Today we headed into the Cu Chi Tunnels. Cu Chi is a small agricultural city outside of Saigon.
During the Vietnam War, the gorilla fighters from Cu Chi set up an extensive underground tunnel system to evade and attack the U.S. military base, which was only a few hundred meters away from the tunnels. It’s easy to see why the U.S. had no hope of infiltrating the tunnels and defeating the Viet Cong in this area – the gorillas were hard core & the tunnels are insane! The tunnel system extends for an area of about 200 km. There are three levels below ground: 3m, 6m, and 10m.
As visitors, we were allowed to go inside a 200m stretch of tunnel @ 3m below ground. Hard core! The tunnels were widened for tourists and we still had to crawl on our hands and knees in many places; at one point we had to scoot down on our butts like a slide to get to a lower section. Without the extra “height” for tourists, the tunnels were only about 2-3ft (max) tall – just wide enough for the rebel fighters to crawl through. The tunnels are extensive, about 200 km!
There are bed rooms, kitchens, ventilation rooms, meeting rooms and water wells dug into the system as well. We were told as many as 16,000 people lived down there at a time. Hard core!
They had set up a string of electrical lights for tourists to navigate their way thru the tunnel, but normally they just use whatever matches, candles, flash lights they had and without them, the tunnels are completely pitch black and terrifying. Thank goodness I had Realene in front of me, following the sound of her voice thru the dark! It would be easy to get lost in them, as I hear many American soldiers did who tried to infiltrate them.
Upon exiting the tunnels, we were sweating, our hearts racing, our knees scratched up – it was a little terrifying, even though you knew it was safe for tourists. It was very exciting and very interesting, though. Our guide showed us how the gorillas would save the scrap metal from U.S. bombs (there are B-52 bomb craters all over Cu Chi) to make home made booby traps and landmines. Terrifying trap doors in which you would end up impaled on sharpened bamboo sticks or metal hooks.
Hard core! At the end of the tour, they had us watch a short “documentary” on the tunnels. As a Communist propaganda video, it was interesting to see their take on the war. Where we claim to have tried to free the Vietnamese from Communism, their view is that the North came down and liberated the South. They extolled the medals rewarded to “American Killer Heroes” during the war.
They demonized the “American devils” who cam into Vietnam and started shooting everything: men, women, children, chickens, pots, trees (which is kind of true). This disconnect between American text books (what little is taught about the Vietnam War in the first place) and on the ground perspectives from locals is very interesting.
Once we got back to Saigon, we headed for food and I got a taste of what is now my favorite Vietnamese food: pate chaud. A French relic of puff pastry (looks like a golden buttermilk biscuit) filled with a savory pork filling. Mmmmm! My only regret is I can’t buy a million of them and take them around the world with me.
We only had a few more hours to spend in Saigon, so we headedto the Ho Chi Minh City History Museum, which was small but well worth a visit to see a preserved crushed skull and a recently discovered mummy from one of the local farming towns. Next to the museum is the zoo and botanical gardens. Not much in the way of gardens, but the zoo was surprisingly OK.
I think we expected to see a sampling of the run down Asian zoos they terrify you with in zoology class, where the animals are cramped into small spaces behind rusted metal bars and the poor things look out at you with sad, crying eyes. A PETA nightmare, basically. Fortunately, this zoo really wasn’t that bad. It was definitely run down and falling apart in places, but the animals, for the most part, seemed OK and in old but adequate enclosures. All except the primates. Ironically, the most sentient beings were locked in scary cages that made you want to cry and you could hear a gibbon whimpering as we passed by. It was very sad.
We had to leave the zoo early, as we got caught in a heavy downpour, which was fun to watch as all the people on scooters went by in two-man ponchos. A poncho with two heads! I love the scooters here. Our cab picked us up and on the way home, I couldn’t understand why all the scooters who passed us were looking at us like we were crazy. I know as tourists in a large car among a throng of Asians on scooters we get lots of passing looks, but these guys kept pointing at the car and shaking their heads.
We later learned this is a sign that your car has a flat tire and you need to get your ass off the road! So we pulled over (fortunately the rain had abated some) and the driver proceeded to change the tire, all the while with the meter still running :o) But it was well worth getting a flat tire to try and watch Nick haggle in English to a Vietnamese street vendor for the price of a $0.50 toy. Nick kept trying to go down in price but the guy kept laughing at him and telling Jane “this guy is crazy” because there was no negotiating in price. It may not sound funny on paper, but Raelene has a video of it and its pretty frickin’ hysterical. [Nick Note: I pointed to the toy and through hand gestures asked the price, the guy held 2 fingers (which meant 20000 dong or $0.50).
OK I countered with 1 (everyone tells you that you have to haggle), of course the guy looks like I insulted his mother (but I know that this is just a tactic) and held at 2. I continued and tried to mime my way to asking if he’d take 30000 dong for 2 of them. At which he nodded vigorously and he handed me 3 at which I handed one back and gave him 30000. Obviously not what he was expecting and so I turned to Jane to find out he thought I wanted 3 for 60000 dong. In the end no deal was made and we were joking how the guy must think Americans are crazy trying to haggle everything and in Vietnam really everything is fixed price.]
For our last night in Saigon, Jane’s dad was nice enough to take us and his family out to dinner at a “special” restaurant (we’ve come to realize special is kind of his word for fancy). Once again we got to walk around to the different chefs and pick and choose our food. Rae and I devoured a yummy fresh crab cooked in tamarind sauce and we all shared a crazy fried balloon of sticky rice. They pour the rice into a large wok filled with oil and they spin the rice round and round really fast until it forms a ball, then the heat inside swells it to the size of a balloon, at which point you deflate it and eat it. Delicious!
The dinner was great and we enjoyed watching the twins pull tiny little snails out of their shells with tooth picks. Nick once again got a lot of looks from the crowd as he towered over the petite waitresses. We sat at a beautiful table carved out of a cross section of a giant tree, tiny stumps of which served as the chairs. Nick could barely fit o the chair and his legs definitely couldn’t fit under the table :o)
It was very kind of Jane’s family to take us in and treat us so well. Especially after we found out that they have to take our passports and report our presence to the Communist government, so that they have a record of our stay. We may have gotten her dad into a little bit of trouble, though, when we learned that it’s illegal for foreigners to stay in a personal residence. Apparently, we’re supposed to have stayed in a hotel. Oops!