Published: May 30th 2010May 30th 2010
Well, I am off on another visa run adventure. Because I have to leave Thailand every three months, I have gotten to travel into several of Thailand's neighbouring countries. Thus far I have visited Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia. Now I can add Vietnam to the list. I landed in the early evening yesterday. Upon exiting the airport, I promptly went to an ATM and became a millionaire - in dong that is. I withdrew 6.5 million dong, now before your jaw drops too far, I'll let you know that there are about 18 000 dong to one Canadian dollar. (Now, I'll save you the mental calculations - I withdrew about $370)
I had prearranged with the hostel that I am staying at to have a taxi waiting to take me to the hostel and boy was I glad I did. They mentioned on the website that I made the reservations with that the hostel was in an alley off the main street. And when they say alley, they mean it. I was surprised at how narrow it was. Cars won't fit down it. I'm sure I would have had a huge hassle trying to find it if I had tried
At the Head of the Alley
On the way to my hostel.
to do it by myself.
By the time that I had made it to my hostel and had checked in and paid my bill, it was already fairly late. So I hungrily went in search of food and found a great restaurant just down the street from my hostel. I had a burger that had a chicken breast, a beef patty, two slices of cheese and a fried egg on it. I probably don't want to know the nutritional information about it, but it was really tasty! Certain bites tasted like dinner (with more beef and chicken) but then some bites tasted like breakfast (with more egg, cheese and ketchup.)
On the way back from dinner I stopped in at a store that sold handicrafts and got my first souvenirs - two purses - one for me and one for my niece (it's in the shape of a fish and is so cute!)
While I was settling my bill for the hostel, I booked a tour for today to go a couple hours out of the city to visit an important temple and the famous Cu Chi tunnels that were used by the Viet Cong during the
Vietnam War (though here they call it the American War.)
We boarded the bus just after 8:00 and began our journey out of town. While we were on the main road, I noticed a lot of paper that looked like money on the center grassy median. After much looking, I was sure that it was money, but fake money (I saw several American 100 bills and no one was making any effort to pick them up.) I asked the tour guide what that was all about and he told me the people scatter the fake money along the road so that their family members who have died will have money to use in the afterlife.
Our first stop was at an art factory that benefits disabled people (given the recent war, there are large numbers of amputees.) There were several different types of handicrafts there, but the most common were paintings and pictures made from tiny pieces of duck's egg shells. We got to walk through the factory where artisans were making the pieces with egg shells. They take a small piece of egg and adhere it to the piece they are working on and then use a
Yes, you have to turn a corner in the alley network to get to my guest house - you can see why I was glad to have a guide the first time.
knife to crack the small piece into even smaller fragments. The end results were impressive and beautiful.
Next we went to the largest Cao Dai temple in the area. This is a religion that was started in Vietnam and mixes Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity and Confucianism into its beliefs. There are actually several million people who hold to this religion, so it is a fairly major religion. The majority of followers live in Vietnam. We got to observe their 12:00 worship service from a balcony that was really just a walkway that ran all the way around the temple.
At lunch I sat with three other single white women that were traveling. We never did exchange names, but two of them were from Scotland and were taking a special trip to celebrate their senior year of University and their approaching graduation. The other woman was traveling alone, like me. She was American and she is in university in China. She was also traveling on a school break. We had fun sharing all of our travel stories. I also met a very nice Vietnamese woman on the tour. She lives in Saigon, but she told me that she took the
tour to have the chance to practice her English. She told me that she had been to Canada in 2007. She had been to Niagara Falls too, so she knew exactly where I was from.
After lunch we finally headed to the Cu Chi tunnels. This was the attraction I was most looking forward to seeing here in Ho Chi Minh City. I had done a fair bit of reading about the history of the tunnels and had spoken to people who had been there, but what I found when I got there still surprised me. It wasn't at all what I was expecting. For those of you who aren't familiar with the tunnels (or with the Vietnam war, for that matter), in the 1950's and 60's Vietnam was divided into two nations. Ho Chi Minh and his communist party were in power in the north and the south operated under capitalism. Ho Chi Minh wanted to reunify Vietnam and "liberate" the south. US troops came to help the Vietnamese troops in the South to repel the advance of communism. The Cu Chi tunnels were built by the Viet Cong (communist soldiers from the north). From the tunnels they
were able to stage surprise attacks on the American soldiers right near their base in Saigon (which is present day Ho Chi Minh City)
When we first arrived, we watched a short video that was produced in Vietnam about the war. It featured old, poor quality, black and white footage from the war era and was full of Vietnamese propaganda. Americans were painted as the evil villains who came and destroyed the idyllic, perfect way of life of the Vietnamese in the area. The film also introduced us to several "American killer heroes" who were honoured for killing many American soldiers. Next we toured through a forested area that had several stations and exhibits set up. We saw mannequins set up as Viet Cong guerrilla soldiers, depicting daily life for an average soldier. We also saw a trap door entrance to the tunnels. It was so incredibly small! I was shocked when a staff member at the tunnels demonstrated that he could fit through the trap door. We also saw some booby traps that the Viet Cong set up in the jungle.
While all of this was interesting, I was wondering when we were ever going to make
it to the tunnels. You see, I had been told that the tunnels were small, narrow and claustrophobic, but I was picturing an underground city. That we would walk through the narrow tunnels, which would then open up into small rooms. I was quite wrong. Finally, at the mouth of the tunnels, our guide told us that we would have to squat and shuffle through the tunnels. The section that was open to us was 100 meters long, but there were exits at every 25 meters, so if you wanted to get out sooner, you could. It wasn't until I was actually in the tunnels that I understood we had to squat and crawl the whole way in the tunnels. There were very few lights in the tunnel and it was very dark in places.
I bravely pushed past the first exit at 25 meters, but by the time I made it to the second exit, I was ready to get out! There were lots of turns in the tunnels and I couldn't see anyone in front of me. It was also quite dark and I didn't feel like I knew where I was going. I did actually pass
the second door, but shortly after it, I came to a hole in the floor where you had to step way down to continue crawling through. It didn't look like there were any stairs to help us down to the next level, and that is when I chickened out! I turned around to go back to the second exit and just as I got to the exit, someone came along behind me and I was able to get her to take a picture of me in the tunnels. It turned out great (okay so my expression makes me look a little crazy, but I was in an extremely confined space, so maybe I was a little crazy!) Here's the kicker - the tunnels have been enlarged to twice their size in the time of the war to accommodate the tourists! I can not imagine living in a place like that! There were even babies that were born in the tunnels.
After the tour, I finished off the day by finding a pizzeria and having dinner there. Tomorrow, I'll be off to the Thai consulate to apply for my new visa, then I'm going to visit Reunification Palace and War
Remnants Museum and possibly I'll hit Ben Thanh Market.
One final thought: Facebook is blocked in Vietnam and I just have to say, I think I'm addicted to Facebook! I'm going through serious withdrawal! I keep thinking of great status lines (currently mine would read: Michel-lyn's air conditioner spit water and ice chunks on her tonight - not cool!) and of course I'm chomping at the bit to put my cool picture from the tunnels as my profile picture and update my travel map to include Vietnam.
There are more photos below