Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta....getting to grips with Vietnamese culture - past and present
June 18th. Up today for my Cu Chi Tunnel trip. Nice group on the bus with our odd but hilarious guide called Hai (he explained he used to be called Fat Man Hai by his boss but now he has lost weight he is just Hai!)....very funny stories about his job and how he secretly still hates the Vietnamese from the north (kept pointing at them when their backs were turned - hmmn so much for re-unification eh!). We were a mixed bunch; four Australian macho guys, two teeny tiny Japanese girls, an English couple, a very funny Polish-Canadian guy, and a Lebanese guy who now lives in Dubai! On the way to Cu Chi Tunnels we were taken to the obligatory "handcraft" shop to hopefully pick out some nice bits n' pieces. This one was called "Handicapped Handicrafts" (yes it is a terrible name!). It was staffed by victims of the war and their children. Primarily a lacquer factory, we got to see how these people painstakingly draw, colour in, varnish and then lacquer millions of different things from trays and plates to huge wardrobes. Interesting stuff! But no, i didnt buy anything. Where would i put it - the pack is still giant-size!
Then we got to Cu Chi. The tunnel network here became legendary during the 1960's for its role in facilitating Viet Cong control of a large rural area only 30km from HCM (for those of you not in the know, that is a huge deal cos the Viet Cong were the obvious enemy of the Southern Vietnamese army headquartered in HCM. It gets confusing when later in the war many of those in the South joined the Viet Cong to get rid of the Americans.. but enough about that for now)! At its height, the tunnel systel stretched from HCM to the Cambodian border - that's pretty far! In the district of Cu Chi alone, there were more than 200km of tunnels. So when we arrive, the first thing we do is watch a film about the war and the part the tunnels played in it! Propaganda in any form can be quite interesting.. and this film was no exception...for example there were many mentions of those "heroes in the Viet Cong" who were "Courage of American killers" - brave to the core! Not sure but this film seemed circa' 1970's by the way it was shot and edited. It was very anti-American (understandably) and obviously very pro- Viet Cong and the way they held off the American army. If I had been an American sitting watching it, i think i would have felt more than a tad uncomfortable but I'm sure lots of Americans do come here, so it would be interesting to hear their perspective.
Then we went with our guides into the actual area itself. We saw a few craters that had been left from the war; then the size of the real Cu Chi tunnel (and amazingly, quite a few people did attempt and get into that tiny space!) I of course didn't even try as i had a horrific feeling that i might get in but my bum would get stuck and someone would have to pull me out - can you think of anything more mortifying!! (sorry i know im being so shallow here, especially somewhere so rooted in history, but im just being honest!). Then we moved onto replicas of a bunch of different parts of the tunnels - they were amazing. Up to four layers to them, and any smoke that was a by product of cooking underground was filtered above ground in a very complex way so you could never see it. Also saw sandals made out of old tyres (this is also done in South America strangely enough!). Then we went to the rifle range - this caused much excitement among the rest of the group - so weird! Basically, you had your choice of which gun you wanted to shoot at the range - AK47 (an authentic touch - the Japanese girls had to go for this they said); M16, Rambo like machine gun (which apparantly weighed a ton!). The noise alone was deafening; i had no desire to shoot one of those things.. love and peace man, no need for guns! Everyone did it - well, except for Fadi the Lebanese guy, who said he had seen so many guns at an early age that this was no big deal; oh well then!!!
After the macho- "person" experience (keeping it PC folks); we moved on to the "tourist" version of the tunnels themselves. The ones we go down are actually two times larger than the originals (says alot about how big we are and how small the Viet Cong were!)... they didn't feel too claustrophobic to me (hey, i've been down a silver mine in Potosi, Bolivia; this was nothing compared to that!). It was definitely very hot and pitch black at times; some people were quite freaked out by it but interesting all the same. Can't imagine living down there for months on end; and not just soldiers. Women (not sure if wives, girlfriends or what..) lived there too and children were born there; a woman who works here was born there, pretty amazing eh!
Back to Ho Chi Minh later that afternoon; pottered around, then - wait for it, the second part of my dreaded dress scenario. The "seamstress" arrived via motorbike to my hotel, screeching to a stop; to the consternation of my hotel lady who wouldnt let her in the lobby/front porch area, so i immediately smelled trouble! I went out to see her "you give me money!" she cried. "Eh can i look at it first" I asked timidly.. loser style! "Sure, but quick, quick" - so I look at it. It's not even the same dress that i had "picked out AKA pointed at resignedly" last night....didn't even have the heart to try it on, while she waited. Gave her the money - and she had the audacity to ask to keep the change - buzz off, i said "politely"! After she left, the hotel lady asked me how i knew her, so i told her the whole sad affair and she was definitely trying not to laugh out loud at me! Went upstairs to try it on - its red by the way hence the Santa Claus mention earlier - and it fits NOWHERE! Made to measure- my bottom - and it doesnt fit there either!! What can you do....
Go for a drink with people from the tour! Had a nice evening chatting away with folks, and relaying my silly story. One of the boys said he would be my professional bargain teacher for a day or two to show me how its done (even when i mentioned my so-called good bargaining i had done later, he tut tut tutted and said "Stefanie, you really shouldnt be allowed to go to the market on your own!"). Great eh! Anyway home to pack for the Mekong Delta trip that i was heading out on tomorrow!
June 19th. Checked out this morning as i was going to be gone for a 2 day, 1 night stay on the Mekong Delta; home to over 20 million people (that's a quarter of the population of Vietnam!). Most descriptions of the Mekong Delta talk of its vibrancy of colour - bright green rice shoots, yellow and electric pink incense sticks drying along the roadside as you drive by. Its called the nations rice basket and definitely gives you a glimpse into the lives of Vietnam's agricultural workforce, who feed the nation on this life sustaining river. Met up with my group on the bus as we headed down to the My Tho area. Funny how you never know how you will all get on, then a day later you are all the best of pals. Good group yet again; Vivien (English) traveling with Chris (Australian woman working in the Phillipines), Jackie and Dave (Canadian), Daniel (English), two lovely couples from Holland and Germany whose names escape me and Joanne and Leslie, two Scottish girls from Glasgow (!). So good vibes here that we would all get on well!
Arrived in My Tho, then on to Ben Tre where we visited a fab fruit market with lots of amazing and colourful fruits - dragonfruit, tons of coconuts and pineapples, durians, rambutans, etc etc. I bought some pineapple from this lady - trust me, i asked her if it was ok to take a photo and she said, yes, ok, no problem so she's not mad at me.. think she is laughing on the inside! And how about this wee guy - he just came up to me and held my hand -thought i was going to melt! Then he just smiled then ran away, watching us as we walked through the market! Isn't he just gorgeous! On our way to visit a coconut candy making outfit (called keo dua in Vietnamese), we saw some boys body surfing on the edge of our boat - seemed a tad dangerous with the number of boats cruising up and down the river,but it looked like they've been doing it all their lives so no biggie for them, I suppose! The coconut sweets were delicious and made so simply...check out the way they just cut up the hardening sweets; then they are wrapped in rice paper that you can eat, then wrapped again! Very smooth operation! Afterwards we sat and drank green tea, and listened to traditional Vietnamese music, with both string instruments and also two soloists.. very different sound, shall we say. Quite high pitched singing, but after a while, it definitely grew on you, and the performers were just lovely!
Went to Dragon island by boat for lunch - middle of nowhere but quite lovely! Then back on the delta past tons of fishing farms that look just like big tin huts, hanging precariously on the water..Apparantly, to be a fish farmer you have to be rich (you wouldnt think that to see these places) but each one has approx. 90 to 120,000 fish in it; the reason the fish farmers have to be rich to begin with is due to the fact it can cost up to $100 a day to feed the fish.. a lot of money when our guide told us the average salary in Vietnam is $90-100 a month for unskilled workers, going up to $200 a month for university educated folks!
Later in the afternoon it was further into the Delta we went, this time by small row boat (rowed by teeny tiny wizened old ladies.. i mean come on folks, this is a long boat with 5 big tourists in it!). Daniel and I felt immediately guilty so signaled to the wee lady we wanted to help row; she seemed quite happy so all was good!
Then we took a ferry to Can Tho (yup, its a fun filled day to be sure!) where some people were staying in a hotel; the rest of us were doing what's called a homestay. In this instance, we were staying in bungalows on the water, and meeting a local family who we would have dinner with. Took a tiny boat down these skinny wee canals to get to our night's lodging - very pleasantly surprised. The bungalows were lovely - all mod cons and tons of space. Have forgotten our hosts name (how rude!) but had a lovely evening with them; they didnt actually eat with us (felt a bit bad about that!) but we chatted away with them, and they explained everything to us; from elephants ear fish, how to make our own fresh spring rolls (amazing!), lots of tofu and vegetables - so fresh and healthy! And pineapple for dessert. Although Vietnamese people do like their sweet coffee and use sugar in a lot of their cooking, they don't eat sweets or desserts like us! Great night, lots of chat...and great sleep too. Much quieter than HCM; oh yes and maybe the Tiger beer helped too!
June 20th. Up at 6am (will these early mornings ever end!) for breakfast then we headed off to the floating markets of Cai Rang and Phong Dien today. These were primarily fruit markets; can't believe people live on these boats (not enough room for all the fruit, never mind the people and their belongings!). Then on to a rice/vermicelli making factory - so interesting how this works! They make the mixture and the big rice circles early in the morning before it gets too hot, then sleep during the day while it all dries out it the sun and then cut everything up in the evening once its all dry later.
Then into town for lunch before heading back to HCM. Dave the Brave ordered snake - yum - not! I tried a bit and it was rotten - just like eating grizzle - and sorry, didnt taste anything like chicken to me!
Bus back we all snoozed as it had been a jam packed two days. Decided to meet up with Chris and Vivien for dinner before they headed off on the night train to Hoi An; and talked to Jackie and Dave about going to Dalat as they were interested in the Easy Rider motorbike trip too.... called Luong (my contact!) who organized to meet up with us tomorrow in Dalat and take us through the itinerary .. yah, can't wait I'm so excited about this! Had dinner at Bohdi's Vegetarian restaurant - very well known here in HCM and was fab, but a curious thing about almost all veggie restaurants in Vietnam. They all have incredible tofu better than any I've tasted before, but they market it as pork, shrimp or beef tofu, and shape it e.g. like chicken breast or hot dogs, depending on the fake meat they are talking about - totally wierd but it is definitely totally veggie and so delicious.. might put some hard core veggies off but not me, i loved it all!!! Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Mekong Delta....and now on to the Central Highlands and Dalat, honeymoon capital of Vietnam!