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Little army of crabs (live) at Ben Thanh

Today we benefited greatly from Tim and Erica’s driver Cuong. He dropped us at the Sinh Café so that we could ask about options for travelling on to the Mekong and to see if it is possible to cross over to Cambodia by boat rather than land. We had not planned to go to Cambodia but have met a few people along the way who have talked a lot about the Angkor Temples at Siem Reap. Tim and Erica were there at New Year and also said they were worth the detour so hence yet another change to our planned route.

The Sinh café lived up to its reputation of being all things to Backpackers and they had a full brochure of different tours and trips you can do with them. Before long we had booked a three day two night tour that would end with us being in Phnom Penh all for the bargain price of US$38 each. No doubt we will get what we pay for but at these prices you cannot really complain.

With tickets in hand Cuong then dropped us at the Ben Thanh market, a large covered market close to the centre of the city. It sold a wide variety of goods and at the main entrances there was a colour coded map on the wall telling you what type of things were where in the market. It was easy to spot the things that tourists mainly look for as the legend next to those colours was in English as well as Vietnamese.

We started in the fish section where there was a wide variety for sale. There were fish of all different shapes and sizes including some that looked like small sharks. At one stall where very small fish were for sale there were all neatly arranged in rows in a big plastic box with tails down and heads gaping at the waterline. The crabs were also neatly arranged in rows. Snails and other shellfish were also available as were frogs. These were still very much alive a large bag on the counter was squirming from the frogs inside. If someone wanted to buy them they were taken out of the bag and slammed firmly down on the counter to kill them before they were weighed and bagged up to go.

The fruit and veg section was by the fish and meat and we had the usual problem of not knowing what many of them were. Strong wafts of coffee from the many stalls selling freshly roasted beans then led us into the rest of the market. This was a warren of tightly packed aisles full of fake big brand name items from shoes through to undies. It was also the place most geared up for foreign tourists with ladies thrusting clothes and scarves under our noses assuring us that they had sizes to fit all. We later found out that some of the big clothes retailers in the UK (from memory Gap and Next) have factories here so no doubt the markets here are a good source for selling their seconds.

We survived the heat of the clothes stalls and wandered through the household goods in search of a good conical straw hat to bring home with us but to no avail. Other stalls back towards the centre were very geared to the tourist trade selling the usual collection of souvenirs, most of which were pretty tacky. It was a very hot half hour that we spent there but as many of the stalls were still closed from Tet it was cooler than it can otherwise be.


From the market Cuong then took us to the War Remnants Museum, a chilling place to visit but one that it is well worth taking the time to go to. The museum focuses mainly on the American war in Vietnam. The first room has facts and figures about the war to try to give a sense of the scale of operations that were undertaken. One fact that stuck in my mind was the number of bombs dropped by the US. During the war in Vietnam they dropped around eight million, compared to the two and a half million they dropped in World War II.

The main exhibits in the museum are photographic displays that show what the war was like. Many of the photos are from Western (and some Japanese) news journalists who all lost their lives in the war. Short biographies of the journalists are included with their pictures and tell of the brave deeds some of them undertook including leading troops of soldiers out of tricky situations. Many of the photos are of American soldiers in action and some are pretty sickening.

In one a US soldier is swinging part of a body, the severed head with gruesome dangling attachments, of a Vietnamese soldier from the end of his rifle while grinning demonically. The caption claims that he is smiling but I am not sure I agree with this “spin”. One caption told how a journalist, knowing that the US soldiers he was with were about to execute some Vietnamese prisoners, told them to wait until he had taken photos of what were very scared looking people. He then turned away and waited for the gunfire, and hence the executions, to finish.

In a different building other photos tell the story from the perspective of the Vietnamese people and these were much more harrowing to see. One that stuck in both of our minds was a picture of a Vietnamese mother with four or five young children swimming across a river to safety. They had absolute fear on their faces but the need to escape drove them on to complete what looked like a fairly risky crossing. Another showed the sewer that three young Vietnamese children hid in to escape the US soldiers. The soldiers found them, executed them but them proceeded to cut open their stomachs. Why they performed such a barbaric act on already dead children is not explained.

Other photos showed the victims of the Agent Orange defoliant that was dropped across large areas of the country. Severe burns were often the result but the impact has been felt also on the next generation. Children have been born with physical disabilities, deformities and blindness and I suppose only time will tell how many generations will ultimately be affected. A somewhat gruesome exhibit was two separate large glass jars in which dead babies are preserved in formaldehyde and left on public display. One shows a deformed baby with a cleft palette and enlarged head, the other shows deformed Siamese twins.

Also in the museum were some of the Tiger Cages used to detain prisoners. The cells were small, barely the length and twice the width of a small and narrow single bed. In the dry and hot season as many as fourteen people could be crammed into the cages with only half a litre of water a day per person. It must have been hell. The prisoners would rotate who could stand by the door and benefit from the fresher air. The ceilings were an open metal grid and a walkway above enabled the guards to watch over the prisoners and no doubt inflict cruelty.

Torture was also a fact of life in the prisons and a small display details some of the methods used. Water was used as a torture method with it being dripped slowly onto the shaven head of a tied down prisoner. Although probably refreshing at first the continual pressure of the drops in the same place becomes unbearable. Others had their hands and feet tied behind their backs and were then lifted off the ground. Children did not escape with some being told their parents, who were tied up in front of them, would be shot unless they told where their compatriots were. If all else failed the guillotine, imported from France, was at hand to finish the job.

The small collection of tanks and armoured vehicles in the courtyard in the middle of the museum could not compare to the horror and gruesomeness of the pictures inside. Although busy, it was certainly the quietest museum I have visited in a long time as most people were walking around in semi stunned silence simply absorbing and taking in the horrors depicted before them. Seeing the suffering and devastation of war laid out before you like this makes you think. It would be interesting to see the reaction of some of the worlds war mongers to these displays but no doubt they would be immune to the horrors. I can think of a few I would like to bring here!

We went in search of lunch expecting to find something near to the museum. As we planned to go to the Reunification Palace nearby after lunch we had asked Cuong to come and pick us up from there, a decision we quickly regretted as we realised we were in an eateries free zone and it was baking hot. After about fifteen minutes we found a noodle bar who turned on the fans that spew out dry ice as soon as we sat down. It was a welcome place to sit and cool down for a while and they also served up a tasty bowl of noodles.

In the afternoon we went to the Reunification Palace and joined the free tour they provide in English to take you round. The original palace, a grand French colonial affair, was partly destroyed in 1962. It was beyond repair so what still remained was pulled down and a new building erected in its place. The new design incorporated many Chinese rituals and symbols with its design and layout. To us it looked like a very 1960’s style building with large, open, airy but almost soulless rooms and lots of concrete.

Left empty from 1975 to 1990 the building was reopened primarily as a museum, although the grand reception rooms are still used sometimes for meetings. The main reception rooms are very ornate and plush. A large conference room was the first we were shown and they were busy setting out seats and bringing in fresh plants so no doubt a conference of some sort was due imminently.

The President had two separate reception rooms, one for international visitors and one for domestic. The International room was highly decorated and with the Presidents chair slightly raised up on a low platform so that his visitors had to look up to him. The National room was much simpler and with all chairs on the same level. The Vice President also had their own reception room which in terms of grandeur probably falls between the two President’s rooms.

On the second floor were the private apartments of the President and his family. The tour initially takes you to the Presidential office, a spartan affair compared to the opulence of the public rooms downstairs. A door in the corner of the room is the President’s private quick escape route down to the bomb shelter below the building. The large map room next door was a key hub for campaign planning and beyond that a small library which they proudly claimed held two thousand five hundred books. Family apartments occupied the rest of the floor and these made the Presidential office look sumptuous. Here the rooms were bare apart from a few basic pieces of furniture. This floor also housed a small private chapel as the President’s family were Roman Catholic.

The next floor up was the entertainment wing. One large room had a bar (made from a wooden barrel) in one corner overlooking the centre piece of the room – a large circular table and settee which was the Presidential poker table. Other tables in the room were set up for card games or games of Mah Jongg. This floor also housed a small theatre/cinema and doors opened out onto a small flight of stairs leading up to the helicopter landing pad. On the fourth and final floor was another entertainment area. A large airy room, originally designed for meditation, was turned into a dance floor complete with stage for the orchestra.

Down in the basement were more rooms for planning campaigns and battles and the entrance into the secure bomb shelter, which we did not get to see. There were lots of small offices all crammed into a relatively small space to house the various different military and government personnel required in times of emergency. It was funny to see the state of the art radio and communications equipment, now all very obsolete.

Cuong was waiting for us outside when we finished our tour. His temperature gauge confirmed what our bodies had been telling us. It was very hot, 38C. We headed back to Tim and Erica’s did a quick change and went to cool down in the pool. Being a weekday it was very quiet and we pretty much had it to ourselves. The only noise was the sound of people sweeping up the leaves around the garden. Soon though the sun started to dip down behind the trees and the temperature started to drop so that for the first time in days we actually felt cool, so much so that we had to abandon the pool.

Erica had booked us in for much needed haircuts at the place they go to round the corner and with her and Tim having a massage we de-camped en masse. The wonky haircut that Stef had had in HoiAn was soon put to rights and I benefited from a much needed tidy up. We headed back before Tim and Erica so Stef checked our website quickly before dinner. Bad news as we think we may have had another hacker up to their tricks. If so, this one has managed to totally kiboshed our site.

We were treated to another sumptuous feast which we enjoyed under the fans on the patio outside. The conversation turned to our plans for the weekend as we are off to Cat Tien National Park, something we had looked at in Lonely Planet but discounted as a feasible option to get their under our own steam in the time we had available.