Friday, March 28, 2014

Vietnam Part I: We had NO Pho in Vietnam


That’s right. I’m just going to start out clearing the air. No pho. Not once. Failure!! Truth be told…most of our meals were covered by the tour that we were on and pho is traditionally served as a breakfast dish. I just wasn’t feeling it at 7am. We had every intention to try some on the street one day, but it never happened…more on why later.

Thursday 13 March
We got up this morning sad to be leaving Bali, but not all that sad about leaving our super hot room :P

Sad Facin Bali

We did our best to rearrange our bags and wear our heaviest clothing, since I’ve read that JetStar has some pretty strict baggage policies (turned out not to be all that true).

The airport didn’t have a lot of options for food and Preston chose what was probably the worst meal of my life. I wish I’d taken a picture of it. I’ll paint a mental one…a hot dog in a wrap (I mistakenly thought mine was just going to be a cheese wrap) with a bunch of strange tasting sauce and a side of? You guessed it!! (No, you didn’t)—MORE hot dogs. Like those little party ones served in a cardboard box with sticks. Like, 20 of them. So I had a hot dog (which is disgusting anyway) with a side of HOT DOG!! Omg.





We had a connecting flight through Singapore. The airport was everything I’ve heard the city to be—clean, modern, and comfortable. When I was planning the trip, we had the option of laying over here for a few days, but I skipped it in the interest of time.

We arrived in Vietnam at night. From the sky I saw dozens of lit fields below. I’m still not sure what they were and I did a terrible job of trying to capture them with my camera.




The airport was easy and we were met by our tour guide who told us to call him “Tintin”. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his real name, which was kind of weird, but whatever I suppose. If he wants to be Tintin, I won’t deny him that privilege. Actually, I'll just call him He Who Must Not Be Named. 

Ho Chi Minh City (from here out-HCMC) is busy and modern. The ride from the airport to our hotel passed many tall, skinny, concrete buildings mixed alongside modern buildings. Our hotel is in the proper downtown district—referred to as Saigon (which is also another name for HCMC). You can definitely see the French influence in the wide boulevards and architecture. (For those who don’t know…Vietnam was a French colony).

Our hotel is nice and comfortable and we are SO glad to have AC again!!



Friday 14 March
We had breakfast at the hotel-an unusual mix of western food and Asian food, but mostly Asian food (as one might expect in Asia). I had something like a croissant, some dim sum, some sticky rice, and some fruit.

Many of the people were eating pho for breakfast. In fact, there was a whole pho station. I rarely even eat breakfast, so as I said, it was a bit much for me to have noodle soup with large junks of beef and vegetables first thing upon waking.

We were met by our guide and driver to head out to the Cu Chi Tunnels—about an hour’s drive outside the city.

I don’t know how any foreigner could rent any sort of vehicle in this town!! It is a complete madhouse. There are SO many scooters. Our guide said that there is a scooter for every 2 people, so with a population of 7.3 million, you can imagine it’s a little overwhelming.


Normal road

Totally Normal

There seem to be no traffic laws at all. If you have to turn, you just turn…and hope for the best, I guess.

We were advised that the best way to cross the street is slowly. If you wait for the cars/bikes to stop…you’ll be waiting all day(and night). So, you just have to step out and walk slowly and determinedly. The bikes and cars will move around you, but if you go too quickly they won’t be able to anticipate your next step and you could get hurt. This was actually good advice and we became quite practiced at it by the time our trip was over :P

Our hotel was near the Rex Hotel, which was a base for journalists during the Vietnam War.

Honestly, I don’t know much about the Vietnam War. The last time I studied it was in 11th grade...more than 15 years ago. I remember the highlights, of course, but not many details. I did my best to educate myself with resources online while I was here.

This war affected my parent’s generation SO much…and here we are, just one generation away and yet so removed. My parents were lucky enough to be just between ages…a bit too young for the war when it started and only just old enough for the draft when it ended. Preston’s parents, however, faced the war as a part of their lives. Preston’s dad joined the military to have more control over what might happen to him. My in-laws were even married early, because of the war. My mother-in-law married my father-in-law just before he was to leave the country. She didn’t even know if she’d ever see her new husband again. He was meant for Vietnam, but blessedly, at the last moment was transferred, instead, to the German border. The rest, there, is history…and a boy named Preston ;)

Anyway—on our drive we saw that all the traffic lights had a countdown. Our driver said it was because so many drivers will go when the light is still red, so the countdown gives the ‘impatient’ drivers an idea of how much longer they have to wait or how much longer they have to go:P


Countdown!!

We drove into the country. There were many roadside stalls with hammocks hanging. Our guide explained these were for weary motorcyclists. Just pay for the coffee (which the Vietnamese like VERY strong) and no extra cost for a hammock!! 

Tintin (or He Who Must Not Be Named) gave us a brief history of the tunnels we were headed to see. The Vietcong used these tunnels for guerilla warfare. Goods, weapons, and information were passed along this extensive network of tunnels from the Northern Communists. The tunnels ranged from 1m-6m deep and were very narrow. At times, fighters lived in these tunnels and even outfitted them with meeting spaces and kitchens.

There was much fighting in this area, because the Americans were aware of the tunnels. Great lengths were taken to keep them secret…with ventilation for the kitchen covered with fake termite mounds miles from the actual kitchens and hundreds of hidden entrance points. Life in the tunnels must have been just miserable.

We finally arrived and the area was very busy with other tourists.  He Who Must Not Be Named led us into a pavilion to watch a video about the tunnels.


Scene of the most uncomfortable 7 mins of my life 

This video was awful. The narration was in this sing-song voice of a Vietnamese woman explaining that “Cu Chi was a pleasant and peaceful place before the evil Americans came sticking their noses in where they didn’t belong.’ Preston and I just turned and stared at each other. The video went on to show re-enactments of these great 'heroes' who used their ‘intelligence and cunning’ to destroy American tanks. A smiling woman was shown as the narrator explained ‘this woman killed 18 American soldiers with her clever traps’. Another smiling man and the narrator said, ‘This man made 14 American kills.’

We totally panicked. Neither of us had any idea how to handle this. We know that the war is a VERY sensitive issue…that both sides did atrocious things…that both sides suffered great losses. We know that the people of this area experienced terrible tragedy and we didn’t want to be disrespectful of that or take away their right to a side of a story. BUT…we were NOT going to sit in a hall and listen to someone BRAG about killing American soldiers.  I have relatives that died or went missing in this war. I wouldn’t applaud the killing of ANY young man. It was so uncomfortable that I burst into hysterical laughter (something I do when I’m scared/uncomfortable, etc). Thankfully, the video ended as we were still debating what to do about it.

Needless to say, it set a really weird tone. We didn’t want to be there anymore. We were imagining the reactions of other Americans that we know. It was just crazy!! He Who Must Not Be Named paraded us through the area gleefully showing us the clever traps used to maim and dismember American soldiers. I truly felt sick to my stomach.


Greeeaatt

This fact was not helped by the sound of loud gunfire echoing all around us from a nearby shooting range. It was all too real to imagine the horror that was faced there. And I couldn’t praise the terrible bamboo traps :( Here's a video to get a feeling for it. 

We saw the tiny (barely big enough for a body) entrances to the tunnels that would have been covered with leaves.








We had an opportunity to crawl through the tunnels. It was unbelievably hot and small…and these tunnels had been WIDENED for the tourists. He Who Must Not Be Named pressured Preston (who is claustrophobic) to go down into the tunnels. Lol. He was seriously antagonizing him, saying “You fly all this way and do not go in tunnel??”. Omg. So, Preston followed me and another large group down into the tunnel. We had to duck walk through the tunnel.




There were different exits along the way and when we reached 20m, I turned the corner and found myself alone with the guide!! I turned around and Preston was GONE. He had BOLTED!! I had to go back for him and make sure he got out ok. I followed the guide 60m. At times I had to lower myself further down in and climb on my hands and knees. The guide said it’s rare for people to go that far. Yay me?




We saw more ‘brilliant’ ways in which the Vietcong fighters used American weapons against Americans. We stopped for a snack of traditional Vietcong food…which was tea and something like yucca root dipped in salted peanuts. Not too bad, but I wouldn’t want to eat it all day every day.



One of the coolest things we saw was a plant-that when touched, folds in on itself. The Vietcong knew the plant did this and so were able to tell if someone had been in an area. I tried to take a video with my shaky hands.

FINALLY, we got out of there. Preston tried to ask He Who Must Not Be Named if there was any more ‘war stuff’, but he didn’t speak English well enough to understand the question. We didn’t want to go ANYWHERE else like that :-/

We drove back into the city and had a yummy lunch at a busy tourist restaurant. The presentation was quite cute…little animals made of food, etc.








We stopped by a Buddhist pagoda. It was heavy with incense smoke from those who had come to pray. 








We then drove to the Reunification Palace, which was the Presidential Palace. It’s no longer in use, but still serves for some state functions. It was a grand old place that hasn’t been redecorated since the 60s. There was some old American radio equipment in the basement, so we go to see that. There were some more Anti-America posters, but we quickly skipped over those.









We drove to and went inside the replica of Notre Dame (more French influence) and returned to our hotel in the evening.



The day had such a weird tone…with the anti American stuff. We felt sort of alienated and unwelcome. We didn’t particularly like our guide, who seemed rushed and bored. I think he’s just given the tour too many times.
We decided to go out for dinner and ended up getting pizza (I know, I know), but we really needed the comfort food :P


Saturday 15 March
Today we drove about 1.5 hours to the Mekong Delta. This was an important battleground in the war, but thankfully…we didn’t go into that!!

We stopped at a large Pagoda and took lots of pictures of the big Buddhas. Buddhism is still the #1 religion in Vietnam.









Lady Buddha

We arrived at the expansive river and boarded a long boat as the only passengers. There were so many boats vying for space along the dock. It was absolute chaos. We are definitely on some sort of tourist circuit.







There are 4 islands in this area…each named for the spirit animals of Vietnam: the turtle, the phoenix, the dragon, and the unicorn. It was Unicorn Island where we headed.




We got off the boat and walked along the dirt path. It was hot and crowded with many stray dogs and rundown huts. We walked alongside many stalls…all trying to sell us something or other. We saw graves right alongside the houses, as it is practice to bury your loved ones close.




We stopped at a beekeeper’s stall and the man took my finger and put it RIGHT into the bees to try the honey. I tried to snatch it back, but he wouldn’t let go. Luckily, I wasn’t stung and felt rather brave :P We had delicious honey tea , candied fruits and tried Royal Jelly-reserved in the hive for the Queen Bee, but said to have rejuvenating effects on health and skin.




We also visited a stall where they were making coconut candy. It was really tasty and fascinating to watch them packaging this candy in such primitive conditions.

From there, we went into a little pavilion where children and women were singing to collect money. We felt pressured to donate. It was kind of creepy and contrived. We were served more tea and fruit.





We then boarded a paddle boat that was being rowed by this ancient woman. It was a peaceful journey under the palm leaves along the narrow waterway…despite the HUNDREDS of other tourists.






I felt awful for the old woman and we were pressured to give her a tip by our guide, which-since she appeared to be about 200 years old-was well deserved. So much of our tour just feels all about squeezing every last dime out of us. 

We re-boarded the big boat and went to another island for lunch. We had more fish that was prepared by wrapping it in rice paper like a spring roll. We watched a water buffalo hang in the nearby stream and fish in dirty tubs waiting to be eaten.






We returned to the big boat, back across the river and into HCMC.





Once in the city, we stopped at the Chinese Market. It was unreal. SO many people and SO many things. Thousands of hats, shoes, bags, clothes, spices, food…anything you could imagine all crammed together in a sweltering hot space FULL of people. It smelled TERRIBLE, but it was fascinating all the same.





We returned to the hotel and walked around for a while. There are dozens of stores selling brand name bags as knock offs or factory rejects. Preston bartered for me to get a Kipling bag (an addiction of mine). It seems a knock off, but it was cheap and an experience.

Tomorrow we fly to Hoi An in Central Vietnam.

3 comments:

  1. O.k., so I have to know...what was Preston more terrified of...the shooting range as you walked to the tunnels, being in the actual tunnel, or the kangaroo? I can't tell you how much I love reading your posts. I'm so glad you both are enjoying this once in a lifetime opportunity. Be safe!

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  2. LOL!! That is very funny ;) I'm still going with kangroo. He was BUCK NAKED!! :P

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  3. KB I'm with Preston on this one... creepy

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