The photos from our latest trip to Vietnam are now published. Hover over the photos tab and click on Vietnam to see them!
Central gate of Hoa Lo
Our final day in Hanoi was spent doing a historical sites tour of the city. Our first stop was the Hoa Lo prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton.
Hoa Lo was originally built by the French to imprison Communist Vietnamese political prisoners. At one time, the prison was a sprawling complex. Today, only part of the building has been preserved as a museum and the rest of it was torn down following the Vietnam War.
The prison has many different chambers that served different purposes. One was a large room with raised concrete platforms on two sides. There were ankle shackles at the end of the platforms. Prisoners would be lined up next to one another with their legs shackled, sitting or laying down on the concrete slab. There is an exposed toilet at one end of the room on a raised platform. Prisoners had absolutely no privacy here.
The death row and women's chambers were a bit different. These rooms were very small in very tight corridors. Some of the cells had ankle shackles while others were open rooms. Several prisoners would be squeezed into these tight spaces, with little room to move and stale air to breathe. Solitary cells were the creepiest of all. They were built in dark corners of the prison and had very little light. Prisoners in these cells would have no human contact.
I can only imagine how disgusting and filthy the prison was at one time. The historical posters informed us that many prisoners ended up dying of disease because of the lack of clean water and healthy food. Prisoners were also killed via guillotine and tortured with electrical shock devices.
John McCain's flight suit and parachute
During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese army used Hoa Lo to house American POWs. This is when the prison got its famous nickname, the Hanoi Hilton. During the war, the Vietnamese army used propaganda to claim that the American soldiers were treated nicely at the prison as if they were staying at the Hilton. Throughout the museum, we saw video footage and posters of American soldiers who, I'm going to guess, were threatened to participate in various advertising campaigns. I've read online that former prisoners have actually recounted the torture that happened at Hoa Lo.
One of the most famous American POWs to grace the Hanoi Hilton was Senator John McCain. The museum has his flight suit and parachute on display.
Following our trip to Hoa Lo, we went to a more positive historical site called the Temple of Literature. The Temple of Literature is Vietnam's first national university and was built in 1070. The site is really well preserved considering how old it is. The grounds are quite beautiful with several garden courtyards and impressive architecture. Although the temple isn't a university today, it seemed to be a popular spot for students because we saw many groups of them dressed up in traditional costume and taking photos.
Cooks at Quan An Ngon
We ended our time in Hanoi with a great lunch at a restaurant called Quan An Ngon. This restaurant was similar to a restaurant we ate at in Ho Chi Minh City called Nha Hang Ngon. Quan An Ngon has a large dining area that is sort of like a food court filled with short tables and benches (which were a little uncomfortable because they were meant for small people... Joe was slightly cramped). Cooks line up around the inside perimeter of the restaurant with what looked like outdoor food stands. This experience gives you a taste of Vietnamese street food in a more upscale setting. It is a really popular spot for locals.
The language barrier at the restaurant was rough as most of the staff didn't speak English. So, Joe and I made guess orders on the menu and hoped for the best. The food didn't disappoint. We had fresh spring rolls with beef, fried spring rolls with crab, vermicilli with some sort of warm sauce and pork, and vietnamese fried rice. Another wonderful meal to end our time in Vietnam. :)
Geared up for our biking adventure!
The third day of our trip was my favorite day because we had a chance to see authentic village life, both on land and on water. I am amazed at the varieties of lifestyles around the world!
Joe and I kicked off the day with a biking adventure on Cat Ba Island. We had to take a ferry to the island, and were all safetied up with life vests and helmets :)
According to our cruise director, Cat Ba Island is the largest island in Halong Bay and was a significant land mass during the Vietnam War. The island was a strategic look-out and transfer point as well as a safe hideout for Vietnamese generals. We were told that the Vietnamese army filled the island with women and children during the war to dissuade the American army from bombing it to take over.
Today, Cat Ba is a popular stop for tourists. We rode our bikes along a winding and hilly path about three kilometers into the island until we came across the Viet Hai village. The scenery along the way was lush and peaceful, and extremely untouched. It was really nice to see a "not-so-touristy" area.
Gate to Viet Hai village
Cat Ba island is inhabited by only about 68 families with 400 people in total. Villagers live in very basic houses and tend to the fields for a living. Although the homes are basic (I don't think they have bathrooms and modern plumbing) some of them did have satellite dishes and televisions, which I found amusing.
The families of Viet Hai were very friendly and greeted us with hellos as we rode past their homes. We were told they like to see outsiders, especially so their children can see what different people look like. Speaking of children, there were many cuties on the island. There were also a lot of dogs and puppies!
Our tour guide told us that the government helps support the inhabitants of the island. They pay the expenses for any child who wants to go to mainland Vietnam to study. I'm also guessing the government has a hand in the way fresh water and goods are shipped over to the island. Some of the staff from our cruise ship are from Cat Ba, and they got to visit with their families during our stop.
A wobbly footbridge on our hike
While on the island, our guide took us on a hike through one of the forests to see a cave that was used as a hideout during the Vietnam War. The hike was rough... it was muddy, the brush was thick, there were lots of mosquitos, and some parts of the path were challenging to get across (such as the wobbly footbridge pictured to the left). Parts of the path are really narrow with low-hanging branches, so we found ourselves crouching around.
I was relieved when we finally reached the cave. The cave was really dark, and at first, really creepy. Luckily, some people had flashlights with them so we were able to see the formations inside the cave, which were really neat. We also saw an inscription on the cave that was written in 1966.
Houses in the floating village
Our second excursion of the day was to a floating village called Vung Vieng. This was one of the most interesting experiences I've had in Southeast Asia.
We were ferried from our boat to a central meeting place in the village that served as a rowboat "taxi" stand. Guides in rowboats were gathered to shuttle us through the village. Since the villagers live on the water, they are very skilled at maneuvering boats. In fact, we saw a young boy, probably about eight years old, swiftly rowing a boat with his feet! Some of the rower guides that met our tour group were little old women that surprised me with their strength and agility. After rowing a kayak a few times in my life, I know that paddling is strenuous, hard work.
Once in our boat, we were shuttled past the many homes of the floating village. As you can see in the photo above, the homes are literally floating in the water. Many of them are made of basic materials, with little more than a bed and TV inside. It appeared that they were anchored down in some fashion, and many homes had floating barrels connected to them. Because of the thin walls and sometimes non-existent doors, the homes seemed to offer little privacy for the families. I imagine neighbors can hear everything going on next door. What really surprised me, is that almost every family had at least one dog on their floating residence. I can't imagine how the dogs get enough exercise since they don't have a lot of room to run around.
After seeing this, a barrage of questions went through my head. How did the people build these homes on the water? Where do they go to the bathroom? Where do the dogs go to the bathroom? What happens if they have a medical emergency, or if they need to birth a child? Where do they put their garbage? Unfortunately for me, our guide didn't speak English, so my questions weren't answered (and unfortunately for Joe, he got an earful of questions as I wondered about this stuff out loud).
One thing we did learn, was how the villagers got things like fresh water and groceries. Everyday, grocery store boats go around to all of the homes in the village. They stop right at every door and the villagers can purchase what they need.
The Vung Vieng school
After passing several homes, we came to another complex type area that we learned was the village's school as well as one of the village's many fish farms. The boat docked here and we were able to get out and walk around.
The first thing we examined were the fish farms. Many of the villagers make money by farming fish. The school complex as well as many of the homes have small netted "tanks" built into Halong Bay. Inside these tanks are many different types of fish. Some are meant for food while others are exotic fish that are meant to be pets. We saw some beautiful fish, including ones that looked like Dory from the movie Finding Nemo. Other fish were ugly and huge, and frankly scary looking. Some of the big, ugly fish in one of the tanks swam up to the surface as if they would jump out and attack us.
The next thing we saw was the village school. Lucky for us, there was a class in session so we got to see the children in their classroom. The school is a very basic one-room school house. It was recently renovated thanks to a generous donation from a school in Sydney, Australia. We were told that the village children have their own small rowboats which they use to transport themselves to school. They liked the little break they got thanks to our visit, and graciously posed for photos.
Our last stop was at Vung Vieng's pearl farm, another source of income for the village. The farm consists of a wide area of nets within the bay. The process for farming pearls is quite intricate. Villagers first collect baby pearls that are apparently pieces of tissue from a larger donor shell. Then, they take a smaller recipient oyster, pry it open, and implant the baby pearl. This process is surprisingly bloody... I had no idea oysters could bleed so much.
The recipient oysters are then placed in cages and put into the pearl farm netted area. The oysters stay in the water for two years, allowing the baby pearls to develop into bigger pearls, which are then harvested for material goods. The mature pearls we saw were beautiful - they come in many different colors and sizes.
As we ferried back to the Au Co, I couldn't stop thinking about how unreal life on a floating village seems to someone like me who comes from a far more cushy lifestyle. I'm amazed by the survival tactics the Vung Vieng villagers have used to maintain their way of living!
Workers sewing artwork at rest stop
On our second day in Vietnam, we headed to Halong Bay for a two day/one night cruise aboard the Au Co. We took a shuttle from Hanoi about three and a half hours northwest to Halong City, the site of the cruise port.
Along the way to Halong City, we made a rest stop at a big arts center. We had a chance to see workers sewing tapestries and clothing. The center showcased many different types of artwork, including beautiful lacquered woodwork, silk garments such as ties and scarves, and jewelry. It was sensory overload!
We then hopped back in the van and after the long journey, we finally arrived at Halong City port and waited to board our ship. While we waited, Joe and I had a comical experience in the bathroom. The public restrooms were pitch black and some people told us that the power was out. People used flashlights and cell phones to see what they were doing. Joe had to come into a stall with me and use his iPad to provide light. As we left the bathroom, an employee at the port looked at everyone with a confused expression on his face. He reached into the bathroom and flipped the light switch on! It turns out that the powers wasn't out after all... someone just failed to turn on the lights!
Our cruise ship, the Au Co
We boarded a ferry that took us to the Au Co, our cruise ship. I highly recommend the five-star ship. It was extremely comfortable and modern, with four decks and adorable cabins. Immediately after boarding, we had lunch in the dining room. Meals on the ship were five-course culinary delights... a fusion of Vietnamese and western cuisine. Our first meal included shrimp and pomelo salad, fried spring rolls, miso and mussel soup, fish and beef, and a custard.
After lunch, Joe and I enjoyed the scenery of Halong Bay from the sun deck. There are about 2,000 limestone islets in the bay and they were an amazing sight to see as we cruised in between them. All of the islets have lush greenery and some of them have small beaches. Joe and I marveled at the fact that each one is the tip of a mountain range covered by the ocean. The only downfall of the experience is that the weather was dreary throughout our trip... I could have used a little more sunlight!
Joe and I on our kayak
Our first excursion aboard the Au Co was ocean kayaking (no worries... the water was very calm so Joe didn't get seasick this time!). We followed a tour guide as he led us around the bay. We visited a part of the bay that is uninhabited, which was an incredible and serene experience. We were surrounded by the limestone giants and the sounds of nature. I could have laid back and taken a nap on the kayak... that's how relaxing it was!
Our tour guide took us to Dark and Bright Cave, a small cave through which we kayaked to reach a little cove. The cave was narrow and we had to paddle through it one by one. Luckily, we didn't encounter any bats! Once in the cove, Joe and I skimmed the edges to look for wildlife and saw fish as well as crabs. Kayaking for about an hour and a half provided some great exploration as well as exercise.
PS - We took our kayaking photos with a disposable waterproof camera, so they look a bit 70's-ish! And unfortunately, most of the photos turned out really really dark.
Our view at dusk
After kayaking, we relaxed on one of the ship's balconies before dinner. The weather was nice and cool... a great break from Singapore's hot and steamy "winter." It felt nice to cozy up in a sweater for the first time in months. And as the sun set, it was neat to watch the limestone giants become shadows at dusk and then disappear into the night.
Before dinner, we had the chance to participate in a Vietnamese tea tasting. We sampled lot of exotic and expensive teas, which turned out to be really strong and quite bitter. Our first sample was of lotus green tea. The way this is grown is quite interesting. Workers grow the tea leaves and then wake up in the middle of the night to catch the opening of lotus flowers... it turns out they only open up at 3 a.m. Once opened, workers place the tea leaves in the flower, which then closes up. The tea stays in for 24 hours, soaking up the flower's taste and fragrance. Then, the next day at 3 a.m., workers go back to the flowers to collect the leaves. Thanks to this process, I believe our cruise manager said the lotus tea is about $200 per kilogram. We also got to sample pomelo green tea, which, if I remember correctly, is a little more expensive than the lotus variety. Although this was a neat experience, Joe and I didn't really like the teas we sampled. I guess we'll stick to Twinings and Lipton!
Next came dinner, which was a gluttonous affair. The menu included vermicelli noodles and pork, deconstructed spring rolls which we got to wrap ourselves, pumpkin soup, fried shrimp and chicken with white and black rice, and mango tiramisu. Yum!
Local women carting goods via bike in Hanoi
Joe and I are back from Bangkok, Thailand... what a crazy city! We encountered lots of traffic and lots of crowds. It was certainly another eye-opening experience in Asia. More to come on this trip later, because I need to catch you up on our experience in Hanoi, Vietnam.
My first impression of Hanoi as we drove through the city is that it is really different from Ho Chi Minh City. There is far less development in terms of office buildings and nice shops. Instead, it has a local, nitty gritty feel to it and I thought we got a good sense of how the locals live.
Our first day in the city was cut a little short thanks to a two-hour delay at the airport (boo on Tiger Airways), so we didn't have time to explore the historical sites we had originally planned to see that day (we had to squeeze these in on our last day in Hanoi). Instead, Joe and I decided to do our own little walking tour... we literally walked for hours and must have covered almost every city street! First on our agenda was a late lunch at Pho 24. After loving this little fast food joint in Ho Chi Minh City, we couldn't resist the tasty pho bo (beef noodle soup).
Hoan Kiem Lake
Pho 24 is right across the street from Hoan Kiem Lake, a serene body of water with a nice park area. We admired the greenery and the many random displays around the lake, including a statue of earth, topiaries in the shapes of different animals, and mini temples (I think they were strictly artistic pieces rather than religious shrines). As we strolled around, we saw many wedding parties taking photos by the lake.
On one end of the lake, we came across Ngoc Son, a temple dedicated to Confucian philosophers. Although we didn't actually go into the temple, we enjoyed seeing the many gates that lead to the entrance.
The peacefulness of the lake was a stark contrast to the busy streets and shops of Hanoi. One of the main shopping drags was right across the street from the lake, which is where our trekking adventure began... but crossing the street was an adventure of its own. Traffic is nuts in Hanoi and we had to dodge the many motorcycles and cars that seemed to disregard any traffic laws that might exist in Vietnam. The video below gives you a taste of our experience.
How the locals in Hanoi eat their meals
The shops in Hanoi sell every type of cheap, touristy trinket you can imagine as well as knockoff goods. Joe struck gold when he found his new favorite travel accessory... a mini Northface backpack that is perfect for exploring the world. He got it at a bargain, only five US dollars! I'm not sure if the bag is real or not (it had a very convincing Northface tag on it that looked original) but it looks authentic. I love great finds!
Not only are the streets in Hanoi crazy, but the sidewalks are also difficult to navigate. As you can see in the photo to the left, there is little room to walk on the sidewalks. Aside from motorcycles using the space as a parking lot, many local restaurants set up shop. Locals eat on little plastic chairs and stools that look like Fisher Price children's furniture. Although everyone in Hanoi seemed to be comfortable in a squatting position (they are also tiny people, which I'm sure helps), I don't think I could enjoy a meal this way!
The smells of the local restaurants were quite delicious. I use the term "restaurant" loosely in this case, because most of these spots were more like holes in the wall where cooks would literally cook in pots or on grills on the sidewalk. I drooled over the smells of fried spring rolls and grilled meat. I'm not sure how sanitary the food was, but it sure looked good!
Ca Fe Pho Co
We took a break from our trek to hit up a local coffee shop called Ca Fe Pho Co, which came highly recommended by many people online. The coffee shop was definitely not like the cute little coffee shops I'm used to. In fact, it was the exact opposite of a Starbucks... a grungy setup in what looked like an old garage, a dirty floor, and liquor cabinets full of booze. But I'll give it to the reviewers who recommended the place... I thought the coffee was good. Vietnamese coffee is thick and sweet, almost syrupy, which I love. Joe, however, isn't a fan and didn't finish his drink.
The highlight of our pitstop may have been the awesome, mangy cat that lives in the store. He was sleeping in the funniest position on a chair near our table when we first sat down. And when he woke up, he paced back and forth, meowing at the top of his lungs.
We ended the night at Newday Restaurant, another establishment that came highly recommended on the web. At first glance, the restaurant looked really small and it was packed. I assumed we'd have to wait a while for a table. However, I was wrong. When we walked up to the door, we were whisked up several flights of stairs and seated right away on the third floor. It turns out that the restaurant is way bigger than it looks.
We had a feast that included mango and avocado salad, vermicelli with pork patties and spring rolls, and vietnamese fried rice. It was a delicious meal and a satisfying way to end the day!
Joe and I are heading back to Vietnam this weekend to visit Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. Thanks to the Indian New Year, Deepavali, Joe has a four-day weekend! See you when we get back!
Pho Bo (beef) from Pho 24
I end my story of Saigon with a more upbeat post - this one is dedicated to the food. Vietnamese food is AMAZING. Every dish we had was delicious. We were told that Vietnamese people don't like cooking with heavy oils, so their cuisine is a lot lighter than what you'll find in many Asian countries (much to Joe's relief - the oily food in Singapore is starting to get to him). Fun fact: this is why you won't find McDonald's in Vietnam. (Singaporeans love McDonald's and there seems to be one on every corner - so this was quite the change for me).
Pho 24 was our first food experience in Vietnam - it's Vietnam's version of fast food but it's way healthier. Each of us got Pho Bo (beef pho) which is a traditional vietnamese soup that consists mainly of rice noodles and beef filet. Apparently there are 24 ingredients in the pho we ate (hence the name Pho 24), but the recipe is a secret. I think we should franchise Pho 24 in the states!
Vermicelli bowl and fried spring rolls
Vietnam is also known for its spring rolls. A restaurant called Wrap and Roll came highly recommended, so we gave it a spin. It was awesome! (Again, we need to franchise this in the U.S. - anyone interested?!?!)
Wrap and Roll was a neat concept - some of the rolls came pre-rolled while others were make-it-yourself. We had make-it-yourself pork rolls, fresh beef spring rolls, fried shrimp rolls and a vermicelli bowl. Vermicelli bowls are delicious - they consist of cold rice noodles, various meat rolls and other vegetables, and come with a vinegar sauce that you pour on top.
I have to make a special mention about the fruit juice in Asia. Simply put, I LOVE IT! All of the juices are fresh squeezed - even juices like apple juice, which you typically don't think of being freshly made. I had the apple juice at Wrap and Roll and each sip tasted like I was biting into an apple.
Stuffed after a delicious dinner
You know a city is doing well when it has cute little cupcake shops. Much to our delight, we discovered one that had beautifully decorated cupcakes. I had the "Queen Velvet" and Paige had some sort of caramel buttercream one. Yum!
For one of our dinners we ate at nha hang ngon, a restaurant in a beautiful, french colonial home. In an online search, the description of the restaurant is Vietnamese street food served in a classy environment. The environment was really neat - cooks were lined up along the walls in street stall style set-ups. We had vermicelli, beef satay, chicken curry and grilled pork.
Our food tour continued with L'Usine, a French cafe that Paige's boss suggested. L'Usine is tucked away on the second floor of a building - you have to walk through an alley to get to the staircase. It was a cute cafe with an attached store that reminded me of Anthropologie. In fact, I almost forgot we were in Saigon because the cafe had a New York City vibe.
Once again, the food did not disappoint. The menu included a mix of sandwiches, salads and cheese plates. After eating rice-based dishes for the past week or so, I was excited to bite into thick pieces of bread. I also had a mango-yogurt smoothie (love these - you can find them everywhere in Saigon!) as well as Vietnamese coffee. Vietnamese coffee is thicker than American coffee and is served with condensed milk. It has a rich, nutty flavor and is very strong. Each cup is served with a little drip filter on top, which you remove once the coffee is done brewing. Fun fact: there are no Starbucks in Vietnam because Vietnamese people prefer their own coffee. I don't blame them.
Our second full day in Saigon started off with a sobering visit to the Vietnam War Remnants museum. We took photos with the U.S. tanks and planes that were displayed in front of the museum... but that's where the photos stopped. What we saw in the museum was too disturbing to capture.
We were warned by our Cu Chi tour guide that the museum would have a very anti-American sentiment, and he was not kidding. The museum touted Americans as being terrible people and showed very graphic images from the war. It was difficult to look at the photos. And, it was a little uneasy for me to speak in front of others as I felt those around us were judging us for being American.
The brutality of war is very disturbing, no matter what side you're on. I venture to guess that both sides were equally violent, and in the museum, I had to keep reminding myself that we were only seeing one side of the story.
We saw several old men who we guessed were veterans of the war. I can't imagine how they felt as they walked through the museum. I noticed one man who had stopped in the middle of the floor, looking off into the distance at nothing with glossy eyes - he looked like he might cry. His wife came to his side and consoled him before he started walking again.
The museum is a very emotional experience - one that I'm glad to have had.
View of Saigon from the Rex Hotel roof
Saigon is a city full of scooters and the traffic is nuts. I kid you not - we saw entire families of two parents and four children crammed on to one scooter! The way the scooter drivers wove in and out of traffic was amazing, but a little nerve wracking if you're a passenger in a car. Cars are constantly honking to warn scooter drivers to get out of the way. And crossing the street... that's a whole different adventure. I felt like I was playing Frogger.
After the Cu Chi tunnels tour, we headed back to Saigon to tour the Independence Palace, also known as the Reunification Palace. The palace was the headquarters of the South Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War. At the end of the war, the North Vietnamese army drove a tank through the front gates of the palace, signifying the end of the war and the "reunification" of the two sides.
The palace is preserved in its 1970's form which I thought was pretty neat because we got to see the environment as it was during the Vietnam War. The first and second floors primarily had offices and meeting rooms while the third and fourth floors had entertainment and dance halls. The basement held all of the communications rooms, including president's quarters, and we saw maps that detailed troop positions. Who knows what key decisions were made at the time!
We loved the 70's decor - Austin Powers was here...
The Reunification Palace tour rounded out our first full day in Saigon. Afterwards, we wandered the city, checking out the Ben Thanh night market. We discovered a great art gallery and bought some paintings (I can't wait to hang them up when we return to the states!). To top off the day, we had desserts at the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel and the view was great (see the photo above). It was a relaxing way to end a very busy day in Saigon!
Joe and I on the Cu Chi Tunnels tour
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is unlike any city I've ever explored. This trip held a special place in my heart because my father fought in the Vietnam War. Since he was based near Saigon, I've always wanted to visit the city. Although I experienced Saigon under totally different circumstances, I kept thinking to myself, "Are these the jungles my dad trekked through and did he walk the streets I'm winding down?"
Side note: because we had a jam-packed trip, I'm splitting my blog entries about Saigon into multiple parts.
I call Ho Chi Minh City "Saigon" because the native Saigonese people say they prefer the name as a symbol of their heritage. After the Vietnam War ended and the communist North Vietnamese government took hold of South Vietnam, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City to remind the Saigonese people of their defeat. Statues and pictures of President Ho Chi Minh are all around town, which I imagine was another way to defeat the spirit of the Saigonese people.
Entrance to tunnel... barely longer than my foot!
To begin our exploration of Vietnam, we took a tour to the famed Cu Chi Tunnels. Our guide explained that when Vietnam was a French colony, the Cu Chi villagers evaded the French by digging a system of intricate tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels are made up of 250 km of tunnels, including three levels with designated kitchen bunkers, meeting rooms and hospital wards. When the Vietnam War rolled around, the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists) used the tunnels to their advantage. During the day they avoided American troops by escaping into the tunnels and came out at night to fight with guerilla tactics. Those who didn't come out to fight stayed in the tunnels for days on end. There are no lights in the tunnels and they are extremely small (the Cu Chi villagers were tiny), so it is amazing that anyone could live in the claustrophobic environment. The history is fascinating and I can't do it justice in this blog, so I encourage you to read more about the Cu Chi Tunnels here!
The Viet Cong used secret entrances (there are many of them along the tunnel system) to get in and get out of the tunnels. The entrances are tiny and it is incredible to think that people just popped in and out of them (see the video demonstration below). Our guide said we could try going into the tunnels this way, but I passed on the offer!
Inside the tunnel
Later in the tour we had a chance to crawl through the tunnels. To accommodate bigger, western tourists, the tour site created bigger entrances to the tunnels and also expanded the tunnels so we wouldn't get stuck. Once I was in the tunnel I had to hunch over to shuffle through. Some of the taller people on the tour had to crawl on their hands and knees. I don't like dark spaces, so getting through the tunnel was a little scary. Everyone kept taking photos so that the flashes from our cameras would light our path. And, with little ventilation in the tunnels, it was hot and a little difficult to breathe.
After 20m, the tour guide gave us the option of continuing through the tunnels or getting out. I chose to exit! I was impressed by a group of tourists (I think from Australia) who ventured the entire 200m of the tour tunnel! Apparently when you continue through the tunnels you hit some bottlenecks that are really small and you go further and further underground through lower levels - I can't imagine how the Australians squeezed through!
A U.S. tank that was immobilized by a land mine
There was a shooting range on the tour in which tourists could try shooting guns that were used during the Vietnam War. I have to admit, it was a little creepy hearing the loud blasts of the guns as we walked through Cu Chi - I felt like there was a war going on around me. There were several times when the grounds would go quiet, and then all of a sudden a machine gun would go off and people would jump out of their skin!
Another creepy thing was that the tour guide said although Cu Chi was combed over for any land mines that might be out in the fields, there could still be active ones hidden in the foliage. So, he asked that we stay on the walking path (and I did!).
Towards the end of the tour, we had a chance to see remnants of weapons used in the war, including a U.S. tank that was immobilized by a land mine. Notice that Joe is wearing army fatigue colors in the photo - with his shaved head he looked like he was in the military!
The Cu Chi tour took a half day, and as you can see, it was very interesting. More to come on Saigon in Part 2 of my story. Stay tuned!