Friday, November 2, 2012

Ho Chi Minh - Cu Chi Tunnels and nibbles

In the last chapter of our Asia extravaganza in June/July, we were in Siem Reap, exploring wonderful old temples and getting caught up in a little scam or two. But it wouldn't be South East Asia without one at least really now would it?

After Siem Reap we took our tiny plane, where Brad had no leg room (the woes of being a tall man) and hopped over to Vietnam…and to Ho Chi Minh city. 

I've visited Ho Chi Minh city before, and although it took a few visits for it to grow on me, I kind of adore Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam as a whole. The Asian heritage, the trickle of European influence left behind (best bread in Asia, hello?), the French sounding street names in Saigon filled with scooters and bicycles. Oh and did I forget to mention food? How un-food-blogger-esque of me! 

After bungling around with ATMs at the airport and withdrawing the equivalent of $2 in Vietnamese Dong instead of $20 (look, it's hard to calculate when $1 equals 19,000 Dong) and negotiating with cabs, we made it to our rather cute and cosy hotel. A little tip I got for the airport was that a very random auspicious looking ATM in the taxi counter areas, after customs and before the arrival area has a good exchange rate. Should you ever swing by that way. 

We settled into the rather cute and cosy Tan Hoang Long Hotel. Although looking a little bit dated in decor, the place is clean and bright, what more could you want? I personally found it pretty cute. The location was great as well, I made sure to pick a hotel close to the Park Hyatt Saigon so that we could easily slip over to the martini bar...

First thing was first though, food! I promptly dragged Brad over to Wrap & Roll, which has kind of turned into a must visit place for me every time I'm in Saigon. It's a little franchise that does Vietnamese rolls, in all forms! I always come here though for my mustard leaf roll fix and we also tried the beef rice paper rolls, which were warm and divine. No street side cred here, but comfortable, clean, cheap and tasty.

We also discovered that a 'Twister' is almost exactly like a Fanta. Strange Asian soft drinks.

The rest of our afternoon was spent wandering around the area, checking out the shops and city life, the flood of motorised scooters at peak hour and the hustle and bustle of Benh Tanh Market, where I stocked up like crazy on lotus seeds. Seriously delicious yo. Make for the best snack!

Dinner was at a random street side stall around Benh Tanh Market, where I simply went 'Ooh Brad that looks good. THEY HAVE BUN BO HUE, I WANT. WHAT DO YOU WANT?' and promptly sat down at one of the mini tables. 

It was while we were waiting for our food that Brad started to question the hygiene level and I started freaking out that we were going to have issues with the bathroom the next day and cursed myself for not being more wary. This is why in every relationship you need at least one sensible person right?

Fortunately the soups were fairly tasty and we were all okay. Crisis averted. 

Ho Chi Minh is beautiful at night. The city's pulse slows down and there's a bit of space to breathe, look and see. We were quite fortunate while we were there that the weather was actually quite cool and pleasant.

A schmancy martini at Park Hyatt, surrounded by expats, a jug of beer at a random tapas bar, where more expats were hanging out to watch the Euro 2012 Cup, and we bundled into bed early, as we had a fairly early morning the next day…

The next morning we were picked up by a car and a tour guide and driven out to Cu Chi Tunnels. I had done this tour once before in a much bigger group and had decided to use the same tour group as I really liked the tour guide we had previously. And even though I had visited Cu Chi Tunnels before, it was something I knew I had to bring Brad to see, as I thought it would be something he would really enjoy as well. 

And well, I wasn't wrong. Duh.

One of the booby traps around Cu Chi Tunnels. Wouldn't want to fall in there!

Exploring the Cu Chi Tunnels is fascinating, it's a network of underground tunnels located in Cu Chi, which was used as the Viet Cong's base of operations. There's 121km of tunnel here. All dug by extremely simple tools, with bunkers used as living areas. It's really amazing to think that people, not just the guerillas, would spend their whole day in these dark tunnels and only come up at night when the Americans would have temporally retreated. 

I really can't put the wonder and amazement I have into words whenever I'm here. The ingenuity of the Viet Cong's always astounds me, and with a tour guide, you can really learn a lot about all the little things they included in the tunnels to make things easier for them and harder for the Americans. One of my favourite pieces of trivia is that the Americans used to send out dogs to try and sniff out their air holes and entrances. To counter this, the Viet Cong's would gather the cigarettes and ash left by the Americans, and also some of their belongings; crush them, then scatter them around the entrances to throw off the dog's nose. Who needs fancy technology? 

Can you see where the entrance to the tunnels are here? 

Brad's a tall and skinny guy, can you imagine the fit and buffed Americans trying to fit into here? I learnt on my first visit that during the time of the war, one of the veterans we met was just 40kgs, which made scuttling in, out and around the tunnels much easier. You also get the opportunity to venture into the tunnels themselves with a guerilla and it drives home just how insane the situation was. Now of course, the entrances are open so there is a small flow of oxygen and light, but can you imagine, if all the entrances were sealed up, it would be pitch black in the tunnels and so terribly stuffy. The tunnels are initially wide enough for us to squat-walk through, but eventually get even smaller and narrower, meaning we had to crawl on all fours to get through.

Our tour guide was so excited to see chickens wandering around. "Look! It's dinner! Come to me, come to me!" she would happily exclaim. She also pointed out a group of Korean tourists. When I asked her how she knew they were Korean she simply told me to look at their noses, "They're all the same!". She was really a hoot. I do recommend Vidotour if you're looking for good quality private tours and to also visit Cu Chi Tunnels, really a must see in my opinion. 

We also got to fire an AK-47 at the range there. Hardcore yo.

Instead of dropping us back at the hotel, we had Vidotour drop us off at Nha Hang Ngon, which our tour guide had recommended for lunch on our way out. 

Nha Hang Ngon, is quite well known in the tourist circles, but for good reason. The food's pretty darned good. It's also a pretty cool concept, there's a courtyard and inside area with tables, and around the perimeter there are street food style 'stores', actually making most of the food outside, kind of street side vendor style, instead of inside a main kitchen. 

Totally forget the names of everything we ordered. Soz. Just know that it's good. Just know that you need to order these little steamed rice cakes because they are cool, refreshing and I love them. 

And that anything with spring rolls is delicious. Mmhmm.

Brad also had his first taste of Vietnamese coffee, and quite liked it. I became quite fond of smelling the coffee whenever he ordered it, it's so intensely aromatic. 

After that, we popped by the Reunification Palace, where the Vietnam War ended when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through the gates. There are replicas of these tanks that did just casually hanging around in the garden. 

There is a fee to get in, but it includes a tour, which run quite frequently. It's definitely worth wandering around with the group, who will give you the history and background and also interesting trivia about the place. A lot of the interiors are kept as it was from the 1960's and 1970's, which makes it kind of retro Asian. It's amazing how well everything has kept, especially this carpet!

Apparently they have been offered 5 million US dollars for this lacquer painting…but this still declined to sell it. Crazy!

The Reunification Palace is interesting, and worth visiting if you have the time, but shouldn't be a key monument to visit.

What should be visited though is the War Remnants Museum, which is a short jaunt from the Reunification Palace. I didn't take any pictures here as I don't think it was permitted, and it wouldn't feel right either. From propaganda material, to models of different guns and equipment used through the Vietnam war and, most heart-breaking, photos and stories depicting the impact of Agent Orange on those that were involved in the war and their descendants. It's hard to look at and it's horrific to think that it's even effecting children, three generations later. Three generations. 

I have visited this museum with my Vietnamese friend before, and she does comment (very quietly though) that the history shown is very anti-American here, and that they are perhaps missing another perspective to this war. But I don't think I am well versed enough in the history to comment myself. Just something to keep in mind if you do ever visit.

After a long morning and afternoon, it's then back to our hotel, to have a nap and get ready for dinner at one of my favourite French restaurants…which I will you about…in another blog post. ;)

84 Mac Thi Buoi Street
Ben Nghe Ward, District 1
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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62 Hai Ba Trung
Ben Nghe Ward, District 1
Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

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Nha Hang Ngon
160 Pasteur Street
Ben Nghe Ward, District 1
Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

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