Thaipusam. What the hell just happened?

Aside from the disjointed rhythym of multiple drum troupes echoeing off and around the huge Karst outcrops that welcome visitors to Batu Caves, one of the first things I note after disembarking from the unusually busy KTM commmuter train is a brilliant disc of silver light slung low in the milky dark suburban skyline.

The moon is in full phase tonight and this is why I, along with many thousands of others who have been gathering throughout the night, have assembled at this most auspicious location for Malaysian Hindus.

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The arrival of the full moon during the Tamil Indian month of Thai is the signal for over a million devotees to visit the sacred cave temples at Batu on the City’s northern fringes to bring offerings to Lord Murugan, the spear-wielding Hindu god of war and victory.

For those of a more extreme disposition, the celebration also presents an opportunity to pay penance for their moral weakness through pulling chariots or other sizeable objects using only hooks attatched to their bodies, or piercing their tongues and faces with a variety of spear-like implements known as “vel”.

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Welcome to the eye-opening spectacle that is Thaipusam.

Brought to Malaya as plantation labour during the days when Brittania not only ruled the waves, but a significant part of the land mass of the entire globe, the local population is comprised of a significant Tamil Indian minority who these days number comfortably over two million people.

By the end of today’s proceedings, countless members of this community will have visited the Temple Cave, a normally quiet complex inside the huge cavernous opening.

As the sun climbs steadily into the tropical sky, many worshippers, clad in brilliant yellow, can be seen carrying pots of milk on their freshly-shaven heads.  Others, who have walked bare-footed through the night from the Sri Maha Mariamman temple in central Kuala Lumpur, will have carried a burden in the form of a huge and ornately decorated frame known as “Kavadi” or will arrive lanced and pierced by dozens of hooks.

Passing the 43-metre high gold-painted statue of Murugan who guards the entrance to the caves, a sething mass of devotees will then have to climb 272 arduous steps to reach their final goal and deliver their offerings to their God.

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The bearers of kavadi will have spent the past month spiritually preparing themselves for this day.  A strict vegetarian diet will have been adhered to for a month, as would a vow of celibacy.  In the days immediately prior to the festival, the worshippers will also have been fasting.

This limited diet, combined with the physical demands of bearing Kavadi on a long sole-less hike through the suburbs, the endless hypnotic rhythyms of the accompanying percussion bands, and the consuming religious ceremonies they will have undergone over the past few hours result in some followers being in a state of rabid-like trance when they arrive at the foot of the caves.

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Flailing limbs, piercing screaches, wailing, chanting, dribling of saliva and the lolling of stained tongues.  None of this seems particularly out of place after a short while in the company of Murugan devotees.

The “vel” bearers will have ceremonially lanced their tongues, lips and cheeks to prevent them from speech, whilst numerous others will have a variety of fruits, bells and miniature milk pots dangling from their pierced hides.

Those who carry significant Kavadi appear to have a well-drilled support team in tow (sometimes literally “in tow” as they are restrained in their mania by chains and harness ropes), who provide the bearer with water, food or a plastic stool for resting.

Some of the devotees both look and dance as though possessed, others seem serene and other worldly offering blessings to those who approach and request as much.

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I note that the trance-like state varies between groups as if it is to an extent a learned behaviour influenced from those nearest to them and reinforced by an accepted group conduct.  Tongue-lollers are often accompanied by other tongue-lollers from their Temple whilst other Temple groups display none of this trait.  There is an element of mass hysteria taking place here today, of that I have little doubt.

The heavily littered banks of the Sungai Batu River are the backdrop for some of the most surreal activity I witness.  Rows of makeshift tarpauline barbershops serve to clean worshippers of head hair whilst open air showers allow the faithful to cleanse themselves before the final walk to the caves.

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Nestled beneath what is normally a busy highway but today a procession route, one showering area is surrounding by temporary shrines where holy men give blessings, flames are lit and bodies are pierced and decorated.

The combination of tired minds and unpredictable mania leaves me ill at ease in the unmanouvrable company of one group of devotees when a substantial amount of burning material comes worryingly close to my face whilst being held aloft by a dancing, bug-eyed, and drooling worshipper.

A priest lays hands on the head of people, one of whom collapses into a fit-like state right in front of me.  A woman has her brow pierced seemingly without any antispeptic nor painkiller and a man erupts into a series of animalistic grunts and screams whislt lashing out wildly with his arms and legs.

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All of this is accompanied by the endless drum patterns and chanting of “vel vel shakti vel” as the group work themselves into hysterics.

Thaipusam.

I have been fortunate to see many interesting things in my life and visit some of the worlds greatest festivals, but today, a mere 20 or so kilometres from where I live, was by far and away the strangest morning of my entire life.

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The return.

OK, so it’s been two years since my blog abruptly ended, so apologies for the silence but please allow me to explain…

Our travel adventure stopped suddenly when whilst in the charming cloth capital of Hoi An, Vietnam I received a call from my sister.

I knew there was bad news because my family never call me unless something is seriously wrong.

It was my mother.  She had been diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer.  I didn’t need an explanation.  I knew immediately that it was terminal.

Seven months later my mother passed away with my dad, my sister and myself at her bedside.

My world and the world of my immediate family had changed forever.

At the time of the phone call I was part way through creating a blog post I had planned to rather lamely name “Suits you Sir!”.  It still sits on my MacBook hard drive, though after the news came through I wasn’t in the frame of mind to cut & paste, let alone write about the plethora of tailors of Hoi An, it’s colourful townsfolk nor the UNESCO protected architecture of the city.

Now, two years on I think it’s time to resurrect the blog.

I have travelled extensively in the interim period.  The UK (of course) several Malaysian islands, a few trips to Thailand, a holiday in Bali, Hong Kong and even Perth, Western ‘Stralia.

I enjoyed each, but never felt inspired enough to get back behind the keyboard.

That was until we visited Nepal.

A hike around the Annapurna region in the shadows of soaring 8000 metre mountains really should have deserved a post or two.

Awe inspiring on the eye, physically demanding on the body and refreshingly removed from the perma-wired necessities of modern city life, our post-Christmas trip to Nepal made me review my silence.

I like writing and I like photography.

I may not be good enough to make a living out of either, but hey, I enjoy it so why not do it?

So here we are.  The return.

I hope it is worthwhile…

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The year of the dragon : Dalat

The hill station town of Dalat works at a much more leisurely pace than much of what we have seen of Vietnam. Without suffering from the tropical heat of the lowland South, the inhabitants seem able to chill a bit more and trade aggression for assertiveness.

The central market displays a range of fruit & veg more familiar to European market shoppers than their SE Asian equivalents. Potatoes, lettuce, apples and strawberries are offered for sale along with the usual exotic fayre.

Swansea City FC boat, cone on you swans, COYS

Come on you Swans! "The Boy" gets an early indoctrination into his footballing future.

This French influenced town, nestled upon a series of hills tumbles down to a glistening man-made lake.

Set in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, the cool climate and relative tranquility of Dalat makes it a popular location for domestic honeymooners.

These lovebirds are given  ample opportunity to demonstrate their feelings for each other by hiring out swan shaped pedalos by the hour in order to take a romantic paddle on the lake waters.

With a twinkle in my eye, I suggest we treat “The Boy” to a boat trip.  Unfortunately his appreciation of my pseudo-romantic gesture and the joint efforts of our pedalling labours is quickly shown as he falls asleep within two minutes of us casting off our mooring.

I consider this behaviour to be totally unacceptable given that the swans are designed for use by Vietnamese boaters who are on average a mere one sixteenth of my size.

Talk about lactic burn?  My legs were on fire for most of the hour.

Dalat, Love, kitsch, cheesy, flowers, teddy bears

Love is in the air all around Dalat. Kitsch and cheesy, what better way to say "I love you" than with a giant teddy bear?

Other Dalat “must-do” outings include a romantic visit to the “Valley of Love” and a dreamy stroll through the flower gardens.

With its series of incredibly kitsch and manicured parks, Dalat is enough to make a real man vomit.

The only half decent tourist pull in the town itself for any self-respecting hetero male is the so-called “Crazy House”, a fairytale quirk of architecture at once influenced by both the work of Antonio Gaudi, the novels of Tolkien and a sixth-form stoner’s bad trip.

With it’s soaring towers of masonry designed to look like banyan trees linked by a series of warped walkways, each structure within the crazy house complex hides a series of unique and idiosyncratic chambers that also double as hotel rooms.

crazy house, Dalat, vietnam, gaudi, architecture.

The "crazy house", Dalat.

This flight of fancy has been over twenty years in construction and stands in stark contrast to most of the contemporary architecture in Vietnam which appears to come straight from the communist handbook of brutal concrete construction.

After exploring numerous nooks and crannies, we made our way back to the hotel (I think we were the only guests) and prepared to spruce ourselves up.

For our last evening in Dalat was to be a special one.

Over the past days (weeks even) the country had been building up to the celebration of (Chinese) New Year, known locally as “Tet”.

Along the banks of the lake a huge quantity of firework had been assembled.  Small kumquat trees were selling like hot cakes before being dangerously bundled onto the back of already unstable and overloaded motorbikes for the ride home.

There was a buzz of anticipation in the rapidly chilling air as the sun dropped behind the hills for the last time this lunar year.

By early evening the streets were filling with vendors of hot food and huge red balloons.

Tet, Vietnam, Chinese new year, year of the dragon, red balloons, chuc mung nam moi

The evening leading up to the Tet new tear celebrations sees numerous balloon vendors hitting the streets of Vietnam

As evening turned to night, dancing dragons made an appearance on the streets, the youth of the town executing the well-choreographed routines they had been working on for weeks.

Then, at the stroke of midnight, the booming began, the sky lit up and we ushered in the year of the dragon with a greeting of “Chuc mung nam moi”, the Vietnamese equivalent of “happy new year”.

Welcome then “The year of the dragon”.

Now I’m not a superstitious kind of guy, but surely as the dragon is seen as being the luckiest of lucky symbols, then it’s worth a tenner on Wales for the 6 Nations this year?

So there you have it.   My must-back nap of 2012.

I hereby claim my 10% cut of any wins.

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Winds of change: Mui Ne

Having endured a painful five-hour bus crawl northwards from Saigon (for the large part through endless urban sprawl and repetitive communist architectural monstrosities) we finally pitch up at the coastal resort of Mui Ne.

Mui Ne is a resort known for two things: wind and sand.

Windsurfer, Mui Ne, Windsurfing Vietnam
Windsurfer, Mui Ne

The winds which blow off the South China Sea are pretty much incessant, lending themselves to some fine kitesurfing and wind surfing.

These sports have become the mainstay of tourism in the area and as one stares along the 15km resort front.

For much of the day the sky is dotted with a colourful melange of kites.  Beneath these colourful canopies, kitesurfers of all abilities try to hit a wave and get “big air”, or at the least, manage to stand up on the board for more than two seconds.

The downside of these winds is that much of the sand on the beachfront has been blown away, revealing a bare concrete breakwater at the foot of many hotels.

Kitesurfing, Kitesurfers, Mui, Ne, Vietnam
Kites dominate the skyline along Mui Ne beach

The winds of change were not only sculpting the coastline here at Mui Ne, but they were also at play with our travel plans.

It was here that we made the decision to cut our trip through Vietnam short. We had been hugely disappointed with what we had experienced so far, and in particular the poor transport infrastructure and endless scams and price rigging had sullied our view not just of the country, but more importantly of the people.

Vietnam is the only place I’ve ever been where my default setting was “trust no one”. I feel a constant need to be on my guard and frankly, after nearly six months on the road, it’s not worth the hassle.

It is a sad state of affairs, but is also a feeling shared by numerous, if not the majority of visitors to this country (well at least with those to whom we had spoken).

Those with a bigger budget or the ability to really get off the beaten track seem to get the most out of this testing country.  On a tight budget and with a baby preventing us from just jumping on an “easy rider” bike and doing a Dennis Hopper, we were truly in the firing line.

"The Boy" checks out the wind and surf conditions, Mui Ne
“The Boy” checks out the wind and surf conditions

We therefore decided that after a diversion into the hills to the city of Dalat, we would head on down to Danang and then Hoi An, before flying the hell out of Nam.

But first of all, we had some sand dunes to see.

Riding in a battered jeep, our initial halt is at the Fairy Stream, an insignificant river that winds its way through he dunes behind Mui Ne where a feeble hand written sign informs us it is prohibited to proceed without a guide.

Sensing this to be a work of utter bollocks, we proceed regardless.

The area has been likened to a miniature version of the Grand Canyon. From what I saw, and from my wife’s experience of both, I can only assume this description was given by someone who has never been to Arizona.

Steep, red, sand hills overlook the valley as it winds through sparse bamboo copses lending it a distinct and curious charm as we waded ankle-deep along the sandy riverbed.

Walking along the "Fairy Stream", Mui Ne
Walking along the “Fairy Stream”, Mui Ne

A troop of young boys tails us along the stream yet never approach us with any propositions. Most unusual in these parts….

Not to worry though, when we returned to the path where some had left their flip-flops as advised, they found that in order to get them back they would need to pay a “minding fee”.

With flip-flops already in hand, we were able to walk straight out

My cynical relationship with the Vietnamese had just saved us US$2!

Our next stop was the fishing village where the stench of fish sauce which had already whacked us as we approached the Fairy Stream, took on a whole new dimension of pungency.

The seafront was completely carpeted with discarded clam shells which crunched underfoot as I walked upon them. An armada of colourful fishing boats bobbed on the tide, whilst on shore, boat maintenance was taking place apace.

Boat Maintenance, Mui Ne
Boat Maintenance, Mui Ne

Young women in traditional headwear crouched around plastic baskets sorting the day’s shellfish catch. With its long stretch of coastline, this part of Vietnam is a seafood lover’s wet dream. Of course, just be sure that the bill is correct….

The main event of the day is a trip to the dune fields 15 or so kilometres north of Mui Ne.

The scale of these sculpted sand hills is very impressive and immediately encourages me to slip into Lawrence of Arabia mode, but with no camels at hand it was either rent a dune buggy or walk.

The dunes of Mui Ne range in colour from white, through gold to a clay court red.  The most massive of these dunes are the white ones at Bao Trang, allegedly the driest place in all of South-East Asia.

The dunes of Mui Ne curve into the distance

The dunes of Mui Ne curve into the distance

Curving in perfect arcs above us, the white dunes cut a stark profile against the tropical sky.

The going was heavy as we hiked up hill, but upon cresting the top of a ridge it was possible to jump off and freefall for a few metres before landing in a commando roll on the soft sand below.

For the adventurous there was the opportunity to sleigh down the step dune faces on small blue-plastic seats, before hauling oneself all the way back to the top.  Not so much fun in the tropical heat!

The Mui Ne dunes stretched for several kilometres inland and though no Erg Chebbi, they are substantial nonetheless.

A Backpack, A (dune)Buggy, A Baby, Mui Ne

A Backpack, A (dune)Buggy, A Baby.

My advice to anyone wishing to see the dunes is to get there soon.

With the rate of development taking place on the coastal strip of Vietnam, this area is likely to be a golf course bunker within a decade.

Such is progress.

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Going Underground : The Cu Chi Tunnels

Claustrophobia : The fear of enclosed spaces.

Having studied phobias when training in hypnotherapy a few years ago, I developed an interested in the topic of phobic reactions and the underlying mental processes which allow a principally non-threatening event to become mentally and in extreme cases, physically overwhelming to the sufferer.

I don’t consider my dislike of airless, enclosed spaces to be a genuine phobia. My distaste of such environments is a rationally driven concern that I will usually become uncomfortable in places such as in sweaty overcrowded lifts, rush-hour deep-line tubes or the horrendously overcrowded Mumbai suburban train network.

Staring down the barrel of a gun at Cu Chi

Staring down the barrel of a gun at Cu Chi

I can deal with the situation, but prefer to avoid it in the first place. A coping strategy if you will.

Other people when faced with claustrophobia will become consumed with panic. The very ides of descending into an underground space for example, would send shivers through them.

Good thing then there were no claustrophobics on our tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, one of the most infamous battlegrounds of the Vietnam War.

The tunnels are small, dark and long, but I’ll come to that later.

First up some more first-rate propaganda from the Vietnamese Government, this time in the form of a black & white VT played to the assembled Brits, Aussies, Swedes and Italians, each of whom was too young to remember the war.

The scratched film with a crackling soundtrack shows pitiless B-52 bombers raining down their deadly load upon defenceless villages.

Briefing room before the video, Cu Chi

Our tour leader, a former soldier and ally of the US, educates us about the tunnels and fortifications of Cu Chi

In a magnificent display of ham-acting, villagers run for cover whilst glorious Viet Cong guerrillas fight back against the evil yank foe.

The annoyingly squeaky female narration informs us that “mercilessly, American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside … Like a crazy bunch of devils they fired into women and children … The Americans wanted to turn Chu Chi into a dead land, but Cu Chi will never die!”

In that respect she was right.

After many years of post-war dormancy, Cu Chi is back with a bang, its tunnel networks open to a host of well-fed international guests who think it might be fun to squeeze our fat western arses into a hole that was designed for a guerrilla army far smaller in stature than us.

A deadly trap for ensnaring sniffer dogs sent to search out ventilation shafts, Cu Chi

A deadly trap for ensnaring sniffer dogs sent to search out ventilation shafts

After a superterranean tour of the site where we got to see more war remnants such as part destroyed US tanks and still operational traps once designed to snare sniffer dogs, and in some cases, soldiers upon their lengthy spikes, we were offered the opportunity to let rip with a full arsenal of weaponry in the form of AK 47’s, M16’s, M1’s, M60’s, SKS’s and other sundry pieces of steel designed with an intent to kill.

Of course, this communist country that fought long and hard against the evils of capitalism and profiteering would be charging us a premium for the service.

Ironic really.

After this it was on to the main event and a descent into the underworld created by the Viet Cong to frustrate and ultimately defeat their enemy.

At this site, tunnels were dug with simple tools and bare hands, firstly during French control after WWII and with further expansion, during the Vietnam War.

camouflaged entrance, cu chi tunnels

One of the incredibly narrow and well camouflaged original entrances to the Cu Chi tunnel complex

An extensive tunnel network was created which offered shelter, refuge and a defensive advantage over the American soldiers and their southern Allies.

Despite carpet bombings and defoliation around US bases and in the town (a policy in clear violation of article 25 of the Hague Convention that has been 40 years in cover-up by the US Government), the Cu Chi guerrillas were able to continue their war from beneath the earth, emerging only to strike or to collect supplies under civilian guise.

In these tunnels they slept, ate, planned attacks, and treated the wounded.

As well as serving as ammunition caches, the immense tunnel network (which it is calculated stretched over 120 kilometres) served as supply and communication routes, linking local villages and assisting covert operations.

booby trap device, Cu Chi

A barbed booby trap device which would be fixed upon a doorway or prop inside the tunnels

Searching the tunnels was an extremely hazardous task as they were often rigged with booby trap devices.

The unfortunate soldiers who were sent below ground to flush out the enemy (unkindly known by their comrades as “tunnel rats”) eventually exposed the extent of the network.

Though the tactics of the US and its allies improved, they were ultimately to be frustrated by the operations of this underground enemy a mere 40 kilometres away from the capital, Saigon.

Our tour group leader and a friendly German lady (who sensibly chose to keep her lardy load from causing a serious Cu Chi blockage) offered to keep an eye on “The Boy” whilst we went below.

To descend into the tunnels is to get some perspective as to the harsh conditions the Cu Chi rebels lived in. Narrow, low and dark, the small section open to tourists (approximately 150m) gave plenty of chance to feel what it would be like to live as a mole.

marking positions in the soil, cu chi

In true hollywood style, our tour leader (who claimed to be a vet of the Cu Chi fighting) scrapes some relative positions into the clay soil

Finding the tunnels so low for my frame that it was difficult to squat and move forward without serious stress on my already battered knees, I opted to bail out half way along and let the 0.5 continue the journey on her own.

What a true gent!

The 0.5 emerged a minute or so after I had reached the exit, beaming broadly with pride in the knowledge that as the last one out today, she had been completing the “mop-up operation”.

A good day out all round and something I doubt we’ll ever do again, but the most important thing for me that emerged from my visit was the questioning of whether the “illegal” actions of the US in Vietnam were the original catalyst of the decay in moral authority which so hamstrings their foreign policy to this very day?

descending into the darkness of the Cu Chi tunnels

The 0.5 descends into the darkness of the Cu Chi tunnels

If none of our group can remember the conflict in Vietnam, then I can be sure we all recall the moral dilemma caused by the invasion of Iraq under what were then regarded as dubious, but by now almost universally (at least internationally) accepted as being false, assertions.

A country that once held the moral high-ground and acted as a guardian of virtue has become a pariah to many people across the globe despite all that it has brought in terms of material wealth and cultural influence.

The US may have lost the battle for Vietnam, but it eventually won the war against global communism.

The victory came at great cost in terms of lives on either side.

In terms of the moral authority of the US, it was little more than a Pyrrhic victory.

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An orange twist : Saigon

Aside from the Vietnamese of the delta region being rather lacking in stature, the other trait we have frequently commented upon is the disproportionately high number of deformed people we have encountered over the past few days.

Street Artist, Saigon

Street Artist, Saigon

Puzzled by the anomaly, The 0.5 and I had unsuccessfully tried to assimilate why this might be.

A lack of scanning during pregnancy or a poor diet were possible contributing factors, though why such an obviously high incidence was visible here in Vietnam and not in far less developed Cambodia suggested another, more powerful dynamic was at play.

In Saigon we were to get our answer.

Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now officially known in honour of the Godfather of Vietnamese communism) is the largest and most vibrant city in the country.

Moped accident Vietnam

A recent victim of a Vietnamese RTA. He was riding a moped when hit by a car.

Capital of the south during the American War, it is an intense, hectic metropolis where two-wheelers rule roads which to any and all foreign interpretations, have no rules.

To cross a road in Saigon, is to walk into a nonstop flood of motorbikes and mopeds, holding the hope that your path will be avoided by the next twenty or so Hondas, Piaggios and Yamahas that will be bearing down on you with considerable speed.

To make a succesful crossing one must act like the helmsman of a yacht, making clear and deliberate actions so that any larger vessel is clear of your intentions and thus has the means to avoid you.

No eye contact, no hesitation, just cross.

A Saigon street vendor

A Saigon street vendor - One of many

I’ve heard a statistic that there are 15,000 road deaths in Vietnam each year.  This is an extraordinarily high figure, though on the strength of a few days casual observation I can believe it.

Feeling under the weather and lacking energy, I rest up on our first day in the city, saving my energies for a visit to the War Remnants Museum the following day.

As the name suggests, the museum contains artefacts from the civil war that tore this country apart during the 1960’s and 70’s.

In the museum courtyard, downed Huey helicopters sit alongside tanks and captured heavy artillery whilst inside, a blatantly biased display of propaganda makes a tour of the museum almost painful to endure.

A captured US helicopter, The War R.emnants Museum, Saigon

A captured US helicopter, The War R.emnants Museum, Saigon

The museum tells a sorrowful tale, but sadly one whose power lost in an ocean of biased “party speak”.

America is portrayed as the evil empire, fighting an unjust war against the great people of Vietnam.

There is a truth in this view, which I choose not to discuss here, but the way it is presented to a predominantly well-educated, foreign audience is little short of pathetic.

The saving grace, a section titled “Requiem”, was an almost unbiased exhibition of high-quality, international photo-journalism from the conflict.

war remnants museum images of children affected by Dioxin contamination

The 0.5 observes the images of children affected by Dioxin contamination

Requiem displayed many powerful images of war and its consequences. Some photos were recognisable to me such as “Near Khe San”  taken by the British photographer Larry Burrows.

The images were taken by 134 photographers killed during the conflict including a total of “16 American reporters, 12 French reporters, 11 Vietnamese reporters of the former Saigon regime”.

The Government authorised narrative also informed visitors that amongst the display were images taken by “72 Vietnamese revolutionary martyr-journalists”.

For me, that last comparative description sums the War Remnants Museum up in a nutshell.

Schooled as we are to query facts and opinion, I was not the only one cynically muttering about what we were being told was an unquestionable truth.

How much more powerful would the terrible story of Agent Orange and the Napalm campaigns be if told from a genuinely neutral point of view?

Tank, The war remnants museum , HCMC

"The Boy" inspects a tank at The War Remnants Museum

I knew of both Agent Orange and the US military “scorched earth” campaign before arriving in Vietnam.  What I didn’t know was that the defoliant chemicals used at that time, and specifically the Dioxin in the concoctions were having devastating effects upon the Vietnamese population to this very day.

Those deformed people I mentioned?

Dioxin.

Between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed over 75 million litres of chemical herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam, eastern Laos and Cambodia with the goal of defoliating rural and forested land.

It was thought such actions would deprive guerrillas of food and cover and clear sensitive areas around US bases.

To date it is thought that as many as 3 million Vietnamese have been affected by Agent Orange. It has been suggested that since the war, 5 out of 100 Vietnamese children have been born with birth defects.

As well as mental deficiencies, the effects of Dioxin include cleft palates, extra fingers, grotesque deformities to limbs and other congenital disfigurements.

Whilst medical science has yet to conclusively blame the US defoliation campaign for this anomaly, it is difficult to look beyond it as a cause.

Though the Vietnamese Government are certain of the cause and keen to tell us about it, the pitiful street beggars of Vietnam are perhaps a better testament to the link.

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Market Day: Can Tho

With its numerous fingers of water dividing and reaching seawards after thousands of miles of travel across the nations of South-East Asia, the fertile lands of the Mekong Delta are often characterised as being the rice bowl of Vietnam.

"The Boy" in his lifejacket Can Tho

"The Boy" in his lifejacket, wondering why he has been woken at the crack of dawn

The wide delta slithers through an unexcitingly flat landscape, which though predominantly rural in its manner is nevertheless very densely populated.

The river is both the lifeblood and the soul of the people. It provides their transport routes, their income and their food.

Elongated ribbons of urban development trail the paths of the various Mekong river channels. These main channels are themselves crisscrossed by broad canals that for centuries have acted as the main transport arteries for the people of the Delta.

Tumbledown houses, rickety huts and basic commercial properties cling to tidal embankments. The strung-out development is often no more than a road or two deep.

The further you are from the water’s edge, the greater your disadvantage.

Road travel in these parts is slow and boats still provide the core means of transport.

Barges, dredgers, ferries and water-taxis all hint at a river-based focus, for trade.

Female boat pilot, Can Tho

Our pilot for the day. Unusually, boating in Can Tho appears to be a female dominated trade.

It is this focus that draws us to the town of Can Tho, or to be more specific, the floating markets of Can Tho.

As the largest city in the delta, Can Tho also plays host to its most important centres of exchange. The distinctiveness of these delta markets is that they take place upon the waterways of the city.

Hiring a small boat and pilot for the morning, we join our lady host at 6.30am and set off downstream at a slow pace.

As the people of Can Tho wake to a new day, we see them washing, preparing food, and in one case, taking a jaw-tensing dump into the river.

Passing under a concrete road bridge as the river narrows and bends, ahead of us we can see a flotilla of craft of all different shapes, sizes and colours.

Welcome to the floating markets of Can Tho.

brisk trade, Cai Rang, floating market

Early morning trade is brisk at Cai Rang floating market

In the weak morning light, trade is already brisk.

As we cruise by, pineapples are touted from one craft, melons from the next.

It appears that each vessel specialises in a specific product, be that potato or pumpkin, onion or orange. The accepted method of letting others know of your speciality is to suspend an example of the product from a bamboo pole set high above the deck.

Some boats even offer fresh flowers, a particularly buoyant (excuse the pun) market in these days leading up to the “Tet” celebration of the lunar New Year.

Though we are by no means the only tourists at Cai Rang market, we are still ahead of the tour groups, and are therefore largely anonymous as our thin, shallow-draught vessel merges in with those of the vendors and their customers.

durian, Cai Rang floating market

A sale of the odorous (and odious) fruit, durian, is made at Cai Rang floating market

Every so often a deal is struck and a woman in a conical sun-hat will throw some melons or other fruit towards another conically topped woman whose vessel is parked broadside to that of the vendor.

A monetary exchange takes place and as soon as the brisk trade is concluded, the boats part under oar power.

Hundreds of these transactions take place along this short stretch of river as we navigate between boats and barges. As we do so, we witness some boatmen grabbing a bite on deck, whilst others jump-start their day with a glass of super-strong and excessively sugary Vietnamese coffee.

After three hours on the water, “The Boy” is getting justifiably edgy so we take their mealtime inspiration, call it a day, and head to dry land for our own well deserved breakfast.

Spring Onions, Shibwns, Cai Rang, floating marlet, Can Tho

"Oi mush, how much are 'ewe shibwns?" Spring Onions are prepared for sale from one of the market boats.

The scenes at the floating market had provided us an insight into a way of life that is alien to our culture. The curious display signs and the garb of the market women (particularly with regard to their conical headwear) completed a setting that remains unique to these delta lands.

For these reasons, the otherwise unremarkable city of Can Tho will live long in my memory.

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