Wednesday, February 11, 2015

VC tunnels, fried pigeons and other experiences in Southern Vietnam

It's notable that Vietnam had been under foreign influence or occupation for more than several times. First there were the Chinese who also heavily influenced the culture and religion in this area. Most historic temples and pagodas in Vietnam look like Chinese ones and many traditions such as food or religious rituals are said to be taken over by the Vietnamese people. At several times in Vietnamese history the Chinese were already driven out of the country. In 1885 though it was decided by Napoleon III to extend his colonial influence in Asia and therefore France invaded Vietnam in the same year.

The Battle of Nam Định in 1883, one of the many colonial battles the Vietnamese fought against the French

As long as there was colonialization and occupation on Vietnamese soil, there also was always some kind of resistance against foreign aggressors. For several hundred years the Vietnamese were constantly trying to drive out some dubious foreigners until the country finally became reuinified and completely independent in 1975. But until then a lot of Vietnamese blood had to be shed over these premises.

After the French were beaten by the Axis powers in 1940, the Vichy government granted the Japanese army full passage into Indochina. In other words, the Vietnamese were once more governed by another super power, this time the Japanese empire. It was during that occupation when communist resistance and ideology found a strong foothold in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh, the legendary Vietnamese communist leader (and resistance fighter back then) even found support by the OSS (the de-facto predecessing organization of the CIA) to fight against the Japanese army in a Guerrilla War. It's quite ironic that the same country that fought against the Vietnamese communists some 20 years later, actually directly supported them during WWII!

French colonialists in Vietnam

An American OSS team with communist Vietminh rebels during WWII. Note young Ho Chi Minh (standing third from left, with shorts).
As we all know, Japan got defeated in 1945 and left many occupated countries into the hands of the allies. But instead of giving the Vietnamese finally its independence, the international community instead decided to give back the country to the French colonial administration. It's understandable that many Vietnamese were once more frustrated by this decision. Just imagine some foreign white people suddenly claiming your land and asking horrendous taxes from you, forcing to speak their weird language and to live thier culture, while treating you as second-class citizens. It was obvious that a series of neverending wars would rage in the region, but that's a story for another time...

What am I trying to tell you with all this? It's quite easy, because of all these above mentioned foreign influences the Vietnamese people and culture until now is pretty multilateral and an interesting mix of many other cultures. It's only here where you can find many French words in the local linguistic use or Chinese architecture and food influences. Did you know for example that a big part of religious believers in Northern Vietnam are actually Catholic? Or that the Vietnamese word for soap is «Xã bông», a Vietnamese reinterpretation of the French «savon»?

A nicely decorated pole in a Chinese temple in Ca Mau

A bakery in Ha Tien with French-inspired pastries

For a foreign person it's therefore easy to notice the differences between the Laotian/Cambodian culture and the Vietnamese one. I dare to say that even the personal typical nature of the Vietnamese people is not really comparable to the very mild character of other Buddhist-influenced South East Asians. In my eyes the people in Vietnam seem more hectic and a bit more cheeky than their Laotian and Cambodian neighbours. Some bad tongues even tend to say that Vietnamese are way more greedier and rude, but that's definitely not what I can conclude after my two and a half month trip through Vietnam. Sadly Vietnam has earned quite an infamousness of being a paradise of scammers in the last years. A quick resarch in various travel forums and websties create the impression that apparantly a lots of western tourists seem to get ripped off in bigger cities like HCMC, Nha Trang, Hue or Hanoi. In my future blog posts I'll mention a few bad but much more good examples of the locals in this country, so stay tuned!

Let's finally get back to my travels: After my pleasant stay in Saigon I wanted to check out the north-western outskirts of the city, the area of Tay Ninh and Cu Chi. From Saigon you simply take one of the many buses heading north west on Highway 22.

My Vietnam trip until Tay Ninh
Tay Ninh is on of the bigger cities near the Cambodian border and pretty famous for some attractions. The famous Cao Dai temple is one of them. The so called Cao Dai sect is one of the many examples of Vietnam's rich diversity in religions. It is believed that there are 3 to 5 million Caodaists world-wide, making the sect one of the most relevant religious groups in Vietnam, especially in the south. The religion represents an interesting mix of far eastern and even western philsophy. You also won't believe that Victor Hugo, the legendary French writer of world-famous novels like «Les Misérables», is considered an official saint in the Cao Dai religion!

In Tay Ninh, I hired a motorbike taxi driver to get myself quickly to the church. Although we clearly agreed a certain price upon departing, at arrival that scumbag suddenly charged me like 5 times the amount we originally agreed for. In such cases it's important to stay cool and to make such crooks clear that you insist on the original price. It's a great help to learn Vietnamese numbers beforehand and some simple Vietnamese negotiation phrases. If still all hell breaks loose, call some random pedestrians to help you out in a situation like this. You will soon realize that at this moment scammers normally give up (teeth-gnashingly though) and that random Vietnamese people actually are happy to help you out. Simply have some faith in humanity!

The famous Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh

This one in Tay Ninh is believed to be the biggest one

Anyway, after that incident I was lucky enough to witness the evening mess inside the church. The religious guards outside first didn't want to let me inside, but after I kept asking they finally agreed to do so anyway. The evening mess was quite a bizarre ritual (at least as seen from western eyes) with strictly separated groups by gender and rank. The whole procedure was accompanied with a piercing music consisting of repetitive chants, gongs and Erhus. Once more I felt like a complete stranger in this bizarre religious gathering...

The evening mess inside the temple

The «All-seeing eye of God» above the altar

After about one hour the mess ended and the members peacefully walked out. While it wasn't one of the trip's highlights, I definitely enjoyed witnessing this indeed rare cultural opportunity without the presence of any annoying tourists or scamming taxi drivers.

Tay Ninh is also known for offering one of the most striking geographic elevations in the area; Black Virgin Mountain. Remember that in the Mekong Delta or in the area around Saigon mountains are pretty scarce, so the almost 1,000 meters high hill definitely sticks out of the flat landscape.

Black Virgin Mountain, as seen from the town of Tay Ninh
Today Black Virgin mountain serves as a sightseeing location and recreation place for locals. A newly built cable railway brings tourist halfway up to the mountain where some Chinese-influenced Buddhist temple and pagodas wait to be explored. From there it seems that there leads no way up the the real summit. As I later found out, it is perfectly possible to climb to the actual summit by yourself, but there's not really a signalized path leading up and you've got to have a good amount of time to do it (which I certainly did not have that day).

The Austrian-built cable railway that leads...

... halfway up the mountain. Modernization hits the country!

The view over the typical flat plains of Southern Vietnam
These fine-looking pagodas are now all over Black Virgin Mountain

The motorbike taxi driver on the mountain's foot. He was rather quite a rascal to be honest.

Tourists nowadays may not know that the Americans used to operate a military base on Black Virgin Mountain. For the U.S. and South Vietnamese troops stationed in nearby Tay Ninh and on the summit base, the area around the mountain turned out to be quite a guerrilla hotspot. Local Vietcong guerrillas and NVA soldiers coming from the Ho Chi Minh Trail definitely made the foreigner's lives difficult during the '60s.

... on Black Virgin Mountain.
The American base back then...

If you look sharp (there are no English signposts) you'll also find a small path through the forest on Black Virgin Mountain's foot. It leads to a small, but interesting memorial cave where allegedly the VC used to have a secret base. Some cheesy mannequins gives the visitors a basic idea how the war against the Americans was fought in the area around Black Virgin Mountain.

Via a small path on the mountain's foot...

... you'll eventually find a former VC outpost inside a small cave.

An idea how the cooking was done there

The local VC commanders planning an operation on the mountain

The ever popular Vietnam War also left another oddment in the area. A few kilometers back on Highway 22 we bump into the area of Cu Chi, which seems like regular Vietnamese town at first. But many veterans from both sides will know Cu Chi rather as the legendary tunnel system dug by communist Guerrillas both during the war against the French and the Americans. The government erected an open air museum on the former ground of the tunnel system and attracts thus thousands of tourists a year. Let's take a look at that.

The unsuspicious surface of the Cu Chi museum...

Check out the food in Cu Chi city before visitng the museum!

The Cu Chi Tunnels were basically a huge system of different man-built underground combat shelters, living spaces and storage facilities of the Vietminh in their fight against the French i.e. the Vietcong against the Americans and South Vietnamese Army.  The tiny tunnels, that barely fit a small Asian person in their dimensions, range several hundred kilometers (!) underneath thick foliage and jungle. Back then during the war it was one of the biggest communist bastions only a few kilometers outside of Saigon. While the tunnels were swept and cleared by the Americans for a couple of times, the Vietcong again and again achieved to retake the tunnels and to continue their struggle againt their enemies.

An insight into the sophisticated VC tunnel system of Cu Chi. Note the various air shafts, wells and booby traps!

Soon after Vietnam opened its doors for foreign tourists, this location quickly mutated to one of the country's most popular open-air museums. Maybe half an hour drive away from Saigon, it's very accessible and worth a daytrip from the noisy city. At arrival, you'll be bulked into groups and soon later a guide leads the masses of tourists through the place. After a short walk through the forest we quickly find the first evidence of the heavy fighting back then; during several operations and raids the Americans dropped tons of bombs and shells on the Cu Chi Area.

A lot of US ordnance remained unexploded though

Countless bomb craters still leave scars on the soil of Cu Chi

After closer inspection we find several earth bunkers and...
... hidden air shafts (here in a fake termite hill).

Our guide through the Cu Chi tunnels...

... shows us how well concealed the tiny tunnel entrances were.

... that used to shelter the guerrillas back then.

Let's descend into this subterranean underground world...

An ugly surprise for «tunnel rats»: A Punji trap

For touristic reasons, the tunnels in Cu Chi were enlarged a bit

VC surgeons at their work in the tunnel hospital

One of the briefing rooms where VC commanders used to discuss their plans or held political speeches
As one of the biggest tunnel systems in South Vietnam, Cu Chi represented a major threat to the nearby South Vietnamese government and US forces. Practically in front of Saigon's doorsteps (about 30km), the guerrillas invisibly fought a fierce battle against foreign troops in this area. For quite some time the tunnel system of Cu Chi remained a well-kept secret and left the Americans puzzled how the guerrillas could dissapear so fast into the jungle without leaving a trace. In 1966 the American and Australian forces (more about the Aussies below) started a military offensive called «Operation Crimp» to sweep the area in search for guerrilla activity. It was here when the American soldiers accidentally found the tunnels and sent in reckless soldiers to clear them from enemies. These daredevils were later known as «Tunnel Rats» and basically had the shittiest job in the army.

G.I.s giving a hand to their tunnel rat buddy
A genuine tunnel rat in action

Armed with a Colt 1911, a knife and a flashlight these soldiers were confronted with the harsh reality of tunnel warfare. If it wasn't enough that the hiding VC soldiers were already waiting for them, the tunnel rats were also facing complete darkness, little air and other lethal dangers such as booby traps, collapsing tunnels or suffocation. Even wild animals like spiders, scorpions, bats or snakes were to be found in those tiny tunnels. Not really a job someone with claustrophobia would apply for. For more insights, the sir in the video below shares his memories as a former tunnel rat in Vietnam.

At the end of the tour it was possible to visit a local shooting range to spend a few bucks on spraying some bullets with war-era guns. While not as cool as the shooting ranges in Cambodia, they've have got a fine selection of firearms here at Cu Chi, such as .30-06 machine guns, AKs or M60's. Just don't expect it to be cheap, as for some calibres they even charge up to $1.50 a cartridge!

... the local shooting range.

One of the most popular sections of the Cu Chi museum,...

What can be said about the Cu Chi tunnels in conclusion?

Without a doubt it's a place with huge historical importance. It was here where the VC guerrillas took enormous efforts to wage a war against a techonologically superior enemy who was based just a few miles away. Thousands of Vietcong tunnel fighters died in their endless struggle against the Americans and South Vietnamese, definitely in much higher numbers than their opponents. But even after tremendous losses they always succeded in coming back to reclaim the tunnels and to continue their fight until final victory in 1975. While living like animals in primitive environments, totally giving up their personal needs or safety, over years of hardship these men and women achieved the impossible and definitely earn our respect. Regardless of their political ideology, of course.

But the museum? While it's great in its idea, I find that nowadays it is totally commercialized and hyped. Masses of tourists swarm year for year into the museum and make it more a pseudo-military Disneyworld rather than a serious museum. While popping some shots with guns for instance is great, I still felt the staff was interested in making good money rather than showing the foreign visitors how horrible the events back then were. In retrospective it may give the random visitor a false picture of the miserable reality that confronted both guerrillas and foreign soldiers back then...

Change of scene.

A few kilomters south-east of Saigon we find the coastal city of Vung Tau, a pretty popular place for Saigon city dwellers looking for the nearest vacation beach or Russian engineers who work on the nearby oil rigs.

The beach of Vung Tau, pretty popular among Saigonese looking for vacation
From a cultural perspective the town doesn't offer too much and not too many western tourists bother to go there. Some American army veterans may remember Vung Tau as a popular in-country R&R (rest and recreation) place to spend their free time. Nowadays the place is full of seaside hotels and is crowned by a tall Jesus statue that overlooks the city from his hill top. Again, another cultural aspect of western/French influences in South East Asia.

But during the so called ANZAC day, the national memorial day for Australian and New Zealand veterans, many Australians undertake a pilgrimage to this town.

The reason behind this movement is that during the 1960's the Australian army used to have an army base not far from the city. Not too many people nowadays know that beside the Americans also other nations were supporting the American armed forces and the South Vietnamese government in their struggle against the communists. Approximately 60'000 Australians were stationed in Vietnam, many of them serving in the area around Vung Tau.

With the help of a friendly guide I decided to check out the historical remains of the Australian military presence during the '60s.

Nui Dat army base now and then in the 1960's. Note that not much is left from the once paved airfield.
Here in Nui Dat the Australians undertook many patrols and Search & Destroy missions in the surrounding area. During the war Nui Dat served as base for several hundred Australian service men and as an airfield for distinctive UH-1 helicopters and various planes. Apart from the sad remains of the former airfield and a few huts there's not much to see there nowadays, but it's still impressive to compare the now quiet area with photos from back then.

While guerrilla activity near Vung Tau was not as high as for example near the Cambodian border or in the Delta, there still were regular clashes between Vietcong forces and Australian soldiers. These occoasional battles found their climax in the Battle of Long Tan in August 1966, where hundreds of Vietcong guerrillas lured a little more than hundred Australians into an ambush inmidst a rubber plantation.

Ambushed Australian forces during the Battle of Long Tan

The intense battle cost the lives of approximately 250 VC guerrillas and 20 Australians and is nowadays considered as one of the most significant skirmishes fought by the Australians in Vietnam. Shortly after the battle a memorial cross for the fallen comrades was raised by the Australians in that very rubber tree plantation, but was immediately taken down after the war by the Vietnamese army. But as we all know that time heals all wounds, the Vietnamese government later decided to resurrect the memorial and to allow Australian relatives visiting that site.
The original memorial cross...
... shortly after its placement in 1966.
The replica cross nowadays. Note that the rubber plantation was about to being replanted that day.
But much more interesting was the existence of a nearby Vietcong tunnel, which can be found not far away from Nui Dat base and Long Tan. The so called Long Phuoc tunnels are definitely not as big or complex as the Cu Chi tunnels, but sill a hidden sightseeing gem in the area. The Australian forces back then were not aware that such a tunnel actually existed right in front of their doorstep.

Many Australian veterans who return to this place as tourists, react usually quite surprised as they learn that the guerrillas built that tunnel so close to Nui Dat base. During the war this tunnel supposedly never got detected or destroyed.

The so called Long Phuoc tunnels near Nui Dat

Some mannequins give you an idea how the VC operated in the area

To my excitement I found out that the current caretaker of the small tunnel museum is a VC veteran himself. While he didn't participate in the nearby Battle of Long Tan, he still participated in various guerrilla activites when he was young.

One story he remembers quite well was one rainy day when his squad was luring an Australian platoon into an ambush near a local village. After some waiting they observed a handful of Australians entering the village, all of them wearing suspiciously wide ponchos. As the foreign soldiers in the village were out of sight, the Vietcong decided to let the trap spring and to attack the allgedly few Australians in that hamlet.

But this time the Australians were one step ahead and had already been expecting a guerrilla ambush in that area. As the guerrillas soon found out, earlier each of these Australian soldiers was actually hiding another soldier under his wide poncho, thus creating the illusion of moving around in small numbers. It's needless to say that the Vietcong got counterattacked and were put to flight by the sudden superiority of the enemy. He and most of his comrades were fortunately able to escape. «This time it was the Australians who taught us a good lesson. But at least», the old gentleman added with a grin, «we guerrillas definitely wouldn't fall for that trick a second time.»

This kind sir on the left used to be a genuine VC guerrilla during the war
The veteran also went on to tell that back in the war the Australian army was generally better received by the Vietnamese than the Americans. «Unlike the Americans, the Aussies wouldn't commit as many atrocities and were more likely to show some sense of tact with the Vietnamese people. But sadly this didn't change the fact that they were still our enemies» our friend concludes.

We said good bye to him and thanked him for his stories.

Back in town it was gourmet time. My guide from the tunnels recommended me to take a look at a local restaurant in Vung Tau with indeed special delicacies.

A look at the restaurant's menu

How about some tasty snakes for instance?
At the end I chose fried pigeons along with a separate hotpot. They actually tasted delicious!

It turned out that snake meat for only person was way too expensive. The restaurant owners were asking over $60 for one Cobra! The other non-Cobra snakes weren't cheap either, so my choice quickly fell on the more favorable pigeons. I'd say it's at best comparable with duck and chicken, but a touch sweeter and juicier. I was positively surprised and definitely enjoyed my meal. :)

The next morning I took a bus heading north to the seaside town of Mui Ne. Mui Ne is quite famous for being a watersports destination in Vietnam where Kiteboarding, Wind Surfing or Jetskiing is widely practiced. But more worth seeing are the impressive sand dunes of Mui Ne,  not far situated from the town. Of course it was once more time to rent a scooter and to explore the bizarre surroundings.

This road, loaded with bizarre sightings, leads us from Mui Ne...
... to the so called Red Dunes.
Not taken in the Sahara, but in tropical Vietnam.
These huge dunes give the impression to walk on a desolate desert somewhere far way from South East Asia. It's definitely an interesting change to the regular tropical landscape that normally dominates this corner of the earth. It was also here where quite much sand got into the lens of my camera, so I recommend to use your equipment with caution when shooting footage on the dunes.

Near Mui Ne also stands an old French Fort ruin from the colonial era. At this place first used to stand a glamourous villa owned by a French duke, but due to the political unrest in the country quickly grew into a small military outpost. The French even went so far to build several concrete bunkers to secure the hill and the property. But in 1947 a small Vietnamese commando unit sneaked into the base in French uniforms and destroyed the whole premise. Today a glorifying victory monument remembers visitors of that night raid. The tower you actually see is not a fort per se, but rather the remains of the former French villa.

The communist victory memorial at the fort

The old French fort near Mui Ne

A couple of kilometers in southwesterly direction along the coast we find another remnant of French colonialism. The so called Ke Ga lighthouse was the first in its kind in Colonial Vietnam and marks a striking monument along the quiet coastline. Built on a small island and not really accessible by foot, you can still go there by paying a small fee to one of the fishermen. It was definitely a bizarre sight as I felt reminded of standing somewhere in the French Bretagne or Normandy rather than South East Asia.

This dude in his swimming bowl takes you gladly...
... to the impressive Ke Ga lighthouse.

Ke Ga lighthouse in its full glory

The sun going down inland.
As I watched down at the burning sunset I asked myself what other (mis-)adventures may lay ahead of Vietnam trip. There were still several hundreds kilometers to cover until the other end of the country...

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