with some dodgy tart and head off to God knows where!
It was a dangerous city and I walked as tough and as big as I could back to the hotel after a brilliant sashimi dinner in a Japanese restaurant where I roughed it with my miniscule knowledge of Japanese and a winning smile.
I had two days there. First was a visit to the Presidential Palace and a time warp. I distinctly remembered the tanks mowing down the gates in '75 and to wander in this time capsule was a real thrill. '60s architecture mixed up with Art Deco and a history I was well acquainted with made it one of the hits of the Saigon visit.
The War Remembrance Museum was harrowing. The expected bias was there but the photographic exhibits and the galleries were mind blowing. The most powerful war images I have ever seen. It truly brought forth the real horror of what went on and the section devoted to the Agent Orange and chemical warfare atrocities was soul searing. So difficult to relate in this blog I can honestly say that I was deeply moved and horrified by it all and could only sense the echo currently resonating in Iraq and the Middle east.
The exhibit relating to the torture undergone by prisoners on Con Son island had me choking and reaching for a cigarette on exit. It was distressing to see what human beings could inflict on others. I left the museum in extremely sombre mood.
The afternoon was spent poolside chasing the sun as it played games in the clouds.
At night I headed out again to brave the streets and after a couple of very expensive Guinness (almost London prices) I hit the Mandarin restaurant which had been highly recommended. There was a three piece Vietnamese traditional band playing and all in traditional costumes. A guitarist and two beautiful ladies, one on a plucking string instrument which had a feel of a steel guitar of sorts. They were struggling through covers of country and Western songs and with the difference in notational scales were sounding horrendous. And they knew it. I was exchanging smiles with the band as the cringing solos tried to come to grips with the foreign scales. The waiters were hanging round my table telling me that this was Vietnamese music. I won a 10 pence bet when the guitarist admitted they were playing American songs. I tried to extend my sympathies through a translation from a waiter and went across to shake hands with the band. We were all laughing.
Something must have got lost as immediately after I had a burly, scowling security guard pacing round my table. Nothing was said but I was made aware that communication with the band was frowned upon. Soon after the band played some Home grown music and the difference was night and day. I was disappointed when soon after they stopped their set and disappeared home.
I made the mistake of taking a wrong turning and ending up walking under a freeway for 30 mins in a part of town I didn't want to be in. Walk the John Wayne walk and look evil. I still had street walkers grabbing my arm offering me delicacies and had to stare down a couple of cyclo riders that perpetually hung about on every badly lit street corner.
I was glad to get back to the Caravelle.
Next day was "VC World" and an afternoon poolside. I couldn't be arsed venturing out again. Traffic was horrendous and all I seemed to find were shops selling stuff I really didn't need or want.
I hit a local restaurant later on and then went to pay the extras on my room as I had an early start to Phan Thiet.
I couldn't let it go and called the duty manager for an explanation of the 5% service. A lot of flannel and ducking and diving and a reproachment from me as to the wrongs of adding a service charge which should have been in the overall costs etc.
As far as I could see and understand, the charge was just an extra slice of profit marked in small print which was totally unjustified. I wasn't nasty or loud but I got my point across. Bottom line was that they couldn't justify it. I don't mean to come across as a stereotypical stingy Scotsman but it came to an extra 15% on the bill every time and, as you are expected (or should I say it is suggested) to leave a 10% tip for the waitress/waiter, that adds a whopping 25% on the asking price. I pointed out that some people would think that the service charge goes to the staff and reduce the overall tip but I'd discovered it didn't. I would rather see the genuine service staff receive what they are due than pay an extra bung to the hotel management as the serving staff already exist on ridiculously low wages and depend on tips to supplement their income which can be as low as 30-40US a month in some cases. Needless to say I always made sure every tip I paid was in cash at the table. I had been discovering as I spent more time in the country that it spins on backhanders and takes and as far as I was concerned this was just another spin dressed up. Even though I was pissed off about this I kept my cool and made my point in a logical and controlled manner. I wouldn't have had that approach 4 weeks before!
Being in Vietnam has definitely quietened me down a bit but I still don't think I could drive here as my temper behind a wheel is too volatile. I never once saw road rage despite the driving habits being without doubt the worst I have ever seen in the World, even worse than Israelis or Turkish taxi drivers who are quite simply Kamikazes. Vietnamese drivers are only concerned with what is ahead of them and have little idea of their own position on the road, lane occupation or indicating manoeuvres. It's hairy stuff! It's not unknown to be driving along and a vehicle or scooter launch itself from either side of the road across your path travelling at a slower speed than yourself. Thankfully the general road speeds are quite slow so avoidance is a lot easier. Everyone just expects you to miss them.
It's quite scary watching overtaking manoeuvres where there are three scooters abreast of each other being overtaken by a truck which itself is being overtaken by a car taking up the full two lanes. A wall of metal coming at you which it is your duty to avoid. But there are no angry gestures and single fingers. Everyone stays calm and uses the most valuable asset in the vehicle. The horn. After a journey in Vietnam you are more likely to suffer from mild shell shock or deafness at the constant blaring to indicate proximity or a movement in traffic. It's anarchy but in saying that I didn't see many collisions. The unspoken rules seems to work and no one gets upset at being violently cut up or being forced into drastic avoidance actions. I came to being quite impressed at their stoicism and patience.
But I have got used to being calm and smiling a lot, it gets things sorted faster. I hope I can keep it going when I get home.

I was glad when my last road trip through the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City was over. After checking out, I went up to the Saigon Saigon bar for a last tipple before bed.
It was chocka! A completely different bar from my first experience there. The place was jumping as a Phillipino band, fronted by two delicious and incredibly sexy girls I immediately wanted in my outfit, rocked the house with '80s hits. I ended up with a couple of Scandinavians who were buying property in the country and the vodkas flowed. This was more like it. Despite the notice in the rooms (or because of it) there were a small tribe of working girls bedecked around the bar and it was obvious this was a major pick up joint. (Interesting to note that you needed to insert a room key in the elevator to ascend and somehow I didn't think that the girls had rooms in the hotel. How they got access is a question in itself which I guessed the answer to!) The images of the late '60s surged forward and the decadence was beguiling. The bar staff looked like a groom's wedding party and were devilishly and feverishly splashing cocktails. It was a Friday and full on.
I held my own until 1.30, latest I'd been up in Vietnam, and drifted downstairs. I was kind of glad I hadn't found it earlier as I would have undoubtedly got into trouble plus 5% service charge :-D

It was an early rise and 5 hours to the beach.

It's nearly over; the New year in Hanoi is something I can think about while copping those rays. I'll have time to type as I can sense that this particular Scotsman will have to spend some time in the shade unless he wants to turn into a gigantic water blister or a lobster thermidore!

It's been a great trip and I learned a lot about myself and the country. It wasn't what I expected and yet it fulfilled a lot of fantasies.
Watching those movies again will make a lot more sense and I will have very different feelings having come to know a lot more about the people. It's been a trip. And definitely a mission!

Onkel Fish xx


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