Tunnels, pickpockets, explosions and FOOD!!

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 18, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Following our first two days in Saigon we decided to book ourselves onto a day-tour to visit the famous Cu-Chi Tunnels. These tunnels are about 2 hours outside Saigon and played a hugely important role in the Vietnam War: during fighting between the northern, southern and American soldiers, Viet Cong guerillas built a series of underground tunnels to protect themselves from bombs and chemical warfare. They took almost 10 years of building but the Cu-Chi Tunnels eventually consisted of a network of underground chambers, passageways and workrooms that stretched over 200 kilometers (120 miles). The tunnels housed thousands of guerilla fighters and their wives and children, however the tunnels themselves were tiny (50 centimeters wide by 70 centimeters high) and diseases, especially malaria, were responsible for a huge amount of deaths. Despite undergoing heavy bombing, the hidden tunnel complex helped to ensure the communist victory as they were practically imperceptible to the American troupes and littered with booby-traps which killed many enemy soldiers. Today the whole area around Cu-Chi is pockmarked as a result of the heavy bombing; there are hundreds of jungle-covered moon craters everywhere you turn.

Our day tour started with a visit to a local handicrafts market where victims of the Vietnam War were making pottery and glass souvenirs. Afterwards we arrived at the Cu-Chi Tunnels and were led by our tour guide to watch an interesting (albeit massively propaganda-ish) video about how lovely and peaceful Vientnam was until the American troupes turned up and flattened the whole country; there was an American tourist behind us who was getting quite antsy during the video, however we thought he really needed to take the video with a pinch of salt, after all what was he expecting by coming to Vietnam?! The video included original footage from the war and, as we have come to expect, very hard-hitting and explicit. After this we were shown some of the entrances to the tunnels; they were so well camoflagued that we actually walked right over the top of many of them without even noticing! We were led to a patch of leaves and grass and were all staring at the floor wondering what was going on when suddenly the leaves started to move and a man's head popped up through a tiny trap door concealed under the leaves! It proved to us exactly why the Cu-Chi Tunnels were such a good fortress during the Vietnam War, they are almost invisible! In order to further protect the people in the tunnels, the surrounding area is littered with booby-traps which were absolutely terrifying, not to mention gruesome. Next we went to visit a shooting range where you can fire a range of guns including a machine gun; it kind of turned my stomach to see so many grown men salivating, sweating  and grinning as they lined up to shoot at the targets, considering where we were it actually made me feel quite sick. Chomping on the bit to be given a firearm, some of the American tourists (ironic eh?) in our tour group were acting like a bunch of animals but before too long they had spent their lot and we were able to leave and carry on our tour of the tunnels.

The final part of our day took us to a section of the tunnels which you can actually climb inside and crawl along for 100 meters. This section of the tunnels has been widen twice so that tourists can go inside, however it is still extremely tight and there are emergency exits every 25 meters incase you need to leave. It just goes to show how malnutritioned the Vietnamese soldiers were that they could fit in and maneuver inside the original tunnels which were only 50 centimeters by 70 high.  The entrance looked kind of like a bunker and once we were down inside there was a small opening in the wall into the tunnel. We were all lining up to go inside and I was getting ready to climb in when the girl in front of me (who had just entered the tunnel) came reversing out, bum first, saying she couldn’t do it. We all made way for her to go back upstairs to the surface and joked that the first person had copped out. I hunkered down and clambered into the hole in the wall and found myself in a tunnel about 3 feet high by about 2 feet wide. It was lit by a small strip of florecensent lighting along the floor and the walls were covered in a red dust. I was hunkered along a few steps, thinking it wasn’t too bad, however there was an immediate left turn ahead and when I looked around the corner I nearly fell onto my knees. Ahead of me the tunnel went deeper into the ground by another 10 feet and the width and height of the tunnel reduced by about a third. The people in front of me where crawling into this next section of the tunnel and suddenly I just freaked out. I felt like I couldn’t breath, I was hot and fuzzy headed and I felt the whole weight of the earth above me crushing down. I started reversing out of the tunnel, bum first, and causing the queue of people behind me to get into a crush. Everyone was asking what was wrong but I just kept saying "no, no, no, no, no". Tom took one look at me and told me to go back up to the surface and get some fresh air. Pretty soon I was sitting next to the other girl who had chopped out and we ended up chatting away for the rest of the day. I didn’t feel too bad because lots more people came up from the entrance bunker saying it was too difficult to go into the tunnels. A few minutes later we walked to the exit to meet the others and it turns out that pretty much everyone had either not gone into the tunnel in the first place or they had come up one of the emergency exits, very few people had managed to do the whole 100 meters. However, Tom was one of the people who did it!! As we rounded the corner and I lay eyes on him I actually let out a gasp; he was soaked to the skin with sweat, covered in muck and grime and looked like he had just come out of the tunnel at the end of Shawshank Redemption. I could tell that he hadn’t enjoyed the experience. He told me that the tunnel had actually got so tight that he needed to crawl along on his hands and knees and pull himself along; I was so relieved that I hadn’t done it! Everyone was really impressed with the few people who had finished the tunnel although I can’t say it was very nice sitting next to Tom for two hours on the bus back to Saigon while he was covered in grime and sweat!

We spent the remainder of our time in Saigon relaxing and enjoying the local food, which is actually turning out to be some of the best food we’ve had during our travels. On our final day we visited the city museum and spent some time in the local park updating our food-journal with all the new dishes we’ve tried. While we were in the park Tom ended up being pickpocketed… by a 4 year old girl! A mother was walking through the path with two little girls and when they passed us the elder girl came over to see what we were writing, she was really cute and we ended up talking to her and asking her what her name was. Unbeknownst to us her little sister had snuck around behind Tom, unzipped his shorts pocket and taken some money out. We really had no idea she was there until she started giggling and when we noticed her we thought she was hiding behind Tom to play hide-and-seek with her sister. They both went skipping off and I saw the little one pass something to the elder sister and when Tom noticed his pocket was undone it all made sense. She only actually took 20,000 Dong, which is about 60p, and in all honesty we were quite happy for her to have it; considering what a bloody good pickpocket she was for a 4 year old we figured that they probably need it more than we do. As we were leaving the park we stumbled across a group of about 20 hotel staff being given a fire-safety class in the middle of the street: 3 firemen were lighting a barrel of petrol with a blowtorch and then the hotel staff would take it in turns coming up and trying to put the flames out with a fire extinguisher. This might seem like a pretty strange (and dangerous) thing to do, especially in a park full of kids, however everyone was laughing and it was quickly turning into a competition to see who could extinguish the fire first. It was all going very well until one of the fire extinguishers turned out to be faulty and exploded! It went with such a bang I thought a bomb had gone off and when I turned around Tom had legged it off down the park and left me to fend for myself…such a gentleman! Everyone scattered pretty quickly, including the firemen, so we made a quick getaway while we still could.

That evening we boarded our first Vietnamese sleeper bus to a small seaside town called Nha Trang. Throughout Southeast Asia Vietnam is renowned as being a really easy place to travel and transport is supposed to be very simple for backpackers. We have bought ourselves long-haul bus tickets between southern and northern Vietnam which include three stops along the way and we were really curious to see how the Vietnamese buses were going to compare to the other sleepers we’ve been on. Well I can tell you that they are bloody amazing!! The buses actually have full length beds in them which are comfy, warm and include a pillow and blanket. For pity’s sake, we didn’t even get fully reclining seats when we were in Australia; we’ve had to come all the way to Vietnam to find some really good transport! We slept really well and the next morning we arrived in Nha Trang. This town is a seaside resort but to be honest we only stopped here to break up what would have otherwise been a 24 hour bus journey. Our hotel in Nha Trang was lovely and we spent two days there relaxing but not doing anything of any interest. However we did have some AMAZING food there and I would probably go back there again just for the seafood.  
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