Vietnam – Day 14.

Our last full day in Vietnam commences with yet another early start. Hey, what’s new? This time, we’re being packed off on a boat tour through the Mekong Delta, some distance South of Saigon.

Starting off on a fairly substantial vessel, we cruise for a while down the wide (and aptly named) Red River, before transferring to a succession of ever smaller sampans, which take us through a succession of ever narrower waterways through the jungle.

The jungle! Wow, this is great. Huge coconut fern leaves tower above our heads. Everything feels humid and swamp-like. There are snakes wrapped around tree trunks. It’s the Real Deal. It also feels like a different country all over again.

Coconut factoryFor lunch, we eat honey straight off the cone, before being shown around a small coconut candy factory. The whole group is in a buoyant mood, with plenty to distract us from the thought of the long flight home tomorrow, with the long stopover in Kuala Lumpur en route.

The early evening sees us all togged up, mingling with the Tiger Economy Set at the top of the flashiest hotel in Saigon, sipping overpriced cocktails and gazing out at the cityscape below, before heading off for another rather disappointing meal in another rather overdone restaurant. At the end of the meal, Brenda Blethyn hosts a daft “awards ceremony”, doling out “certificates” to everyone in the group. My award is for reducing the Vietnamese medical profession to fits of giggles with that oh-so-witty little boil on my bottom (I knew I could milk this episode for laughs). K gets something for surviving Scorpion’s Revenge. There are final beers and photos on the hotel roof before bedtime. And that’s it. It’s a wrap.

Downtown Saigon by night

The less said about our ghastly stopover and so-called “city tour” round Kuala Lumpur the following day (useless, indifferent “guide” – torrential rain – massive and unwelcome culture shock), the better. So let’s leave everybody in Saigon instead, pissed and merry on the hotel roof, talking about what an excellent time we’ve had, and what a fantastic country we’ve visited.

Vietnam is our new favourite country, then. You should go. Before all the main attractions get turned into theme parks for the massed ranks of gawping coach parties. But if you do, take a couple of tips from me. Pack a nice soft cushion, and a sheet sleeping bag for the overnight train. You’ll be glad you did.

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Vietnam – Day 13.

It’s a long bus ride from the centre of Saigon out to the Cao Dai temple complex at Tay Ninh. As with most Explore Worldwide trips (and this is my only real criticism of their excellent operation), there have already been rather too many long bus rides over the last couple of weeks. This had better be worth it.

Still, there’s something mesmerising about gazing out of the window at the endless thick stream of two-wheelers coming into the city. The way that the traffic here somehow manages to flow efficiently and seemingly without incident is a constant marvel. Forget mirrors. Forget hand signals. Forget helmets. Forget lanes. They barely exist. Instead, the entire traffic system seems to get by on calmness, co-operation and consideration. There is no road rage here (something which would in any case have been unlikely in a culture which shuns public displays of emotion). Yes, everyone uses their hooters constantly – but not in frustration or anger, and only as a means of alerting other road users of their presence. Although the traffic here looks at first sight like a terrifyingly undisciplined free-for-all, I have come to the conclusion that most Vietnamese road users are actually exercising unusually high levels of due care and attention. Mind you, there’s really no other option open to them.

The Cao Dai temple complex is indeed a strange place. The garishly ornate temples, all of which look more or less brand new, have something of a Buddhist Disneyland quality to them. The intention of the Cao Dai faith (which only began in 1919) is to fuse a new synthesis of the world’s great religions, taking the best aspects of each. One aspect of this is a highly eclectic collection of saints and spiritual mediums, including Christ, the Buddha, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, Sun Yat Sen and Charlie Chaplin. (Who next, I wonder? Geri Halliwell?)

We are here to attend the big noonday service in the main temple, which visitors are allowed to observe from the long first floor balconies. Although visually impressive, it turns out to be an entirely static affair, which fails to hold the attention of most of the massed ranks of gawking, immodestly dressed non-believers. For my part, I find the service rather mesmerising. But, it has to be said, maybe not quite mesmerising enough to warrant such a long return journey.

It’s a good job we packed plenty of Immodium. K’s digestive system is playing up something rotten today. Everybody else in the group is fine, though. Hang on. What was it that K ate last night, that nobody else touched? Scorpion, wasn’t it? His condition becomes known to all as Scorpio’s Revenge (and later, as Scorpio Rising – oh dear).

Over lunch at a roadside restaurant, we are joined by an elderly Vietnamese gentleman who is an old family friend of Kim Phuc – the girl shown running naked down the street in the wake of a Napalm attack, in the famous press photo which has become one of the iconic images of the “American War”. He shows us his photos and, although we have been instructed not to bully him with too many pressing questions about the war, is keen to talk to us of forgiveness, reconciliation and laying the past to rest.

The afternoon is spent at the Cu Chi tunnels, which seem to have been turned into some sort of Vietcong theme park. Our guide, in pseudo-combat fatigues, leads us past various vicious looking man-traps. While we wince in horror, a large Spanish tour party behind us seems to find them all hugely comical, pointing and laughing as they move along. This is a coping strategy like any other, of course. Maybe if we hadn’t been to Mai Lai, we too would be reacting differently.

While the rest of the group dutifully clamber through some of the original underground tunnels used by the Vietcong, K and I opt out of the experience. When everybody else re-emerges only a couple of minutes later, matted in sweat and grime, we are deeply glad to have wimped out.

Our evening meal is a rare disappointment. We’re not striking it very lucky for food in Saigon. The restaurants are considerably foofier in appearance, but the food and service are noticeably lacking, when compared to the delights we have been enjoying up until now.

Just one more day to go, then. And yet another bloody early start in the morning. Holiday my arse!

Vietnam – Day 12.

The night train from Nha Trang rolls into Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) at 4:00 a.m. Our four hour walking tour of the city is scheduled to start at 8:00 a.m. Although we have grown used to a fairly punishing schedule by now, this is one appointment that we won’t be keeping. K and I check in, crash out, and eventually emerge for a late breakfast.

All the way through the trip, I have been suffering from weeping sores, which have been popping up randomly all over my body. I am now developing new sores at the rate of one a day, and currently have about five on the go. The sore on my backside is particularly large and painful – especially given the utter lack of soft cushions in this country. It is time to take some action. A doctor and nurse are called to examine me in our hotel room. They take particular interest in the sore on my backside.

After examining me, the young doctor remains silent for a few moments.

“These lesions are…very…strange.”

Oh dear. Not good.

“You must come with us to the hospital. A specialist will see you there.”

Oh goody. A new adventure!

“We have an ambulance outside.”

Even better! I’ve never taken a ride in an ambulance before. The attention-seeking hypochondriac inside me is exultant.

At the hospital, which is full of people who look like they have been waiting around for an awfully long time, I am efficiently fast-tracked through the system. Oh, the joys of being a pampered Westerner who can afford to pay full whack!

My consultant dermatologist is a brusque man, who crossly barks orders at me from behind his desk. Unbidden and unexpected, the Russian roulette scene from The Deer Hunter flashes through my consciousness.

Show me! Turn round! Stop! Drop trousers!

At the sight of my bare bottom, the consultant says something to the assembled cluster of underlings who are standing behind him, in rather lighter tones than he has been using towards me up till now. Everybody in the room chuckles – except me. I have no idea what is being said. Nobody has ever laughed at my bottom before. The humiliation is considerable. However, it is also tempered by the knowledge that this will make a good story for the rest of the group. Minting entertainment from embarrassment has always been one of my coping strategies.

I pick up my various prescriptions from the hospital dispensary, and grab a taxi back to the hotel. It’s lunchtime, so we head off to a relatively posh looking place a couple of streets away. The large table next to us is full of braying, super-confident US yuppies in “business casual” attire – a new sight for us in Vietnam, but a sight with which we will become familiar during the next couple of days. These people all have the easy swagger which suggests that they own this city. As Saigon is a rapidly and visibly developing hotspot for the new Tiger Economy, it is reasonable to suppose that they probably do.

Indeed, it is the comparative Westernisation of Saigon which dominates our initial impressions of the city. Bigger buildings, wider streets, posher shops, hotels and restaurants – and, although they are still firmly in the minority when compared to the teeming thousands of bikes and mopeds, many more cars on the roads. We wonder apprehensively about what will happen to the traffic as the economy expands, and ever more people switch from two wheels to four. Is Saigon another Bangkok in the making, with the same nightmarish 24 hour traffic jams and attendant pollution just waiting to happen?

K and I stroll up to the famous old Post Office building: a glorious example of French colonial architecture, still with its original fixtures and fittings. As the old Post Office doesn’t have an international parcel post, we continue round the corner to a rather more modest modern building. Directly opposite is a shop which assembles precisely measured, neatly constructed little cardboard boxes for your parcels, while you wait on the pavement. Just what we need.

We spend most of the rest of the afternoon at the War Relics Museum, wandering round mock-ups of prison cells, inspecting instruments of torture, and slowly working our way round the comprehensive photographic displays. Harrowing but compelling stuff, which comes across all the more vividly in the light of our experiences to date.

The whole group is reunited for dinner, in a colossal hangar of a restaurant: open to the street, with the diners seated at long rows of simple trestle tables, under a high corrugated iron roof. No yuppies here – in fact, hardly any foreigners at all. Ooh, you can just feel the authenticity!

And taste it, too. This is hardcore stuff. Small barbecues are placed along our table, and live shrimps brought out for us to cook. To protect our delicate Western sensibilities, the waiters obligingly pith the shrimps for us at the table, so that we don’t actually cook them alive. Nevertheless, the ensuing rigor mortis means that they are still writhing around as they fry. It is all too much for Jennifer Lopez, one of the vegetarians, who excuses herself rapidly and dashes outside for a cigarette.

In stark contrast, K – a committed and adventurous carnivore if ever there was one – is delighted to find scorpion on the menu. We are duly taken down to inspect the tank of live scorpions at the back of the restaurant, near the kitchens. One of the kitchen staff extracts a scorpion, briefly placing it underneath his T-shirt for a laugh. Oo-er.

The cooked scorpion is served up whole, still in its shell, unceremoniously plonked on a plate with no sauce or garnish to detract from the purity of the experience. To eat it, you simply lift the blackened creature to your mouth, and start chomping. The shell is fairly soft by now, and can be easily spat out. The rest of the group oohs and aahs as K boldly takes his first bite. What does it taste like? Rather nutty, apparently. Quite dry, but perfectly pleasant. K offers the scorpion round to everybody, but I am the only one who takes up his offer. A quick little nibble suffices, and I pass it back to K, who devours the rest with relish.

scorpb

It is said that after eating scorpion, you may experience a mild form of euphoria. K confirms this later on, when he uncharacteristically refuses a beer on the grounds that it would “spoil the effect of the scorpion.” Good grief – the man really must be as high as a kite.

Most of us round off the evening in a decidedly dodgy bar, with a Wild West saloon theme…and hostesses. In this part of town, there isn’t an awful lot of choice, apparently. We note with curiosity the row of toothbrushes in the corridor outside the loos, with a ladder leading to a mysterious darkened loft above. It’s a quiet night, and our arrival easily doubles the clientele. It probably also dampens the atmosphere. (Jeanne Moreau, cheerfully and with a certain amount of relish: “I bet they hate the fact that there are women in here now. We’re like cold water, aren’t we!”) After five minutes or so, the management actually turn the lights up on us. Half an hour or so later, presumably having written the night off as a dead loss at this stage, they shut the bar early. Or maybe that was just a tactic to get rid of us…who knows?

My lesions already in abeyance, I sleep like a baby.

Vietnam – Day 11.

Our extended boat trip in and around Nha Trang bay has been billed as a “day of pampering” – much needed after the bus-bound rigours of the past couple of days. However, our simple wooden boat has no sundeck, the bench seating is hard (especially after several hours afloat, especially when you have a nasty weeping sore on your backside), the waters are choppy (several of the group succumb to seasickness, while I grimly concentrate on the horizon line, thinking calming thoughts), and the scenery isn’t a patch on Halong Bay (by now, we have become thoroughly spoilt).

Nevertheless, we have fun availing ourselves of the services on offer from the crew: manicure, pedicure and “traditional Vietnamese massage”. My massage – firmly applied, but much gentler than the brutal pummelling I received in Turkey two years ago – is excellent therapy, leaving me tingling and re-energised. Well, okay, only for a while; I’m not operating at full strength today, physically or mentally.

There is a late afternoon visit to the house and studios of Long Thanh, a photographer of international repute. He is a gently charismatic man, with the confident yet laid-back air of someone who is entirely at ease with his talent and reputation. After much deliberation, we eventually walk away with a study of two elderly Nha Trang beggar ladies, their faces creased up in a kind of girlish laughter. We are strongly reminded of the two beggar ladies from the previous afternoon, on receiving their new coolie hats. As a representative image of Vietnam to stick on the wall back home, this is as good as we will find.

We have all been dreading our second overnight sleeper train. This time round, the air conditioning is working fine – so we won’t roast. However, our bedding is in a decidedly questionable state of hygiene. Our sheet sleeping bags are covered in long hairs, and exude an aroma of lightly laundered vomit. What’s more, they are all covered in dried lumps of a greeny-grey residue which looks suspiciously like snot. We elect to sleep on top, fully clothed, as best as we can.

Vietnam – Day 10.

After an extraordinary run in the first week of the tour, we are now in the middle of a comparative dip. For the second day running, most of our time is spent on the bus, where most of the group alternates between sleeping (Gabriel Byrne continues to astonish us in this area – but then, he is on his honeymoon), reading (will I ever finish White Teeth?) and gazing out of the window at endless lush plains of rice fields.

Presumably because they have all been planted at a slightly different time, each small field is coloured a slightly different shade of green. The landscape thus becomes a vast patchwork of differing shades of green – more greens than you ever thought possible – interspersed with water buffalos, workers in coolie hats, and the occasional herd of ducks. Sometimes, you will see several dozen ducks being herded across the road in a tight pack, as directed by their very own duck-herd. It is a vaguely comical sight.

We take lunch at a beach restaurant, watching the afternoon catch being dragged up the beach in huge nets, and observing the elegant wedding party who have stopped off for photos. The restaurant owner, a former social worker, gives us a couple of particularly finely made coolie hats and asks us to pass them on to anyone in Nha Trang (our destination) who we think looks particularly deserving of them.

In Nha Trang, at the bottom of the Cham Pongar temple complex (underwhelming, for by now we are all templed out), we spot the ideal recipients. The two aged, wizened, teeth-blackened beggar ladies are absolutely delighted with their smart new hats, trying them on and posing for each other with incongruously girlish, almost coquettish grins. The years roll back, as we catch brief glimpses of former lives.

We check in, and head off en masse for the mud spring baths. Here, we gleefully slosh about in communal pools of thick brown gloop, pouring it over ourselves with plastic pails and savouring the eucalyptus-like aroma, before washing it off under hot jets of salty spring water. This gives us a new toast (Here’s mud in your gusset!), which becomes our catchphrase for the rest of the trip.

There is dining and dancing at the yacht club (not quite as grand as it sounds), where we end up lurching about to insipid Euro-trance with a bunch of pissed-up backpackers and enthusiastic Vietnamese hookers, or else sitting out on the beach front with lethal pina coladas, gazing on with wry amusement at the young couple shamelessly writhing on a beach lounger in the semi-darkness, to an audience of entranced onlookers.

Oh, look! Over there! It isn’t! It is! Fraulein Dings-Bums and party are in town. Cordial greetings are exchanged. Perhaps next time, we should break the ice and make proper conversation.

We never see them again.

Vietnam – Day 9.

As I’ve already explained, public expressions of strong emotion are generally not to be found in Vietnamese society; self-control is everything. This morning, however, when confronted with the durian that K has brought along for the journey, our coach driver’s face is a picture of horror, fear and disgust. There is no way that he’s going to allow that stinky fruit on board – not even in the suitcase hold down below. “But I thought we could all try some later on!”, wails K, as the rest of us sigh with relief and clamber on board.

It’s a tough day: twelve hours on the bus, with few stops along the way. Along with most of the group, I have finally learnt how to catnap (something which I have always loathed doing). In fact, Gabriel Byrne is practically never awake; the rest of us can only marvel at his seemingly infinite capacity for slumber.

Few tourists ever reach the site of the My Lai massacre; it’s too far away from anywhere else that might be of interest. Partly for this reason, there remains something raw, potent and real about the place, to which we are the morning’s only visitors. It has not been turned into a sanitised theme park, where slick guides recite the same old scripts, and your emotions are marshalled according to a pre-defined plan. There is a roughness, and there is a strange, unexpected beauty. At the front of the site, a traditional garden has been planted, with many plants and shrubs donated by US veterans’ associations. It helps to set the mood of contemplation and remembrance.

Our young guide is beautiful and elegant, standing there in the pelting rain in a full-length pale blue gown, with water pouring off her coolie hat. She is local, and lost many of her own extended family in the massacre which became the most notorious atrocity of the American War. She speaks quietly, eloquently (with perfect English), and with a controlled passion which occasionally seeps round the edges of her words, as she describes a particularly extreme horror. She probably doesn’t get to give this talk too often, and so her words remain entirely fresh and genuine.

Slowly, she leads us round the site where one of the villages used to stand. Here are the foundations of the houses, marked by plaques listing the names and ages of each of the murdered inhabitants – from the very youngest to the very oldest. Here is the long ditch, into which the US troops pushed dozens of villagers – men, women, children and babies – before opening their machine guns and slaughtering the whole lot of them in cold blood. Here is a large stone statue depicting the massacre, sculpted by the husband of one of the very few survivors. The area is deathly quiet, except for the sound of pelting rain and the soft voice of our guide, calmly and precisely detailing acts of barbaric savagery which still beggar the imagination. There is an earnestness and slight urgency to her strictly factual delivery; it still matters greatly that the simple, unadorned truth be told to all who come and visit. Let no-one try and deny what has taken place here.

I didn’t know how I was going to react to all of this. I thought I might completely lose it, and break down in tears. This does not happen, and I am thankful for it. Instead, our reaction, though no less powerful, is more considered. As we walk through the exhibition rooms (stark, haunting photos, taken while the massacre was actually happening), I ruminate on what circumstances could have led a bunch of ordinary kids (young, uneducated, bewildered, terrified, brutalised, brainwashed, drugged up, hopelessly lost) to commit such terrible crimes. In the whole platoon, there was only one dissenter, who shot himself in the foot rather than participate in the slaughter. In the same situation, would I have been the lone dissenter, or would I have been one of the killers? Do we all have this capacity for savagery buried deep within ourselves? These are awful questions to contemplate, and this is not the place for finding answers to them. This is a place for bearing witness, and for ensuring that some events are never forgotten about. Ultimately, and unexpectedly, it feels like a privilege to be here.