Our friendly bus drivers got us to Da Nang in good time for our train which was about half an hour late in arriving and the journey passed without incident. I spent the night on the top of three bunks with little or no head room but managed to catch up on my diary despite the pencil bouncing over the page as we trundled over the tracks. I even succeeded in sleeping for short bursts until my hips hurt as they dug into the wooden bunk through the thin mattress and I was forced to turn over. I had added extra cushioning in the form of my inflatable sleep mat which, I am sure, gave me at least a few minutes of extra sleep as I definitely slept better than I had on the outward journey without it (or maybe I was just extra tired!?).
We had been advised not to use one of the taxi companies by our in-country agent, Kwah and we were not entirely sure how far it was from the railway station to our hotel and so how much we should expect to pay, so there was always going to be a an element of “winging it” when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. I think we were also a little bit blase and definitely rather sleepy and most of the group were happy to just follow a leader and go with the flow. We had managed to find a couple of minibuses quite easily in Da Nang to take us where we wanted and we were probably guilty of thinking that a friendly and trustworthy bus driver would present himself here as well. This was not to be the case and the next half an hour proved to be quite stressful and not a few impatient and tetchy words were exchanged between team members and us. I put my hand up here as a guilty party – anxious not to take over but probably overestimating the capacities of a very tired group of young people, I tried to push them to make decisions and for somebody to step forward and take the responsibility of organising the transport. In retrospect, this was definitely one of the elements of transport that it would have been good to have planned in advance. Nevertheless, eventually, once the concourse had emptied of all the other travellers and the initial clamour of taxi drivers trying to take our bags and shove us into taxis had gone, a group of the students did step forwards and phoned a taxi company and we managed to get 4 taxis together to take us to our hotel. We paid well over the odds – another lesson learned, but we all arrived safely despite some confusion about who was in which taxi!
The hotel was a tall and narrow building in a busy street, our rooms were spread out over 4 floors, no lift and a narrow staircases up which we had to negotiate our luggage, but the rooms were clean and the showers were exceedingly welcome! Half an hour to settle in and then a meeting to decide what to do for the short time we had in this giant of a city. A few of the team were keen to go out to the local markets and have a smooch around, take in the atmosphere and generally experience the hum of the big city. The rest of the team was happy to relax in their rooms, have leisurely showers and watch the TV! The food team still had to recce a place for tea and so a meeting time was set, warnings about what to do in the city were given, we checked that they all had a means of contacting us and then they were off. Howie and I had a welcome coffee down the street and had a catch up about how the next 24 hours was going to pan out before having a little wander around ourselves.
We invited Kwah and his family to eat with us as we had to return the train tickets to them and check up on some details about getting to the airport. The “food group” had identified the restaurant next door to the hotel as a possibility and that is where we ate. It was a little disappointing on the last night to not venture a little further afield and find a more traditional restaurant but I really think that the team were ready to go home and adventure was the last thing they wanted!
There was some discussion about what we should do on our very last morning. We had to be out of the hotel by 12.00, taxis had been arranged to pick us up at 12.30pm to get us to the airport in good time – the last thing we wanted to do was miss the plane home! It was clear that a few of the team would have been happy to hang around the hotel until the taxis arrived, but the majority were keen to make the most of their last few hours in South East Asia. Some wanted to see temples, others the markets but most wanted to find out more about the dreadful recent history of Vietnam. So, we headed to the War Remnants Museum which tells the story of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. Once again we underestimated the time it would take us to walk to a place but it was a lovely day and it was fascinating being out in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. We struggled to find somewhere that sold bread to buy for our breakfast but eventually managed to assemble enough loaves from the roadside sellers for everyone to have one. By now, we were pretty confident about crossing roads, and there were even traffic lights that the motorists and bikers took some notice of that provided brief respite from the moving traffic and allowed us to cross the road without having to dodge between oncoming bikes and cars! What we were not prepared for were the hoards of motor cyclists who bypassed the traffic lights and hopped on to the pavement to steal a few extra minutes from their journey time! Negotiating a wall of motorbikes coming towards you and trying to keep an eye on our 14 charges caused us some anxiety but we all came out unscathed, thankfully.
We only had an hour and a half in the museum to ensure that we had enough time to get back and to get ourselves some lunch, but for most of us it was enough. The images of civilians and soldiers being killed, the photos of the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical weapons, the propaganda reports in the newspapers and the first-hand stories of both Vietnamese and American soldiers were graphic and shocking and left little to the imagination. For Howie and me who had some memories of seeing TV reports and hearing about the Vietnam War through documentaries and films, it was disturbing enough, for the youngsters in our charge, the majority of whom had barely even heard of the Vietnam War before planning to go on this expedition, the material they saw was mind-numbing. They were shell-shocked. Some of them came to talk to us to ask for some explanations, others could only take so much of the images and went to sit outside. I don’t think any of them were unaffected by what they saw even if they were not particularly interested in history and the military. It would be interesting to know how many of them talk about it to their parents and friends, maybe it will take some time before they feel ready to talk about what they saw, and maybe they never will but I am sure that those images will live with them for ever and some time in the future they will reflect on them and they will somehow put some perspective on them. I started off taking photos of some of the images but after a while I stopped – it somehow seemed rather voyeuristic and I realised that I didn’t need physical images to help me remember what I saw and read in the short time we were there. I intend to take some time to read more about that history now that I have been in Vietnam and amongst the Vietnamese people who were all kind, generous and friendly wherever we went.
The next 24 hours happened – we made it to the airport safely and far too early but Howie and I were happier that it was early rather than late! The team passed the time in the airport playing the by now obligatory card game that Vu and his friends had taught them in the Vietnamese stilt village and it was soon time to board and take the final leg of our journey back home.
A group of 14 very tired, but very happy students and 2 very tired and very relieved leaders arrived back in Auckland to a welcoming party of parents and relatives in Auckland after an adventure in two countries, seven cities and lots of travelling with new found friends that was full of memories they would remember for a long time to come.