Sunday 17 February 2013

Tunnel Rats

Cu Chi tunnel made wider and taller for us big tourists

No visit to Ho Chi Min City, the former Saigon, would be complete without a visit to the famous Cu Chi tunnels and in my opinion for what it’s worth that is the ONLY reason to stop by HCMC. After a week in tranquil Hoi An coming to HCMC was an awful shock. Just another big modern city with more than its fair share of traffic – in fact the most traffic I’ve seen in any city so far. The greatest proportion is motorbike riders, rather surprisingly all wearing their helmets – something that would be considered merely a suggestion in most other Asian cities. The majority of riders also wear these funny cloth masks over their faces that look like half a bra, for the pollution from all the traffic.
I was rather surprised to learn that not everyone has heard of ‘the tunnels’ so here’s a brief synopsis. The tunnels are a 240km network of shallow underground tunnels surrounding HCMC and part of a more extensive tunnel system that covered most of Viet Nam. The ingenuity and sheer effort required to build such a large tunnel system is just staggering – no wonder they won the war! The tunnels were used in the Viet Nam war by the Viet Cong as operations bases supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters. Life in the tunnels was pretty harsh – we were down one of the tunnel routes for about 50 meters and we couldn’t wait to get out! During the war air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and rats. At any given time half the tunnel population was affected by malaria and intestinal parasites. The occupants would normally stay down during the day, only coming out at night to launch attacks or look after their crops. If there was a bombing raid or troop movement above (often the Americans were marching right over the top of these tunnels without being aware of them) the people in the tunnel would be stuck in the tunnels for days at a time.
Tunnel entrance
The entrance from a tunnel was just a square wooden lid, just wide enough for a person’s shoulders to fit thru, in the jungle floor covered in leaf litter and completely indistinguishable from the surrounding ground. The first level of the tunnel was crouching height and person width – I managed to walk along easiest when I bet double and hung my arms down in front of me like an ape ;-) Eventually you come to a room that is stepped down and may be used as a meeting area, sleeping chamber or kitchen.

The different levels of tunnels. If you look at the second large square on the left this is a kitchen room showing the graduated venting chambers for the cooking smoke. Also note the escape tunnel on the right underwater out into the Saigon River.
The kitchens used a rather ingenious venting system to dispel the cooking smoke up to 500 metres away. First the smoke would pass into a nearby chamber. When that was full it would pass into another chamber then another eventually venting out thru tiny holes in a natural termite mound so as to be virtually undetectable.
There were also several more levels of tunnels each getting shallower until the lowest level which was only passable by wriggling thru. They couldn’t build the tunnels any lower than the water table and the tunnels would have an escape exit into the Saigon River – under water so that the exit was not visible by passing enemy boats.
Booby trap with uni-directional swing door

Looking at trap with Kate & Tristan

Interestingly it was an Australian specialist engineering troop, 3 Field Troop, under the command of Captain Sandy MacGregor that was the first to really venture into and search the tunnels for four days, finding ammunition, radio equipment, medical supplies, food and signs of Viet Cong presence. The Americans had been unsuccessful in penetrating the booby trapped tunnels and were told to gas the entrances, throw down hand grenades and ‘crimp’ the entrance so that it couldn’t be used anymore. The Aussies with their successful penetration were able to reveal the immense military significance of the tunnels. At an International Press Conference in Saigon shortly after this revelation, MacGregor referred to his men as Tunnel Ferrets. An American journalist, having never heard of ferrets, used the term Tunnel Rats and it stuck. Following his troop's discoveries in Cu Chi, Sandy MacGregor was awarded a Military Cross.

Of course at the end of our tunnel tour we got to fire off an original weapon of choice - this is R hammering the target. Mine was a round of ten single shots from an AK47 accompanied by squeals between each shot.

Sunday 10 February 2013

The People You Meet When Travelling

007 here – in my hand that is. It’s the first cocktail on the list – ‘007 Bond Martini’ – vodka, gin & a touch of ‘Martini’, shaken, not stirred.
‘What?’ cried R, ‘I thought martini was the cocktail!?’
Yes, but there’s some bastard bottle of spirit called martini that some lesser mortals add to a martini with the express intention of ruining the vodka & gin by ‘smoothing’  it out – completely takes the character out of the martini in my opinion.
Anyways, we were on a mission here of the 007 kind – that is to get through all 28 cocktails on the cocktail list. I mean to say darling, if one has to be holed up in the middle of Viet Nam at a resort one might as well make the most of it. Having said that however, we have to endure a positively atrocious something called a ‘Belle Melon’ – I suspect it was made with midori and cream, as well some awful blue thing that tasted and looked like ‘Harpics blu loo’ toilet cleaner. When I baulked – well, actually made gagging noises and actions – R said with a smug look;
‘Ah, you don’t complete the challenge if you don’t drink it all!’
Bugger! I tossed it back in one go. So here we were in the Hoi An, cultural centre of Viet Nam doing some ridiculous cocktail challenge but really it was strategy to keep us warm in the unexpected sub-arctic temperatures. Yep, we’d forgotten to check the weather conditions before we packed and were a bit surprised to find tits freezing off weather – well, I may be exaggerating slightly but I was in woollies.

We were joined by other equally half frost-bitten Aussies all here on a ‘too good to pass up’ Groupon deal. The surprising thing was that nearly all of us were well travelled, not first timers, just out for a spot of R&R. The deal included daily spa treatments which the blokes, all looking rather embarrassed about the whole thing, commiserated with each other about their ‘papaya wraps’, facials, too small paper undies none the less marked XL that they were asked to change into.
Kate & Tristan Anderson on a river tour with us
 Kate & Tristan were on their honeymoon from Melbourne, having met each other doing late gap years in Europe. Tristan regaled us by mimicking his eye popping moment on the masseuse table when the male masseuse leaped up and straddled on top of him to massage his back – awkward. Kate and Tristan had been married on the family farm and as Kate was getting dressed into her bridal gown at the nearest hotel she received a text from Tristan asking her to look into the antique cheval mirror in the room. ‘Every day for the rest of our lives you will look into this mirror and remember this day and how much I will always love you’ – he had bought the cheval mirror for Kate knowing she had always wanted one and had it especially placed into the room she would use to get ready – sigh, so romantic!
Then there was Kimon and Sondra with little Caris from Perth who had been globetrotting many times including a recent trip up the Amazon, Galapagos and to the Ice Hotel in Lapland. They were off to mingle with Dianne Fosseys gorillas in Rwanda which we thought was such an excellent idea that we fully intend to follow them in December for my 50th.
Kimon told us a funny story about a South African mate of his working up in the remote outback town of Australia called Leonora on a five year tenure as the town’s G.P. (doctor) – you see the Australian government doesn’t quite trust foreign doctors to tend to city folk properly so they give them a trial by fire in remote areas first and if they don’t kill anyone there then they’re allowed to practice in the city. Anyways, a heavily pregnant aboriginal lady came in to his clinic for a check-up with her husband. Later the doctor noticed his wallet was missing off his desk. It had more cash in it than usual because the doctor had done a bit of Botox on side earlier in the day. Immediately he picked up the phone and rang around the pubs, asking the publicans if anyone had been holding up the bar, sprinkling around a few more fifty’s than usual. Sure enough the pregnant lady's husband had been in there drinking up a storm and shouting the whole bar. The good doctor then very diplomatically went to speak to the ‘Elders’ about the situation. He just wanted his cards back because it was so inconvenient to have to replace them all, never mind about the cash. The Elders didn’t like his chances because of the loss of face. The next time the lady came in for her maternity check-up (there was no other doctor in town for her to go to) the good doctor said to her ‘Look, I know your husband took my wallet and I’ve spoken to a witchdoctor friend of mine in South Africa and he says if your husband doesn’t return the wallet within 1 week bad things will happen’.  No wallet appeared and he heard on the grapevine the couple had left town, fleeing to nearby Laverton. He also heard that the husband had been involved in a very serious car accident just after they reached Laverton….