Friday, February 22, 2013

Cu Chi Tunnels

I’m wary of war museums, and when we went to the one in Ho Chi Minh I sat outside among the tanks and helicopters and tried to not to think of the horrors contained within.  It’s not that I don’t want to think about war, or suggest that we shouldn't learn about it; it’s simply that I prefer to read about it, to hopefully see both sides of the story.  Or maybe I am just a bit of a wuss.

Anyway, I was not anticipating the afternoon excursion to the Cu Chi Tunnels with any sort of interest at all.  I couldn't have been more wrong.

What I didn’t really think about, before I left, was that Vietnam has only recently been opened up to the west.  They haven’t quite got the tourist banter down.  Sometimes they can come of more intimidating than inviting.  The Vietnam War was really very recent.  It was fought there, above and below ground.  The examples of traps and snares are real. 

I knew, of course, that the tunnels have been expanded for tourists.  I knew, of course, that I couldn’t get lost.  I knew, of course, that the gunshots breaking the quietness were from the training field next door.  But, I also knew of a little history, of the way these hills were riddled with traps and of the horror that the people above and below ground must have witnessed during the long years of war. 

It must be a fine balance between museum and theme park in a historical war site.  The Cu Chi Tunnels just outside of Ho Chi Minh City are certainly historical.  They weave under the ground for miles in an intricate web of warfare that is chilling in its ingenuity.

We went underground, for a very short time, into the widened tunnels.  It was hot and claustrophobic and people were scared.  I was bent over, and in darkness for most of the way as the guide was at least eight people away from me.  It was an exhilarating few minutes, but in retrospect it was a reminder of how people lived during an awful, terrible time.

I’m glad we were there on a quiet day.  We left sobered by the experience. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Hoi An

I think I made my tour group go cycling.  We were on the bus heading towards Hoi An when our guide, Bao, asked who wanted to go on a bycle tour of the town.  The silence on the bus was deafening, until I said “I do.”  The others slowly agreed and so the plan was hatched.  We had spent the morning climbing the Marble Mountain in Da Nang and so agreed to cycle the next day.

Hoi An is a very different part of Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City.  It does not have the same frenetic traffic and energy.  You can walk along the streets without the danger of being run over by a scooter.  You will, however, be accosted by 1845638 shopkeepers who with varying degrees of urgency implore you to come into their shops and buy something, anything.

I had organised a suit to be made, prescription sunglasses to be created, sandals to be crafted and a dress to be altered all in the first afternoon.  By the time dinner came around I was ready to sleep, not eat.  Somehow I had missed the fact that dinner was going to be a cooking class/demonstration and when we turned up at the restaurant I just wanted a quick meal so I could go back to the hotel and watch American Idol on Starworld (Yes, I know I was in Vietnam…but I never watch it normally.  You do strange things while on holiday).

Anyway, the menu was set for us and we gathered closely around a table to make our Vietnamese pancakes stuffed with prawns and bean sprouts, spring rolls (by far the best I had on the trip), snapper cooked in banana leaf and green papaya salad.  After a few cocktails I got stuck in frying up the spring rolls to a crisp and showing off my hopeless chopstick stills to the amused waiter.  The meal, like everything I ate in Vietnam was delicious – though by this stage I was in danger of turning into a spring roll.

And the cycling? I loved it! I’m not sure about the others, but for me it was an absolute highlight.  We cycled through town, beside rice paddies, through market gardens, past buffalo and near people picking coconuts.  It was a gently warm day in comparison to the heat of Ho Chi Minh, the sun was out, and there was a boat ride at the end.  Brilliant!

We chugged back to Hoi An in a small boat, as the sky slowly faded to dusk.  Ready to re-enter the throng…”Madam, want you want?  I give you good price! MADAM!”