Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Cambodia: Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields

'Imagine all the people living life in peace,
you may say am a dreamer, but am not the only one'
                                                 -John Lennon

Cambodia, the realm of the Gods has cast a spell on many a person who has ever set foot into this enchanting Kingdom. Famous for the spectacular temples of Angkor Wat, a temple that perhaps is only equaled by a few select spots on earth, such as Machu Picchu or Petra is majestic as it is breathtaking. As you explore the country you encounter the hustle and bustle of two great heavyweight cities; Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. To the south you encounter beautiful beaches and deserted Islands that can only be described as paradise. Places such as Kep and Kampot have an evocative French colonial atmosphere that makes you feel as if you are in a bygone age, with its sweeping boulevards and old French shops. In contrast to such beauty the country has a much darker and depressing history. As you delve deeper you descend into the hell of the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields, S-21 Security Prison and Torture Center, Civil War and Genocide that resulted in the murder of millions of innocent people in the late 1970s. Pol Pot and his psychopathic revolution devastated a country but did not destroy the indomitable spirit of the people. For a people who have been to hell and back, who live in a country that is one of the poorest in the world and is considered to be in worse shape than even the Congo, they are simply the most beautiful, inspiring and positively infectious people I have ever met. For me the real treasure of Cambodia is its people as you will see.
On the 27th October we arrived in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh and I was greeted with smiles and optimism from the people. This was in total contrast to how I was greeted when we first arrived in North Vietnam. As I was waiting on the side of the road during a pit stop in the middle of nowhere, some children came cycling past me as they were going home from school. I smiled and waved at the on coming traffic being polite and happy to see them. A young boy on the back of his friends bike looked at me and raised his hand up as if to wave back, but, instead as he slowly raised his hand up in front of his face, he gave me a rye smile, and a different gesture was returned in the shape of the big fat middle phalange. I had to laugh at my welcome to Vietnam, very Scouse indeed.

Phnom Penh is a very vibrant city that is set against the Tonle Sap River and is home to the Royal Palace. Here it is impossible to ignore the extremes that form this city; poverty and excess, past and present, charm and chaos. When we arrived it was a weekend of celebration for the people of Phnom Penh, it was a national holiday in honor of the Kings fathers birthday. We spent our first day rambling around the city and sampling some of Cambodia's culture. As you walk along the tight busy streets one thing hits you hard and that's the weather, it is intensely hot and humid and you sweat constantly, but, I am not complaining to much when you compare it to the bleak weather back home. During the night we ate some traditional food outside the night market; baby cow is the main attraction on the menu that everyone indulges in. It is cooked whole on a giant spite and served with some rice and spices and is all washed down with a big pitcher of Angkor beer for good measure.

Since a lot of the cities main attractions were shut due to the National Holiday, we were at a loss of what to do on our last day in the capital. As we left our hotel, a tuck tuck (taxi) driver approached us and he asked us do we want  to go on a tour of S-21 Genocide Museum and the killing Fields. I was instantly intrigued when he explained some of the history behind this grim but fascinating place from Cambodia's darker past. We decided to go on this full day tour, which was not planned and very spontaneous giving the trip an even more interesting feel. We set off to the infamous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former security office better known as S-21, the office set up on the orders of Pol Pot on April 17th 1975 for the detention, interrogation, inhumane torture, and killing of detainees
Tuol Sleng, former office S.21 was actually a school before it became a scene from hell
On the 17th April 1975 Pol Pot, brother number 1 in the Khmer Rouge regime marched into Phnom Penh and implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of society ever attempted; its goal was pure revolution, untainted by those that had gone before, to transform Cambodia into a peasant agricultural cooperative. Within days the entire population of cities and towns across the country were forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for up to 12-15 hours a day. Pol Pot's deranged idea was to develop an economic society that was based on the cultivation of rice that would be totally self sufficient. It promptly cut its ties with the outside world, abolished money and proclaimed the new rule as Year Zero. Anyone who showed disobedience or opposition was immediately executed; similarly intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, children, the sick, the elderly and many of their own party members and soldiers who symbolized the old way of life were murdered. People were deprived of basic human rights and disease and famine killed millions of people. In the eyes of Pol Pot the country had to be cleansed and for the next three years, eight months and twenty days the Khmer Rouge detached the Cambodian people from everything they held dear: their families, their food, their fields and their faith.

Behind the wire in S-21
It is a very strange and depressing feeling when you enter S-21 Security prison, its location defies believe; set in a school, surrounded by homes and shops within a leafy suburban setting makes it seem surreal and even more grotesque. And then you venture into the classrooms, once used as a place for learning, horrifically changed into prison cells and instruments of torture. The floors are blood stained, there are bullet holes in the walls, the tools of torture remain and the very classrooms still unchanged since they were liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979. Its hard to believe that children once played and 17,000 innocent people were imprisoned, either killed here or brought to the killing fields of Choeung Ek to be murdered. Out of these 17,000 people only 7 people survived the biggest detention center in the country.  

Prisoners were kept chained to the bed using iron clamps

Outside one of the classrooms

Inside a single wooden cell

An instrument of torture-A painting done by a survivor named Vann Nath
From S-21 we traveled the short distance to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, the same journey that the prisoners of S-21 would have traveled to be executed. The weather was hot and the sun was shinning bright; their was hustle and bustle on the streets and people were going about their business without a care in the world. It was hard to believe that we were on the same fateful trail that thousands of people were forced to make only thirty years ago. When they arrived in the middle of the night, they were often bludgeoned to death there and then to avoid wasting bullets. If there were to many prisoners to kill during the night they locked them up in holding sheds playing music from load speakers to hide the screams of the dying. They would meet their fate the next night. The remains of 8985 people, many of whom were blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves. Many of the mass graves have been left untouched and still today bits of clothing, bone and teeth fragments still appear on the ground as if ghosts from the past trying to escape their dark world. This was evident when we walked around many of the mass graves and we seen human fragments lying on top of the earth. We were given an audio guide to help us around the site which gave us accounts and insights from people who worked here and from survivors both describing horrifying stories. I found it very hard to understand how people were capable of such senseless brutality.  As we walked around the site, we walked on a path close to the lake which flows past the back of the site and I remember listening to a very emotional piece of music by Him Sophy called "A Memory from Darkness". Listening to this piece of music in a place that has so many horrifying memories but now seems so peaceful was a very moving experience. At the center of this somber place lies more than 8000 skulls all arranged by sex and age, that are visible behind clear class panels of the Memorial Stupa. The Stupa is a symbol of hope and defiance and stands in memory of all the innocent people who were murdered here so generations never forget what the darker side of human nature is capable of.

Mass graves of the Killing Fields

Clothing that keeps surfacing like ghosts of the past 

A Memory from Darkness

Thousands of skulls in order of age and gender fill the Memorial Stupa

Victims being transported from S.21 to The Killing Fields

The victims meet their fate

Victims were simply tossed unmercifully into mass graves
A Symbol of Hope: A single flower sits stoically on one of the mass graves

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, as it is known to all but city officials is a city that is on the move. And am not just talking about the motorbikes that rule the streets; this is a metropolis, a city of commerce and culture, a city of energy, it is in effect a living organism. I loved this place, it has a vibe like no other and the people are not as hard as their northern city neighbor: Hanoi. We spent our last week here wandering through the timeless streets, visiting bustling markets, exploring amazing museums and historical sites, firing M-16 assault rifles, indulging in authentic food and drink and meeting genuine people who always have a story to tell. The ghosts of the past live on in the churches, temples, former GI hotels and government building's that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil, and they sit stoically next to new sky scrapers and fancy restaurants that have sprang up in futuristic defiance. However this is the beauty of Saigon; how both worlds of the past and the future blend seamlessly into one creating a unique awe inspiring atmosphere. 

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on the 22nd October at 6:30am after a long bumpy sleeper bus ride. Here the world has been up and ready since before sun rise and we a bombarded by tuck tuck drivers (taxi rivers) as soon as we get off the bus. I looked around, the sun already shinning bright and hot making me squint my eyes and I remember just looking up and seeing so much life on the move. There was so much hustle and bustle, so many people and motorbikes, so many street stalls and hawkers, all going about there daily business as they have done for years. There was a vibe here and I don't know why but I liked it. We put our backpacks on, took a deep breath and we went off in search of accommodation (which we have now become experts at) and then settled down for more sleep, which you need if you want to survive in a city like this. 
Life in the fast lane
I have never visited so many museums in my life, I was in my element. The city is full of history, you can see how it has shaped the city today. The south during the the Vietnam war was the epicenter of operations for the US forces and during the 1960s and 1970s was both volatile and absorbing. We visited the Ho Chi Minh City museum first which is housed in an impressive French 1886 neoclassical structure and is very beautiful. Like all museums here they are very one sided (towards the Vietnamese of course) but nonetheless very interesting. The exhibitions  here cover various periods in the city's 300 year history, most notably the Vietnamese struggles for independence against the French, Japanese and the USA. They also document the Revolutionary struggle and its final victory after the collapse of Saigon in early 1975. The Communists renamed the city; Ho Chi Minh in honor of their famous leader. A highlight here is the dramatic photograph of Thich Quang Duc, the Monk who made international headlines in 1963 when he burned himself to death in protest against policies of south Vietnamese President Ngp Dinh. Its a very powerful picture.

The Reunification Palace once known as the Independence Palace is one of the most fascinating places in Vietnam and somewhere I wanted to go as soon as knew I was headed there. It's significance in Vietnam and world history cannot be underestimated. The building was the symbol of the south Vietnamese Government in which hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese and 58,183 Americans died trying to save. It was here back on the 30th April 1975 that the North Vietnamese tanks rolled in crashing down the wrought iron gates-(in a dramatic scene captured by journalists and shown around the world) and effectively ending the Vietnam war. The communist forces of the North had finally won the war after over fifteen years of bloodshed. The building's 1960's architecture gives it an eerie feeling of a time stood still, as though it happened only yesterday. The rooms decor, the basement with its untouched telecommunications center, fortified bunkers, strategic maps and the US helicopter that sits  stranded on the helipad only adds to this feeling. 

The scene of one of the most significant events in history

Me outside the Reunification Palace

The lone US helicopter on top of the Palace
 We visited the Cu Chi Tunnels near the end of our stay in Saigon and spent one day exploring the famous site that has been preserved in two areas of Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. If one place symbolizes the Vietnamese's courage, tenacity and sheer determined spirit during the war, then this is it. The Cu Chi district  lies about 30km away from Saigon and was an elaborate underground tunnel system that spanned 250km. The tunnels became legendary during the 1960s when the American 25th Infantry built a base literally on top of the tunnel system. The VC lived in the tunnels and at night they could come out and pick Americans off, then dive back into the tunnels through trap doors hidden by leaves. I had an experience of going down one of these original trap doors, it was small and well hidden. It would be almost impossible to detect. The VC also built a large number of trap doors and booby traps to kill or maim American troops. I seen a number of these up close and they sent a chill up my spine. One that stays in my mind was the door trap that was a 10 foot drop on to razor sharp bamboo sticks, the damage would have been horrendous. The tunnels were deep and narrow, built ingeniously into the red clay. If the Americans found a tunnel entrance they would have to crawl into these dark narrow passages armed with either a knife or a pistol trying to breath without making a sound. 'Tunnel Rats' as they were known found this experience terrifying. When they were in the tunnels they knew that VC waited for them and at each step or turn a booby trap lay there waiting to kill or seriously hurt them. If they saw or heard what they believed was enemy they had only one chance to fire. In the compressed, narrow tunnels, the sound of the gunshot would send the man firing temporary deaf and stunned. It was a test of nerves. Fear and anxiety was constantly in a GI's mind. I went down an original 150m tunnel passage; The feeling of claustrophobia in the hot dark tunnels never left me. It was hard work and after 10 minutes underground and crawling the majority of the way I was covered in sweat. Its hard to imagine that people lived underground for years in these conditions, under constant bombardment from US planes and artillery. Our Vietnamese guide was about twenty at the time and lived and fought in the tunnels. He was living history and he told me stories of this terrible time. He said you could not move in the day for risk of being shot by US gunships that patrolled the area. He then pulled his shirt up and showed me his arm that was disfigured by a bullet whole at the elbow and then he showed me his right leg that had two bullet wounds that had ripped his calf muscle off. He was also shot in the side of the head. He explained that it happened when he was spotted by a gun ship in day light. The other men he was with were shot dead as they ran for cover, but he manged to make it back underground; he was lucky to be alive. His whole family except his dad died in the tunnels during the war. In the late 1960s the Americans used B52s to carpet bomb Cu Chi; Only 6000 out of the 16,000 people who lived in the tunnels survived the war.

At Cu Chi there is a firing range were you can fire almost any weapon used during the Vietnam war. It costs about 1 pound a bullet. I got 15 bullets and opted for the famous American M-16 assault rifle. As I approached the range someone was firing an M-60 machine gun, the noise of the weapon was so intense that my ear drums felt like they were going to burst. I put on my ear protectors and watched Laura fire a few rounds off at a target. She enjoyed every second of it and had one of the biggest smiles I have seen. I was next, I fixed the rifle onto the target put the butt firmly into my shoulder and gently squeezed the trigger. The power is awesome, the noise overpowering; It was a great experience but it left me thinking how frightening it must be to be in a fire fight with someone firing a weapon like this at you.

One of the many hidden tunnel entrances used by the VC
Inside the cramped tunnels
You better run baby, faster than my bullet
Follow the link below to watch a clip from you tube of:
Me firing an M-16 assault rifle

The War Remnants Museum was my favorite museum and we visited this near the end of our trip in Vietnam. It has a large collection of US armored vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons that are on show both inside and outside the site. It is a very impressive collection. There is also a vivid model of the prison camps and tiger cages that were used by the South Vietnamese to torturer and punish VC prisoners.  However what is different about this museum is that it tells the story about the victims of US military action and the atrocities such as My Lai that were committed by US troops. This is documented through photographs, letters, diaries and personal stories that are supported by shocking pictures of the victims of napalm and agent orange attacks. Its a very moving experience that really drives home the brutality and sufferings of war. The first floor gallery shows a collection of photographs and posters showing support for the anti-war movement. The highlight for me was the Requiem Exhibition by legendary war photographer Tim Page that documents the work of  photographers from both side. He is famous for is larger than life personality and for risking it all on the front line, almost dieing in 1969 after taking shrapnel in the head. He  is regarded as one of the all time greats for war photography and his exhibition is simply breath taking.
In front of the might of the US Air Force
An 0-1 Bird Dog -the planes used by the Ravens in Laos
In front of a Chinook Helicopter
A Tim Page Classic
'The first casualty of war is innocence'

Nikon Reflection old and New:
A Camera used by a Japanese photographer in Vietnam 1968

Next chapter: Cambodia

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Beaches of Vietnam

Vietnam might have been late to Southeast Asia's beach party, but it was worth the wait. The country boasts more than 3400Km of coast line, with infinite stretches of powdery sand, hidden coves, lovely lagoons, impossible boulder formations and tropical Islands ringed with yet more beaches. We visited two of them; Nah Trang and Muine. 

After Hue we headed to Hoi An, but due to non stop rain we decided to head further south after a day and sample some of the best beaches in Vietnam. Why not? First stop on 10th October was Nha Trang; the beach capital where we stayed until the 16th October. The setting is stunning and has a stretch of beach that spans over a mile in length that basically says; ''come and lay on me". So this is what we did for most of the week, sunbathe and relax. The sun shines bright and hot until about 4 o'clock when the rains comes in hard for a couple of hours, before subsiding again to better weather. There is a lot of good fresh seafood to eat here and the do it yourself BBQ is a great way to eat  out and its cheap.

The highlight for me however wasn't the beaches, it was meeting an American pilot named Terry who had served in Vietnam. He served two tours as a F4 Phantom Fighter pilot flying bombing missions over Hanoi and North Laos. He was based on an Aircraft Carrier out in the China Sea and would fly up to three sorties a day, which is around 12-14 hours flight time. He was fascinating to listen to, he had so many stories and he told them with passion and vivid detail. I asked him did the Ravens really exist? The Ravens were a top secret program that guided fighter pilots onto targets in Laos. Men who volunteered for the Ravens never existed on paper, they never even had a uniform because the Americans were fighting a secret war in Laos. They where famed for their courage and daredevil crazy flying and most of all for not living by the rules.  They flew all day in single engine planes sometimes as low as the tree line getting shot up  finding targets to hit. Terry looked at me with a smile and said sure they existed, and he told me many stories of flying over North Vietnam and receiving  radio calls from the Ravens asking him to hit targets in Laos "cleared in hot" was the code to strike. I asked him had he come close to being shot down and he said all the time from flak bursts. The closest he came was when one of his engines was shot through and he was losing fuel at such a rate he would not make it back to his carrier. He had to radio in a  KC-135s tanker plane and keep his Phantom linked up with the hose/drogue all the way to a base in Thailand. 

Nah Trang Beach
Great way to eat on the BBQ
After all that sun bathing we felt we needed to do some thing a little more active, a little more of a pulse raiser, something for the Adrenalin junkie; so after some deliberation we decided to go to a Health Spar and have a mud bath. Alright, its not even remotely active, but it was amazing, pure detox. We rented some mountain bikes and rode the 30 minute route to the Spar which is located up on the hill side. You start with a mud bath, floating in the mud, a feeling that is so soothing, letting all the minerals soak in. You then get out and let the mud go hard before getting a power shower and washing it all off. To finish you simply slide into a hot mineral bath and forget about the world, (a beer is optional but helps with the relaxation method).

Floating in a mud bath
After having such a lovely and relaxing day, I never expected what was to happen next on the ride home, something that shocked me to the core. We left the Spar at about 5pm and went home the way we came, over the bridge that crosses the sea. As we approached the start of the bridge, the weather changed dramatically. I noticed the wind increasing significantly, and an ominous black cloud that filled the sky was sweeping over us, engulfing us on the bridge. A typhoon was coming in fast. My only concern was to get off the bridge quickly and safely and take some shelter. The bridge is the main road in and out of Nah Trang, always busy but even busier now, as its rush hour. The traffic is horrendous, think the M6 full of mopeds all overtaking and undertaking at speed with the sound of their horns constantly piercing you ear drums. As we neared the middle of the bridge, we became more exposed and the rain slammed into our faces as we tried to keep control of our bikes. It had started the thunder and lightening now to make matters worse and I became a little concerned as it felt as if we weren't making any head way as the wind and rain was so strong now. Suddenly I heard a sharp noise from behind. As I looked I saw the body of a man flying off his moped and thrown through the air just past Laura and past me to my left. He was thrown like a rag doll, spinning in the air and smashing the floor before hitting his head on the bridge post on the outside lane at such a force his helmet flew off his head and into the air. I watched in horror a young lad lying motionless in the road. My first reaction was he is dead, no one can survive that. It was surreal. By now the weather had deteriorated even further, it felt dark and the rain was really intense; we were totally exposed to the elements. I pulled my bike up and turned around to try and help somehow, but I felt like I was in dream, you know the feeling; everything is moving in slow motion, you try to run but its like running through quick sand. The traffic was jammed, many were honking their horns and it seemed that many were impatiently trying to drive around the victim. It was a crazy scene. As I approached the man, he still hadn't moved and I was accepting that he was dead. It sounds mad, but as I looked at him I was frantically trying to remember my first aid training, my ABC's and I couldn't. Then like a miracle he lifted his head up and he reminded me of a boxer who had been knocked out, his senses completely served, but he was alive. When I got to him he was trying to get up; myself and a local man got him of the road and sat him down, but he kept trying to get up and I remember looking at his face and seeing the 1000 yard stare into nowhere. He was totally gone. A couple of other people had now approached the scene trying to help. One woman who spoke English asked how she could help. I asked her to ring an ambulance and told her to tell the ambulance that he has server head injures. I quickly got of the road as by now it was getting very dangerous, the weather was terrible. Me and Laura picked our bikes up and walked with them on the pavement, shook up. Then if that wasn't enough for my nerves a bolt of lightening struck the floor about 30 meters away from us. BANG!!! The sound was like a thousand shot guns going off at once. I then looked up to find I was walking under the biggest  trees in Vietnam. I just thought this is it, its the end, it's Apocalypse Now, am gonna get finished off by a bolt of lightening. 

Set on a seductive swath of sand, Mui Ne is an absolute charmer with swaying palms and towering sand dunes pummeling waves and winds that is home to the kite surfers. The sea is filled with kite surfers and it is a site to marvel at, like poetry in motion. This place has a remarkable vibe, chilled surfer feel that blends action and inertia to perfection. This is my favourite place in Vietnam.

Mui Ne: Notice the kite surfers in the background

We  arrived on this little piece of paradise on the 17th October and stayed for five days until the 21st October. Mui Ne is beautiful and is my favorite place in Vietnam. Its the home of kite surfing and attracts the more adventurous spirit. There is a great chilled out vibe and everyone is only concerned with having a good time. The Beach is amazing and was a stone throw away from our Guest House. The wind is powerful in the afternoon which is really refreshing when you sitting in the blazing sun all day.

I wanted to have a go of kite surfing but it is very expensive, (around $500-700 for lessons and equipment). However I was in for a bit of luck. I met an old friend named 'Jacko' from Nah Trang  and he had promised he would teach me free of charge. Jacko is the ultimate adrenaline junkie  from Australia, long hair, broken arm and crazy. Kite Surfing is one of the hardest sports and takes time and dedication to be able to control the wind and surf. I had a couple of lessons getting used to the the kite and using it to harness the wind. I thought I was doing well and ready for the next step; 'body dragging' in the sea. So picture this; I am on the beach with a $2000 kite bringing the kite from different positions, thinking I am in total control, I've cracked it. When all of a sudden I dip the kit a little to much catch the wind and I take off for a little ride. The power is amazing and I almost take off. Jacko manages to hook on to my harness just in time and I land his kite on top of a beach shack. Perfect landing but the end of my kite surfing days.

Me and the 15m Kite
Mui Ne is also famous for its beautiful sand dunes that range from red, gold and pure white.  The vast white sand dunes look like the Arabian Desert and it stretches for miles creating a surreal atmosphere. Here you can watch sun set, ride Quads or body sledge down the huge slopes. We rented a sledge and after ten minutes of trying to do it Laura showed  us all how its down when she dived head first onto the sledge and down one of the steep slopes. Just sitting and looking at such a beautiful landscape and watching the light glimmer on all those strange ever changing sand formations was awe inspiring.

Sledging on the dunes

At Sunset-Look what I can do!!!

 Freedom and simple beauty is too good to pass up


Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)-17th Parallel Vietnam

"With, Without,
And who would deny, that’s what the fighting’s all about"
                                                                            -R. Waters

The Vietnamese call it the American War. In America its called the Vietnam war. In both cases it was a tragedy. In 1945, when World War 2 ended, Vietnam was a French Colony occupied by the Japanese until the British accepted their surrender and put the the French back in charge. Vietnam was a key country for their own control over the rest of Indo-china. The Vietnamese communists after 1945 led a nine year guerrilla war against the French in their struggle for independence. The War was organized by Ho Chi Minh the leader of the Viet Minh. In 1954 the French were slaughtered at Dien Bien Phu, a small valley in the North East mountains near to the Loation boarder. The French surrendered; battered and defeated they went back to France and the Viet Nimh won the war. However this left a power vacuum that left the super powers worried and concerned. This small country was about to become another pawn in the struggle for world power and influence. In 1954 at the Geneva Convention, the super powers talked not of independence, but would the country become a communist state. The peace settlement divided the country into two at the 17th parallel. The North would become a communist dictatorship allied to Russia and China, and the South allied to the USA. Both would pure billions into this county and in effect this became a war by proxy between the super powers; a pawn in a much bigger picture, The Cold War. After WW2 the ruling classes of capitalist America feared loss of control both home and abroad. They feared communism, a closed market and thus stoked up anti-Communist fear in America. If small countries like Korea and Vietnam became communist states, then a 'domino' effect would happen and other countries would fall to communism. In a world of fear and paranoia, the US government were prepared to send working class troops to these countries to stop the escalation of communism. For example 40,000 US troops died in Korea, without much opposition at home. This meant that US Governments knew they could fight a war and conduct a blood bath in South East Asia without to many issues back home. After 1954 some communists had stayed behind in south Vietnam. The southern Government persecuted them, and in 1959 a peasant guerrilla insurgency, The Viet Cong (VC) and the National Liberation Front under Ho Chi Minh grew in power. The US government denied the Vietnamese people a democratic vote after 1954, fearing the North would win. By 1965 it looked as if the communist would take power in the South, and the US began sending large numbers of troops to prevent this. The Vietnam War was about to start and ten years of aggression, pain and suffering would engulf  all of South East Asia, kill over 58,000 Americans, 250,000 South Vietnamese and approximately 3 million Viet Cong and Vietnamese Civilian's. It would cost America over 8 billion dollars, witness some of the biggest protest movements ever seen in history, destroy the Psyche of a generation and almost tear America apart at the seams. Welcome to the Vietnam war.

Apocalypse Now

We traveled to Hue in central Vietnam on the East coast on the 5th of October by a very bumpy sleeper bus. Hue city sits on the perfume river and was once the capital of the Nguyen emperors that housed in the beautiful Citadel City. We went for a walk around the ground of this city, but it was clear to see the scares of war. Hue was the scene of some of the most brutal battles of the Vietnam War. During the 1968 Tet offensive US troops fought a bloody battle to regain the city from the VC. Over a few weeks, whole neighborhoods were leveled to the ground from bombs, rockets and artillery and thousands of soldiers and civilians died. A Lieutenant at the time described the way the war was waged; 'We had to destroy the city in order to save it'.

The citadel on apiece of anti air-craft artillery

It was this big!!!!
A fish caught by one of the locals on the Citadel Canal
Its important to understand the mentality and the actions of many soldiers forced to fight for the US Forces in Vietnam. The Americans had over half a million combat troop in Vietnam by 1968, but many troops were in support units and not in the front. This meant that US troops were out numbered four to one. The US strategy to equalise this problem was to; 'bomb them back into the Stone Age'. The American Government would use bombs and artillery on a scale never seen before in the world. They dropped 8 millions tons of bombs from the air on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which is roughly three times the weight of bombs dropped by all sides in World War 2. The strategy was simple, attrition-to kill very lager numbers of Vietnamese until they were broken. This strategy was carried out by American Soldiers; they found themselves part of a cruel killing machine that was encouraged by the command who were only interested in statistics. The regular GI was ordered to carry out acts of cruelty on a scale never even imagined by himself, kill innocent people, slaughter whole villages and  since everyone in a village was a suspected  VC these actions were at first justified. However in time the acts of war could destroy a GI and by the end of 1968 American troops killed many of there officers, revolted and even refused to fight.

I wanted to learn more about the war and so I went on a full day tour around the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The DMZ spanned across the whole of Vietnam along the 17th parallel acting as a buffer between North and South. It now refers to the many US bunkers, fortified bases and battle grounds that litter the area such as the the infamous Hamburger Hill and Camp Carrol. It is ironic that this area was called the DMZ zone as it was one of the most militarised zones in the world. We first went to the Rockpile, a US Marine Corps lookout for its long range artillery, from here we travelled west along the infamous Route 9 to visit a part of the Ho Chi Minh trail (the main artery of supplies for the Norths war effort) before travelling to Khe Sanh Combat Base. There was a very strange atmosphere here, eerie, like ghosts of the past still lingering, reluctant or unable to leave this mysterious area. The combat base is the site of the most famous siege and one of the most controversial and bloodiest battles of the war, it has a claustrophobic feel, situated on a small plateau surrounded by large hills on all sides. In 1968 these hills were filled with tens of thousands of NVA and VC infantry armed with mortars, artillery and rockets. They layed siege to the base for 75 days with constant shelling. The 6000 Marines, constantly fearing a full scale assault at any time were dug in and cut off for days without  air support, unable to reach them due to the monsoon weather that servery impeded  their visibility. You have to imagine the psychological stress these soldiers were under every single minute of every single day and in some cases soldiers were forever changed, broken a term the command called 'acute environmental reaction' but what we now call 'shell shock'. It is now clear that the siege was a massive diversionary effort to draw American attention away from the main South Vietnamese populated areas in readiness for the Tet offensive, which many consider the beginning of the end of any chance of victory by the Americans in Vietnam.

Follow the link to watch footage Khe Sanh

The Rockpile

Khe Sanh -Walking towards a C130 on the Air Strip

A very eerie atmosphere at Khe Sanh as the clouds hang low over the hills
Bombs recovered at Khe Sanh

A Chinook helicopter on Khe Sanh Airstrip
To finish the tour we visited the Vinh Moc Tunnels, the coastal North Vietnamese Village that went underground to escape the unremitting American Bombing. Just under a 100 families lived underground for over five years, in tunnels that spanned three levels and over 2Km. We went into the tunnels and explored each level, going deeper and deeper underground into claustrophobic dark hot tunnels. Its impossible  to know how people lived in such conditions, how much fear they must have felt every day under some of the most heavily bombed strips of land on the planet. 

Entrance 3 to Vinh Moc Tunnels

Inside the Tunnels
It was a great tour and as some one who enjoys history I got the chance to explore  some of the most significant historical sites ,camps and battle grounds in modern history. Although its impossible to really feel or even fully understand how it must of felt to be a young GI in Vietnam I got a sense of it vastness, its fearsome alien terrain, its loneliness that must have engulfed the psyche of every soldier and made him think at least once; 'boy, you are very far away from  home'.