North Vietnam

‘The Truth About the Vietnam War’ – Mr Binh, Saigon

Feeling like we’d seen everything that Ho Chi Minh City had to offer, we decided to spend our final day in Vietnam at the Cu Chi Tunnels. For those who don’t know, the Cu Chi Tunnels span 250km and were used by Viet Cong’s main base of operations during the Tet Offensive in 1968. The original tunnels were only 80cm high and 30cm wide… Too narrow for most Westerners. The Americans never defeated the Viet Cong at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

We booked a tour through our hostel and didn’t realise what day it was or it’s significance with the tour. We were actually visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels on ‘Liberation Day’ aka the end of the Vietnamese War and the fall of Saigon. We were met by our guide Mr Binh (Bean) who told us that today was a very, very sad day for him. He told us that he wasn’t Vietnamese but American, and had fought with the American army during the Vietnam War. His father was Filipino but had lived in Vietnam before emigrating to the US before the Vietnam War. Mr Binh then returned to Vietnam with the American army to fight the Viet Cong and the Communist Northern Vietnamese. He told us that after Saigon was captured by the Northern Vietnamese and Communism established as the majority, he was forced to spend 5 years in a ‘Reunification Camp’ to rid him of his anti-Communist beliefs.

After being in Northern Vietnam and visiting the War Remnants Museum yesterday, it was really interesting to hear another perspective of the war. When we got on the bus to the tunnels he asked us if we wanted to know the ‘truth’ about the Vietnam War. He said everything in the War Remnants Museum and Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi was Communist propaganda and utter ‘bullshit’, and that today he’d tell us the truth. Today was a very sad day for him because it was Liberation Day, the day that the Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese troops captured Saigon, and the day that marked he end of the Vietnam War. He told us that on this day 39 years ago he took a gun to his head and nearly killed himself because Saigon’s fall meant the establishment of communism as the popularity.

It was interesting to hear his story because he said initially he wasn’t against Communism, but after his fiancĂ©e and the love of his life was brutally murdered by the Viet Cong for no apparent reason, he wanted justice. Mr Binh went on to say that though Ho Chi Minh is the city’s official name, to him it would always be ‘Saigon’. Always. (After the Vietnam War Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City).

The Cu Chi tunnels were very interesting and it was in part due to Mr Binh’s commentary as he’d actually fought here against the Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese. We started the tour at one of the tunnel’s entrances to show us just how small they were. They were not more than 30 cm wide and Mr Binh told us that the tunnels were too big for the ‘big fat American soldiers’. He also told us how a young woman with a rather large bottom got stuck trying to get into the tunnels yesterday. He had plenty of stories about how the Viet Cong were able to spot Americans soldiers hiding behind trees because they were so big boned.

One of the tunnel's entrances

One of the tunnel’s entrances

Mr Binh then showed us various traps used by the Viet Cong to hinder the American war effort. He explained that the tunnels underneath were on three levels and to maintain air supply the Viet Cong had made vents and tried to disguise them. The Americans quickly caught on and would send a German Shepherd to find the vents by trying to get it to smell ‘fish sauce’ as Mr Binh explained Vietnamese food is’very stinky stinky’. The Viet Cong though had another trick up its sleeve and built this booby trap below with sharp bamboo sticks. They’d put the ‘stinky fish sauce’ under the trap door and the German shepherd would fall to a nasty death. Mr Binh told us that many American army dogs died this way.

Booby Trap

Booby Trap

We then went into the tunnels to get a taste of what they were like and they were very, very narrow. For once being petite served its purpose. A lot of taller Westerners found it very claustrophobic, and one girl even had a panic attack half way through the tunnel we went in. The tunnel rarely went in a straight line and Mr Binh explained this was done by the Viet Cong to confuse and scare any American soldiers that might have made it into the tunnel.

Inside the tunnel!

Inside the tunnel!

The tunnels were really interesting but we could constantly hear the sound of gunfire. There was a shooting range at the end of the tour and you could shoot an AK-47, M16 and others. I was perplexed how Mr Binh who’d fought here and witnessed many people die here could return here on a daily basis. The constant sound of gun fire must be a constant reminder of the horrors of the Vietnam War. The sound of shots being fired gave the tunnels a very eerie atmosphere and I felt like I’d been transported through time.

As for Mr Binh, he said he was currently writing his second book which was due to be published next year by Bloomsbury in the US. He said his book would be entitled ‘An American eagle flies down to hell’. Although Mr Binh was a real character and full of war tales, it was hard to know just how much of his story was true. He told us that he’d already published a book about his life and told us it was called ‘Three Moons of Vietnam’ but I couldn’t find it online or in the bookshop he told us about…

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Halong Bay, Vietnam

North Vietnam is famous for its UNESCO World Heritage site, Halong Bay. We booked a 2 day/1 night trip with Dragon Cruise with a night aboard a ship. We were picked up at 8.30 am and we drove three and half hours to Halong Bay. On the way there our driver conveniently needed to take a ‘rest stop’ at a silk and limestone factory for half an hour… We were told to look around to see if we liked anything.

Kyle wanted to buy this shirt at the 'rest stop'.

Kyle wanted to buy this shirt at the ‘rest stop’.

We finally arrived at Halong Bay port where we took a long tail boat to the boat where we’d be spending the night. When we arrived on the ship we were given a free welcome drink of lukewarm tea and then we were given the keys to our cabin. Our cabin was actually pretty nice and looked vaguely like the pictures in the brochure! Since going on we on this gap year we’ve learnt to take everything you’re told or shown with a pinch of salt.

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We had a nice lunch aboard the ship and then cruised along Halong Bay taking in the beautiful scenery. We then made a stop at ‘Amazing Cave’ which was actually pretty amazing. It was absolutely huge and our guide had obviously been here many times as he kept pointing out stalactites and stalagmites that looked like a couple kissing, a fat buddha, or a chicken… It was all very amusing and our group enjoyed coming up with ridiculous ideas of what the rock formations looked like.

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After the cave we were stopped at a beach for an hour for ‘sunbathing and swimming’. The water was absolutely filthy though from all the boats and sewage. Halong Bay is beautiful but it’s being destroyed very, very quickly by all the tourists. The guide said he hopes that there will be an increase of a million tourists visiting Halong Bay in the coming years! I couldn’t think of anything worse for Halong Bay.

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What really made the trip though was all the different people we met and their stories from their travels. There were about 20 people on our boat from all corners of the earth – US, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Germany, Holland and France. There was a 36 year old Australian guy who told me that he was having a midlife crisis and decided to quit his job and travel for a year.

There was also a group of Americans with some pretty wild tales of their travels in South East Asia. They told us how they went to a shooting range in Cambodia and how for $10 extra they could shoot an AK47. They decided to do it and were told to wait 10 minutes while they prepared the AK47. The shooting range then apparently brought out a duck and told them to use it as a target for the AK47. They were apparently a bit hesitant about shooting a duck, but they decided to do it. Apparently the Cambodians then took the dead duck and then fed it to an alligator. It was a really horrible story actually.

The food on the boat had been a bit hit and miss. They’d bring out small portions of fish and meat and then a huge bowl of rice. We felt it was really stingey given the price we’d paid for the cruise. Breakfast, however, the following morning was a hilarious affair. We were served a small plate of cut up frankfurter sausages and something that resembled an omelette to share between four of us, and then the biggest pile of toast I’ve ever seen. They put like 24 slices of toast on a plate for a table of four! 24 slices of stale toast. The guide then went around asking everyone if they enjoyed their breakfast and one of the American guys told him it was ‘the most amazing breakfast I’ve ever had’, which made me chuckle.

All in all we had a lovely time in Halong Bay!

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