Monday, 27 February 2012

snapshots: saigon

15th - 19th February 2012

Saigon, Vietnam
Approaching this fine city there is one building which dominates Saigon's skyline; towering above its inferior rivals like a vast juggernaut. The Bitexco Financial Tower is the second largest in Vietnam after the Keangnam Landmark Tower in Hanoi and when getting lost here - which happened to me a great deal - it's a useful landmark to get your bearings as it can be seen for miles around. And yes, that is a helicopter pad at the top.
The location of Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City is a metropolis on the rise, figuratively and literally. The skyline is expanding by the minute due to new investment and as a result it's become an exciting city full of high aspirations.
Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup. It is primarily served for breakfast although it can be eaten any time of day, the noodles are made from rice and served with basil, lime, mint and bean sprouts. This was my regular while staying in Saigon.
Two ladies taking a break from selling books on the streets. They are absolutely relentless in central Saigon and patrol the streets in vast numbers. On my first night, along with the Da Lat girls and some Canadian lads I first met in Hanoi, we all went for dinner together and while sat at the table we were constantly hassled by ladies such as these trying to sell us fake photocopied books! I did actually end up buying The Rum Diary so I guess there is method in their madness.
Like Hanoi, there are thousands of scooters that swarm the city.
The Vietnamese Banksy?
Got chatting to these German chaps one night at a bia hoi stand (post to follow) and they told me about a Vietnamese horror play that was being shown the following night which sounded like something I absolutely had to see. The opening of the play started in complete darkness. Suddenly a beam of white light flooded the stage revealing a creepy girl slouched down with long black hair covering her ghostly face inviting a mass yelp from the audience. Looked like the girl from The Ring minus the television. Two and a half hours of comedy/horror followed all in Vietnamese which I obviously didn't understand at all. Luckily some English speaking Vietnamese dude sat next to me was kind enough to offer a rough translation as it went on which certainly helped! The guy in the yellow was a ghost buster attempting to vanish ghostly apparitions which haunt the family sat down. Was top notch!
A Cyclo driver having a quick snooze, and i'm not surprised because pedaling fat Western tourists around in this heat would be enough to tire anyone out!
Looking for business.
Whether it be motorized or not, the Vietnamese always pile as much stuff as possible onto two wheels, or three wheels here.
One day hopped on the No.1 bus over to Cho Lon in Chinatown. A vast market spreads from a central water fountain and it's small alleyways twist and turn past small stalls selling a variety of different goods across two floors.
A vast array of dried fish, spices, seeds and nuts could be haggled over.
Here I liked the contrast between the cool shade inside of the market and the scorching bright sun which patrolled outside.
Enjoyed getting lost in this labyrinthine market.
Street stalls line the streets meaning you never go hungry with most dishes selling for under a dollar!
Putting your feet up to read the paper is the same the world over. Or as they say here, 'Same Same but Different'.
Live chickens were being traded over in Chinatown. Interest customers would pull up on their scooters and browse through groups of chickens tied together on the tarmac or in cages piled high.
Playing cards on the streets.
5pm. Picking up some food on the way home from the office. Like popping into Tesco Express on the way back from College Green when I was peckish. Same Same.
Gym class in the central park. Obviously.
The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. Can you spot Quasimodo?

Saturday, 25 February 2012

down the cu chi tunnels

16th February 2012


                             On the 15th February, I left the hillside station of Da Lat and made tracks for the sprawling metropolis of Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as it's now known these days - although in my humble opinion the former name was far more evocative and expressive than the latter. Due to the altitude of Da Lat, the past few days had been a brief respite from the humidity and heat of the coast but as we gradually snaked back down the mountainside towards Saigon it felt in many ways like stepping back into the frying pan as the reintroduction to the congested and oppressive humidity was overwhelming. Travelling independently once again, I got chatting to some English girls by the names of Jess and Caroline on the bus and so when we reached the city center we all joined forces in the hunt for a cheap and hospitable guest house; hitting the jackpot when we came across the MyMy Arthouse which was tucked down a maze of back alleyways at the heart of backpacker-ville in an area of Saigon known as De Tham. 'The Diamond of the Far-east' is a city bursting with new-age vigor whose streets sing songs of energy and excitement meaning that there is always something to do here. From learning about the country's complex history is one of the many national museums, sampling local fresh beer at a street-side bia hoi and getting lost in the myriad of alleyways and sprawling boulevards that connect the city's 19 districts together there is much to keep you entertained in this fine city.

           After getting our bearings with a brief stroll around the immediate neighborhood we stopped by a travel agency and booked a ticket to go and see the famous Cu Chi tunnels the following day. To give a brief - read very brief - bit of historical context in an attempt to aid understanding, the Cu Chi tunnels were a network of underground passages that the Viet Cong used in their resistance against the American troops during the Vietnam, or as they call it here, American War. In 1960 the National Liberation Front (whose guerrilla forces were known as the Viet Cong) with it's Communist ideology was set up in Southern Vietnam  to oppose the regime of the prime minister turned self-appointed president of Saigon Ngo Dinh Diem who had slaughtered 50,000 people in an attempt to silence opposition to his rule. Diem was staunchly anti-communist and this gained him a great deal of support from the United States who entered Vietnam to stop the perceived future threat of Communist expansion that they saw in Ho Chi Minh's Hanoi and the emergence of this National Liberation Front that operated throughout the South. The 'Vietnam War' therefore was fought between the Communist North and the anti-Communist South who were supported by the Americans. Fighting partially stopped after the Americans sent in B52 bombers to cut the North's supply lines to the south which eventually resulted in peace discussions. With the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the Communist North the fighting stopped and these days it is possible to visit the famous Cu Chi tunnels which played an intrinsic part in a war whose outcome is so confusing it makes my  brain hurt as you can probably tell from this disjointed explanation of events. In regards to the tunnels, under constant threat from American air attacks, the Viet Cong  built 250km of tunnels which lie beneath the town of Cu Chi and its surrounding areas and this intricate underground network contained all the necessary amenities required to live with latrines, wells, meeting rooms and sleeping quarters all built to house the strong-willed Viet Cong troops. These Viet Cong soldiers would often live for weeks underground and the defence structures that they had in place made them a very difficult opposition to fight and try as they might, the Americans could not relieve these tunnels of their obstinate and highly aggressive inhabitants .

                     On the morning of the 16th therefore, along with the Da Lat girls,  I set off on the road to Cu Chi to hopefully learn more about an area which played a key role during a very turbulent period in Vietnam's history.  Upon arrival at Cu Chi, we left the air-conditioned bubble of our mini-bus and entered the stifling heat generated by a sun who had surged in grandeur over the past hour from it's dominant throne in the sky. Quickly heading to the cool confines of the complex we were shown a video which spent a lot of time berating the Americans and rejoiced in reeling off figures concerning how many 'evil' Americans had been 'eliminated' by the brave and noble Viet Cong soldiers. Albeit a rather biased account of the events which took place here, although the Americans had a lot to answer for in this war, the video did show some interesting black and white footage of Viet Cong soldiers in battle and building the tunnels in horrendous looking conditions. When the video had finished we headed off into a dry evergreen forest populated by clumps of bamboo thickets and tropical hardwoods while a carpet of fallen leaves crunched loudly underfoot.  The thickets of bamboo gave way to a clearing and we all huddled round to observe a method the Viet Cong used as a means of surprising and attacking unsuspecting American GI's whilst fighting in the area. A local park officer, our very own Viet Cong soldier for the day, bent down and scraped away some of the dead leaves to reveal a small man hole cover. Removing the cover, making sure the leaves were kept on top, he then disappeared down the hole carefully placing the cover back over his head as he descended so that within five seconds there was no trace of the opening or the 6ft man who had just been standing there. A sneaky little maneuver and along with the hundreds of others of these small underground pockets, it must have been terrifying to fight an enemy who could appear and re-appear anywhere in the forest. The second part of the tour ran through some of the grizzly defence mechanisms used as part of the Viet Cong's resistance against the surging American forces and we were shown some of booby traps which were set up to seriously maim or kill American GI's who unwittingly walked into them. The first was the swinging door trap which swung on a central pivot revealing a sharp set of spikes below which would skewer any GI unfortunate enough to walk over it. A series of other evil-looking devices were shown including the see-saw, swing-up trap and full body impaling traps - see the photographs below. Moving on we stopped off to check out an immobilised tank before heading to the shooting range where it was possible to shoot live ammunition from a range of semi and fully automatic machine guns. The price for 10 bullets for the AK-47 was 350,000 dong (11 quid) and seeing a once in a lifetime opportunity before me, I decided to go for it having never fired a gun before, especially an AK-47! Approaching the shooting range I was handed some ear muffs which were extremely necessary as the noise from other guns like the M16 was absolutely deafening up close. All the guns had their barrels secured to a bar to prevent any psychos from going on a rampage and once the guard had loaded the AK-47 for me, I stepped up to the plate and got a huge rush from dispensing a few rounds into the targets at the far end of the range. Pulling the trigger resulted in a slight recoil which hugged my shoulder menacingly and gave me an alarming sense of satisfaction from the power which rested in my hands. What a lawless place, only in Camodia eh! The final part of the tour had us scurrying through a sample section of tunnel which had been widened to allow fat Western tourists to squeeze through, although not such a problem for my slight frame! Climbing down a steep set of stairs, the sun was blocked from entering the forbidding looking passages which meant that after a few turns the light at the entrance faded into obscurity behind me, leaving only darkness ahead. Traversing the initial section of the tunnel was pretty easy going as it was still big enough to crouch through however as it grew narrower and tighter it became necessary to scramble along on hands and knees until the end. With no air vents, the temperature was as stifling - if not worse due to the close confines - as the temperature under the raging sun above ground and I finally emerged, one hundred meters later, a sweating, gasping mess. To think that people lived for weeks and fought in conditions far worse than I experienced beggars belief and only goes to show how far the human body can be pushed in the face of extreme adversity. Along with the War Remnants Museum back in the city, my trip to the Cu Chi tunnels was a fascinating history lesson that has given me a much greater understanding of a war which captivated the world for twenty years.

Step 1. The guard shuffled the leaves about before finding the
panel below.
Cu Chi, about 40km from Saigon.
Step 2. Lowering himself down in to the hole. 
Step 3. Descending into the hole whilst making sure the leaves stayed on top.
Step 4. Completely hidden which meant that they could pounce on American soldiers in a split second.
The swinging door trap.
The spikes that would greet you upon falling.
A typical entrance to the underground network of tunnels.
Me on a tank.
Looking down the barrel of a tank.
The first of many grizzly booby-traps.
The Rolling Trap. Falling down the middle meant that your whole body would be punctured from legs and torso to the head. Brutal.
The full body door trap. The bottom row of spikes was destined for the genitals. 
Down at the shooting range.
Firing the AK-47.

Entering the Cu Chi tunnels.
This was at the beginning when it was easy. Later on I had to put the camera away just so that I could use my hands to scramble through!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

madame hang nga's crazy house

13th February 2012

Da Lat, Vietnam

               I departed from the seaside town of Nha Trang on the 12th of February feeling a little worse for wear from the antics the previous day on board the HMS 'booze cruise'. The 6am start was followed by a hair-raising dash up the mountains of Vietnam's South Central Highlands to the hill-station of Da Lat which rests at an elevation of 1500m. The city itself has a much cooler climate due to it's altitude and was used by the French at the beginning of the 20th century as an escape from the oppressive humidity of Saigon and the architecture throughout the city indicates their former presence. Da Lat spreads across a series of pine-covered hills and the heart of the city pulsates around the central man-made Xuan Huoung lake which attracts droves of fishermen, picnic-wielding families and joggers to it's banks every day. Getting off the bus four hours later feeling very tired and a little queasy from some close shaves on those perilous mountain roads, I collapsed in the first hostel I found, emerging several hours later refreshed and ready to explore all that the city had to offer. A quiet first evening spent with some new Canadian friends in a local bar was followed by an adventurous second day in Da Lat where I went for a long walk to get acquainted with the city. A walk which  as the day wore on, turned into a six hour epic amble around the Xuan Huong lake, through the busy markets of Cho Da Lat and up the hill in the southern section of town to check out Emperor Bao Dai's summer retreat and most interestingly of all Hang Nga's Crazy House. Although the temperature is cooler at night in Da Lat, the sun still beats down relentlessly during the day and so it was a sweaty walk across the city that finally led me to the infamous Crazy House or Moon Villa. Walking along the vast Tran Phu which stretches across the whole southern part of the city, I turned a corner onto Huynh Thuc Khang street and  came across a very surreal sight which was unmistakably the one and only crazy house of Da Lat. A bizarre labyrinthine construction of gnarled tree trunks soared into the blue sky above and looked completely out of place with the austere colonial buildings surrounding it. The building itself is an architectural organism born from a concrete root which has 'grown' out of the porch of Nga's initial villa; a root which has subsequently bloomed into the gigantic 'forest' which exists there today. From this central building block, several tree houses have been built that are all connected by a series of narrow and precarious pathways which run along the concrete branches of these phantasmagoric constructions. Walking up to the entrance of this Vietnamese Disney Land, I was greeted by a wooden statue wearing a trade-mark conical hat - famous throughout the country - who held a sign welcoming me to the crazy house. Having paid the entrance fee I stepped through the large oak doors and entered the garden which housed a maze of trees and small wooden huts which would not have been out of place in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. Fake tree constructions surged out of the ground and within their trunks, bird cages held Vietnamese doves which tweeted gentle melodies as an accompaniment to the 1930's  French music which warbled from the speakers that hung from tree branches overhead. To the left of the entrance and set within the gnarled roots of another artificial tree, a small room contained articles and letters from around the world giving some information about the history and meaning behind this Gaudi-esque styled complex. The person in charge of this Lsd-trip of a building was Madame Hang Nga and interestingly I read that she was the daughter of President Ho Chi Minh's right hand man, Truong Chinh. From a young age she had always wanted to express her creative flair through architecture and  in 1965 after studying the subject for six years in Russia, she graduated from the University of Moscow and returned to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, to work at the Architecture Design Institute; a branch of the Government's Cultural Ministry. In 1983 she moved to Da Lat and worked at the local council's Building Design Institute and in doing so moved to a city that she fell in love with. In a letter which was written by Hang Nga herself she says that, 'after designing several projects for the state, and also because of my own pleasure, the passion of architecture creation has pushed up me to begin to give expression to my own dreams'. The result of these creative expressions is the 'Crazy House' or 'Moon Villa' that exists today. The Crazy House was a project which started development in 1990 and like the gnarled trees it imitates, continues to grow and grow like a surreal organism whose only limitation is the far limits of this unique architect's mind. Her letter finishes by saying, 'Every person thirsts for Independence Liberty, I therefore give expression to such ideas.'  Walking around the place felt like glancing through the looking glass and finding Alice in her wonderland as  every corner revealed new hidden depths of insanity; born from creativity. I thought  the place and everything it stood for was fantastic. The compound as well as being a phenomenal tourist attraction during the day also contained rooms which can be booked for night stays at $35 and each room has a different theme. Exploring the tree-houses I came across bedrooms which contained giant animals such as an Eagle who spreads it's wings the length of the room, a Bear who growled mischievously next to the door and a creepy Kangaroo  whose red eyes glowed menacingly from the corner of the dark room. The strange nature of the buildings contrasts starkly with the surrounding French-colonial architecture and throughout the years has been branded by the council and locals as an eyesore which should be torn down. In her attempts to indulge her fantastical mind, Hang Nga has been seen as crazy within the community  for creating an ultimate free standing fantasy world. Madame Nga has never given up on her dream though and fought for her right to express herself and finally in 2007, seventeen years after construction started, she finally received official approval from the government allowing her to continue work on a building which has become an inextricable part of her identity. These days busloads of tourists pour through the doors everyday marveling at what might possibly be the strangest building in Asia.


Welcome to the Crazy House.
It sure is.

The view of the Crazy House from the street outside.
An initial sketch drawn by Madame Nga in the design stages of The Crazy House
The main house from the drawing above, brought to life.
Gnarled concrete tree trunks have burst through the ground and support the tree houses above.
The Eagle Room where you can stay for $35. The bed is tucked into a recess in the wall which looks over the compound and the city of Da Lat.
I half expected to see the Cheshire cat smiling down at me from one of the branches.
The building is a living breathing organism which continues to grow.
The branch pathways.
Some of the pathways run across the roofs of the tree houses. This 'branch' curls over the top of the main house depicted in the sketch shown earlier on.
Real plants had merged with the concrete trees.
Inside the tree houses, a labyrinthine network of passages connected the complex together.
Madame Nga's Crazy House, go see it!