Ho Chi Minh City
(Written September 5, 2016)
Our time in Ho Chi Minh has come to an end, so we thought we would do a short recap of our time here as we wait to fly to Hanoi.
The first day we got here, we slept for about 3 hours and then wandered around Ho Chi Minh trying to get our bearings. It was Independence day, a national holiday weekend, so some things were closed, but it still seemed incredibly busy to us. We intended to watch fireworks on the river bank at 9:00, but instead went to sleep at 7, hoping to overcome jet lag and eventually function normally. We hit up the touristy Ben Thanh market for some fried snails and a banana shake.
We had planned to book a free walking tour, but they were closed for Independence Day. Instead, we booked a half-day tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels for the next day.
The Cu Chi Tunnels were interesting, but perhaps more interesting, was our tour guide. Sixty-five-year-old “Mr. Billy” had a sun-weathered face and an unfortunate habit of encouraging group sing-alongs to Beatles and CCR tunes. He told us that he fought with the United States during the Vietnam war (or the American War as it is known here). He left Vietnam when he was young, fought with the US over the course of the war, and returned to Vietnam later because, as he mentioned repeatedly, he hates American food. Even though he lived in San Jose much of his life, his accent was thick like chile sauce.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are about an hour outside of HCM City. They are a 200+ km network of underground tunnels used by the peasant residents of Chu Chi during the war. Composed of over 3 layers of tunnel networks, these allowed the farmers-turned-guerilla fighters to disappear underground when being attacked by American forces. They lived with a plow in one hand and a rifle in the other, as many say.
The tour kept us above-ground for the most part. We saw the small entrances that the fighters would use to enter and exit the tunnels, and we were shown replicas of the air holes they constructed to ventilate the labyrinth. Apparently, American fighters grew wise to the existence of the tunnels (Mr. Billy suggested this was in part after over-zealous tunnelers popped out in a US base) and they would use dogs to detect the air holes into which they would pump poison gas.
I wish that I actually knew more about the war before this tour, but it all felt very bizarre.
You can pay to shoot period authentic guns near the end of the tour (authentic except for the AK-47, which Mr. Billy said was actually made in China, not Russia, and we shouldn’t waste our money.) This was sort of an odd thing to do right after a tour detailing the horrors of war, but it led to a chilling and unintended effect: walking through the Vietnamese jungle passing improvised bamboo shelters and mannequin soldiers posed in tacky dioramas, bouts of gunfire breaking the silence—it was easy to slip out of the moment and into a different time and place. A time and place we were both thankful to have never experienced authentically.
After this is when you can go in the tunnels themselves, which have been widened to make room for “fat tourists”. Going in the tunnels is intense and claustrophobic—I can’t imagine how it would have felt during war. Thankfully, the tunnels have exits along the way which you can take if it is feeling a little bit too intense. We took this option.
After the tunnels, we went to the War Remnants museum, which Mr. Billy said was very biased (as did a loud American on our bus), but the anti-American slant of the museum didn’t seem unjust. We particularly enjoyed the room dedicated to combat photographers from all participating nationalities. We thought this museum was worthwhile and quite sobering.
Today we are hitting up some food stalls to take advantage of delicious food here. We walked over to the “Lunch Lady” where Anthony Bourdain went during an episode of No Reservations back in 2005. It was delicious pho, spring rolls, and a 9:30 am beer. We also ate “broken rice,” sugar cane drinks, and then a fried pancake (banh xeo) which in hindsight, wasn’t my best choice—we probably should have known better to try it at a an empty food stall outside a camera store.
Things we’ve learned/impressions:
- Traffic is crazy. We could sit and watch the motorcycles zoom by for hours. There is a system that I don’t understand but seemingly everyone here does. I love seeing dogs sitting on the front of a motorbike, kids propped up in little plastic chairs on the front, and the fashionable face masks that everyone wears. We’ve constantly hitch rides across the street by standing behind a Vietnamese person and walking when they do. Little old ladies control the road.
- At the Ben Thanh market, when they quote you a food price, pay that right away. We didn’t, and they seemed to add 5000 dong at the end of both meals.
- Every street dog is so dang cute. They all look to be a mixture of something with a daschund. Small and stretchy. I want them all.