Monday, 23 March 2009


On my first day in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC), I decided to go for a walk around to orientate myself. I thought I'd head over and check out the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace (where the North Vietnamese tanks rammed through the gates in 1975, ending the war).

Waiting to cross the road not far from my hotel, a well-dressed Asian man next to me said hello and asked my name and where I was from (it's standard here, you get used to it, or have fun making up answers). Once he found out I lived in Melbourne he exclaimed that his sister was just about to move there to work as a nurse. We chatted for a minute, and he asked if I would come back to his place and meet her, and so she could find out more about the city. I didn't really want to, and said I was on the way to the War Museum, but that was fine, he lived right near there, so we organised to meet there when it closed at 5pm.

As I walked away, not five metres up the street, a motorcycle taxi driver who'd watched us chat (but not overheard), asked what we were talking about. He warned that I need to look out for Filipinos who say that they have a brother or sister moving to your city, and invite you back to their place. There, he said, they'll convince you to play a game and basically scam you out of your money. Since he'd pretty much guessed exactly what the guy had said, I thanked him and vowed to be long gone from the museum by closing time.

The museum itself was interesting, mainly just a collection of US Military vehicles, aircraft and weapons. There was also a large display on the horrific effects of the experimental Agent Orange defoliant, which the US dumped 80 million litres of on Vietnam.

On the way back, I stopped to rest and check out my photos in one of the nice parks around the city. Within minutes I was approached by a girl who wanted to practice her English, so we chatted for a while, and she told me she was Cambodian and worked for Amway. I feigned ignorance, and she told me all about how great it was, and to check it out when I get home (sure). She gave me her number and then invited me for coffee, but had to call a friend to meet us first. It was starting to look pretty dubious so I bailed on her too.

Stopping in another park on the way back, I was again accosted, this time by two uni girls wanting to practice English. We were eventually joined by a few guys who drifted over to show off how well they could speak it too. That encounter ended after half an hour without any suspicious propositions, but the lesson is if you ever want to meet any local girls, just go and sit in a park for two minutes and look white.

The next day I took a tour out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is an enormous network of tiny underground passages where the locals lived and fought against the Americans. The visit started with a brilliantly biased old propaganda video about the "crazy American devils" slaughtering the innocent locals, who wanted nothing but to live in peace but were forced to become "American-killing heroes".

There were a few displays of the nasty booby traps used in the tunnels - pits with spikes in the designed to trap your leg, tripwires with mines, etc - plus we got to crawl an uncomfortable 20 metres through a recreated tunnel (no doubt widened for westerners).

The best part of the tour was the shooting range, where you could fire off an M-16, AK-47 or M-60 machine gun, for the low, low price of US$1.50 per round (minimum 10). Waiting for your turn, you not only get deafened because of a shortage of earmuffs, but you also get hot shell casings ejected at you because there's nowhere else to stand. Once you do actually get some earmuffs, you realise they are actually just cheap headphones with the cord cut off, and accordingly do absolutely nothing to protect your hearing.

I tried to squeeze off one shot at a time for accuracy, but the dodgy buggers had it set on full auto even though the selector dial said semi auto. So in the fastest way to burn cash ever, your 15 bucks have disappeared downrange before you even notice.

An guy from Michigan who I'd been chatting with decided to shoot the M-60 belt-fed machine gun (think Animal Mother from Full Metal Jacket, although his glasses made him look more like Private Cowboy). To complete the image, he stripped off his T-shirt and slung an ammunition belt across his chest, Rambo style. He asked me to film him, but his ammo was gone before I could even hit record. Even so, he had the time of his life. At least I think he did, I couldn't actually hear anything he said for the next half an hour.

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