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Published: November 28th 2012
Transportation from Mui Ne to our final Vietnam destination, HCMC, was slowed by rush hour traffic (later in our stay there our guide joked that rush hour is from 7am-11pm) so we got dropped off in District 1 (Pham Ngu Lao, the tourism centre) at around 7:00pm. Since we are quite picky with our accommodations – when it comes to pricing – we “shopped around” for about 45 minutes before settling in at Ly – a clean family run hotel on an alley off Bui Vien. The younger staff (we assumed to be the owners children) were the only ones who spoke English. Family operated hotels/guesthouses are always our favourite places to stay. We have found these places to be a bit warmer and friendlier then the larger hotels.
As usual after a long bus, we were famished. There had been few street side food stalls in our last couple of cities and were seriously craving some noodle soup. It didn't take long to find a delicious bowl of chicken, noodles, spicy broth and the obligatory fresh herbs and lettuce. With full tummies we were ready to explore our area. Every few steps we had to turn down happy hour
drinks, menus that were being shoved in our faces and massages offered all over the place. To get away from the chaos a bit we walked into a nearby park where people were playing badminton, practising kung-fu and more.
We had just sat down to take it all in when we were approached by a student looking to practise his English. It only takes a few minutes to get through the chit-chat of exchanging names, “What do you study?”, “Where are you from?” etc. But we continued talking for much longer. We learned that he was from a town in the Mekong Delta, he is an only child and his parents pay for him to live and attend University in the city. He is studying economics and had lots of questions about the situation in America. Even though he is an only child, his parents each had about 10 siblings (because no one could keep their hands off each other after the war). We started talking about different holidays that we celebrate and got on to the topic of Christmas (for us) and Tet (for him). It was really nice talking with that young man and feel really bad
that we can't recall his Vietnamese name. The funniest thing that happened while we sat there talking was when he had deja vu. We were talking about Christmas when he said “OH! We have talked about this before.. I.... I dreamed it”. He wasn't familiar with the English term so there was something else for us to share. He told Rebecca that she would be single forever in Vietnam because she is too tanned which then broached the conversation of what is attractive in Vietnam. It was such a great way to spend our evening and we wish him the best in school and whichever career he chooses.
The next morning we woke with big plans so see HCMC. Of course we had to eat yummy noodle soup for breakfast and some of the best fruit smoothies we've had on our trip before really getting away from the tourist centre. First stop was Benh Tanh Market. As soon as we entered the market we were immediately bombarded with people trying to sell us things. Since we hadn't actually thought of anything we wanted to buy, it was rather uncomfortable. We spent maybe 15 minutes walking through the narrow aisles
of clothes, linens, fabric, hand bags, sunglasses, souvenirs, fruit and everything else before moving along.
The War Reminants Museum was something we really wanted to see so we headed there. Unfortunately we didn't realize it closes for lunch between 12:00 and 1:30. We got there around 11:30 and knew we would need more than half an hour to give the museum any justice so we found a nearby park to kill some time.
We sat on a park bench people watching for quite a while; then we wandered around the park to take some photos and just as it started to sprinkle we started heading for the museum again. A pretty serious downpour surprised us and we barely escaped getting soaked before finding a small awning. While we stood there we got a chance to see the transformation of the motorcyclists. It's amazing how quickly they all throw on a poncho when the rain starts. Just as quickly as they all put their ponchos on, they had stored them back under the seat when the rain dissipated. When the rain stopped, we were able to make our way to the museum which was still going to be closed
for about 10 minutes. There is never a coffee shop too far away so we were able to find a lady in an alley serving iced coffee and sat there for a few minutes until we could buy tickets to the museum.
The first floor of the museum showed how much protest there was against the war. The walls were covered with photos of protests from all over the world. There were also quotes from letters people had written and the stories of three men who set themselves on fire in protest (an American, a Japanese and a European).
The second floor showed the slaughter. While that may seem like a big word, it might even be an understatement. The first half of the second floor we visited showed photos of cities being destroyed, people being murdered and prisoners being tortured. The second half of the second floor was dedicated to agent orange and its victims (still a huge problem today). There were photos of people that had been disfigured, actual foetuses in a glass case that were stillborn, even stories of Americans that have children affected by the dioxin they used so carelessly in the war.
The third floor was a small sigh of relief after seeing the atrocities on the second floor. It was more about life after the war. There were many before and after photos of cities that were reduced to rubble during the war but have rebounded and rebuilt since then. While the devastation was hard to comprehend, we couldn't really recognize any of the sites and therefore could sort of keep an emotional distance. That was until the photo of the Imperial Palace in Hue. We had just been there a few weeks ago and right in front of us was a picture of people lying dead in the road while a US tank drove through the streets of blown out walls. It was like the civilians had been following their regular day-to-day routine working and pulling their carts around when they were attacked.
It was during our time at this museum that we realized the south had no intentions of letting us see the war through rose-coloured glasses. The museum had an overall sense of sadness. People were quiet, many (including us) in shock and pretty disgusted. If we were waiting for a place to open our eyes to
VC Entering the Cu Chi Tunnel
VC - the Americans called Vietnamese fighters the Viet Cong. To Vietnamese people they were the LA (the Liberation Army)
what so much of Asia has been through, this was certainly the place.
We carried on with our day as best we could, the mood definitely sombre. When we made it back to out hotel we rested and booked a tour to Cu Chi Tunnels for the following day. After the hot sun had set we went back into the streets for food and a couple of cheap drinks. The local watering holes sold draft beer for as cheap as 35 cents and had rows of small plastic chairs lined up facing the street for us to people watch and keep an eye on the crazy HCMC traffic.
We were up early the next day to find breakfast, enjoy another fresh fruit smoothie and catch a bus to Cu Chi Tunnels. When the guide said “This bus is going to Cu Chi tunnels” Tyler thought he was trying to get us excited and let out a “wooohooo” that received no response other than the guide repeating himself. Our guide was freaking hilarious. The first thing he did was introduce himself as Joe, or Mr. Buffalo. Some people call him Mr. Buffalo because a certain part of his body
is the size of a buffalo (hard to belive considering his 5'5” 120 pound frame). Mr. Buffalo then introduced the driver as Hai, he has a wife and many mistresses, he is a playboy. Joe spoke about as dryly as this is being written and it was cracking up the whole bus. After the comical introductions, Joe (Mr. Buffalo) went on to give us a bit of a history lesson. First he talked about Mr. Ho Chi Minh, Joe's Uncle, Uncle Ho. Mr. Ho Chi Minh had first fought for Vietnam against the French then again against the US. He spoke 6 different languages (Joe could speak 5: English, American, Australian, New Zealand and Vietnamese). Mr. HCM had no family, no wife; he had dedicated his life to his country and for that he is a hero in everyone's eyes. His entire life was dedicated to the liberation of Vietnam. Unfortunately he died one year before the liberation of Vietnam in 1975. In 1976 Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City to honour him. The Vietnamese are all so proud of their country. They had to fight again and again for peace. Later in our tour Joe brought this up
Entering the tunnels
good thing they are twice the size they used to be!
and said that for them there was no fight against communism, the differences between north and south had dwindled and in the end, each war was for independence and more importantly for peace. Millions of Vietnamese people died for this cause and every single one of them is a hero.
When we got to the Cu Chi Tunnels we saw a short film that showed life in the villages in the area before/during/and after the war. After the film Joe explained that the Cu Chi area is about 150 sq km. There are 250km of tunnels in this area. The tunnels have three levels, the first level is 3m deep, the second 6m and the deepest level is 10m. The average size of a tunnel is between 30cm and 40cm wide by 60cm to 90cm high. There are ventilation holes every 15m. If the Americans tried to drown them with water they couldn't because the tunnels emptied into the Saigon River. If the Americans tried to gas them out, the Vietnamese would flea to the deepest level and the gas would escape through ventilation. The Vietnamese had thought of nearly every way to detour the Americans (if they could
find them). The tunnels were so smartly built that the tiny entrance holes could easily be covered with leaves or dirt and be unnoticeable; the ventilation holes were disguised as termite mounds and they would put American soap in them so if dogs (as Joe said: “You know dog? Woof. Woof.”) came sniffing along they wouldn't make a fuss. The Vietnamese have proved again and again that they are the wrong country to mess with! In a movie we watched about the war in preparation for our travels they said that if a bridge was bombed, they would have bamboo poles for people to walk on within half an hour and a full bridge rebuilt within 3 hours that bikes and carts could cross. The Vietnamese don't have many machines, but their manpower is almost endless.
After watching the short film and Joe giving us a run down of what life in the tunnel was like we were shown around the grounds a bit. There were B52 bomb craters everywhere and the trees were all skinny since they have only been growing since the end of the war (during the war, dioxin - commonly known as agent orange- killed
everything). We learned how they made their weapons with shrapnel and unexploded American bombs, how they would come out of the tunnels only at night under the cover of darkness to stretch and get fresh air, how 16,000 Vietnamese people lived in the tunnels (1,000 of them women) and only 6,000 people came out alive. There were also Vietnamese traps on display that were absolutely horrid. While they were only made from bamboo and metal spikes, they were still strong and sharp. For example, one of the traps was a deep hole with two wheels of sharp steel daggers, if an American stepped in it his entire body would be pierced from toe to head as he rolled through the parallel wheels on his way down.
The last thing we did on the tour was crawl through a small section (about 15m) of tunnel. It was a larger section so westerners could fit (westerners apparently have potbellies from eating too many burgers - another one of Joe's tips). The tunnel was small and claustrophobic; even though they have added extra ventilation it was still hard to breathe. After 15m and about a minute underground we were ready to feel
the sun again, awe struck about how so many people could live there for so many years.
Oddly enough, this last day in Vietnam was November 25th
, one month to Christmas. Our afternoon was busy running around taking out cash, getting some exchanged for US dollars (to buy our Cambodian visas the next day), mailing postcards we had been carrying around for far too long and heading back to the Benh Tanh Market to get a few cheap shirts.
Ho Chi Minh City. The whole time we were in Vietnam we weren't sure if we should refer to it as the current name or the old name. Both seem to be interchangeable when it comes to the huge metropolis, but having been there and learning so much, it's quite clear that Mr. Ho Chi Minh is so revered that it's only respectable to call the city by it's proper name, Ho Chi Minh City.
It was with great sadness that we left Vietnam. Perhaps the most valuable thing we learned was that everyone has a story if you are willing to sit and listen. The Vietnamese are tiny but mighty, perhaps they are even the most proud
Vietnam traffic tip #157: When sitting at a red light, using the sidewalk is a great way to get ahead
people we have met thus far on our trip. Their history is red with blood but the future of Vietnam is much brighter. No matter what they have been through, they continue to smile and the strength of previous generations will live on forever through their pride.
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