Blessed to be a witness

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Tuesday, July 12th

Lying in a darkened room

Descending into Vinh Moc

Vietnamese driving is scary as hell. Scary scary scary. It's second only in my experience of terrible driving to that of India, though Vietnam has fewer cliffside roads to test its mettle, so I could be wrong. Might determines right-of-way. However, it is not always necessarily to the strongest the battle - there's also a streak of arrogance thrown in. Thus while a truck may overtake a bus, which in turn may be overtaken by a minibus (this regardless of oncoming traffic, which might itself be performing a similar permutation), someone driving a BMW or a Merc have earned the divine right to overtake all three vehicles. Motos, bicycles, cattle and ducks are not taken into account during this high-speed roadbound dogfight, since they can fling themselves headlong into the ditch if required, a manoeuvre I had to perform a few times the last time I was here. Of course, it usually works, and everything seems to get back on the correct side of the road (though sometimes I have seen them end up on the incorrect hard shoulder) before armageddon ensues. Usually, mind. Other times there is complete carnage.

Therefore I felt a little trepidation that we hired a minibus to visit the Vinh Moc tunnels, just north of the DMZ. Our driver, however, dispelled any fears I had by driving like a little old granny the whole way, something with which, hypocritically, I began to get frustrated.

The fishing village of Vinh Moc is to me a symbol of why the US was always going to lose in Vietnam. Sick and tired of being bombed to smithereens by B52s and long-range artillery, a significant proportion the villagers decided, rather than to flee and become refugees, just to dig in and wait things out. It took a mere 20 months for them to sink a huge network of tunnels up to 30 metres deep into the sandstone, into which something like 400 people retreated and hid for seven years. Seventeen children were born underground. There was a nursery and a maternity room, wells, individual family chambers, bathrooms, a communal kitchen, and a meeting room in which were shown movies and cabarets.

The tunnels are cool and surprisingly spacious. Unlike other tunnel networks in Vietnam, they have hardly been altered since the days they were used in earnest - occasionally propped up and smoothed, and lighting has been put in in the past five years. They are served by thirteen entrances, some of which lead out onto a beautiful beach.

Naturally the villages were encouraged to sink their village by the Viet Cong, and were indeed later employed by the same as a conduit for supplying a nearby island-based VC command centre. But the point is that regular villagers pulled together to achieve a task, in a makeshift fashion, that in most cultures would have been utterly ignored. If regular people were prepared to make such sacrifices, in such a surreptitious fashion, then what chance did a 'regular' fighting force have against such techniques employed by guerillas intent on destroying the enemy?

The next minibus trip, with the same reassuringly conservative driver, was three hours south of Hue to the lovely village of Hoi An, the next day, through Danang and past China Beach, as well as going through the longest road tunnel I've ever seen. I learned subsequently that it had only just opened, and that "motos and trucks carrying explosives" are banned from it. Phew.

Hoi An - the only picture I managed

To my mind, Hoi An is one of the most charming places on earth. Used since the 16th century as a trading post by people from, variously, the Philippines, Japan, France, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, China, and of course Vietnam, its architectural tradition is rich. The place burned down in the 19th century, but when it was rebuilt, the cosmopolitan influence was retained when it was rebuilt. The river silted up a long time ago, but the town was mercifully unhurt by US bombing, and it is still a gorgeous conglomeration of styles.

Of course, it's significantly different from my last visit, but it's still fantastically pleasant, in a different manner. Before, it was all sleepy and historical. Now it has more life, and a plethora of haute cuisine and chi-chi gift shops, and most of all a plethora of tailors. Tailors, tailors, tailors everywhere. Ten years ago there were ten, with a deserved reputation for working in raw silk. Now there are more than 200. I bought a tailored suit of dubious quality for about US$40, and M went totally ballistic shopping, and I shan't even think about what was spent.

Last time I was here I got a stomach ailment that bore all the hallmarks of giardiasis, the details of which you really don't want to know. I spent several days and nights lying in a darkened room groaning and running to the bathroom, before eventually embarking on a course of antibiotics. And, appropriately, this time I managed to get sick again, though mercifully just with a fever and severe fatigue, but still I languished in a darkened room for a few days before eventually embarking on a course of antibiotics. Unfortunately it meant that I missed out on renting a moto and taking a spin around the town and surroundings, which are equally charming. But I was glad to get well again.

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