Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ho Chi Minh II

We arrived back at Ho Chi Minh some time in the early afternoon on the 19th. We were astounded at the price of our taxi back to our guesthouse: $6! It was more than our bus tickets had cost. We didn't have much choice though, so we sucked it up. After checking into our guesthouse (the same one we had stayed at before) we went out for lunch. During our previous visit to the city we had spotted what looked like a Vietnamese fast food burger chain that we were curious to try, so we made our way there in the sprinkling afternoon rain. It ended up being less than stellar - certainly no McDonald's or Burger King. After that we headed back to the guesthouse where we proceeded to wait around. For what, you ask? For my Mom to arrive! She was scheduled to fly in late that night, and we were going to be at the airport to pick her up. So in the meantime, we waited around. Checked the email, tried to facebook – Vietnam blocks facebook though, so that was difficult. Some hotels have set up work arounds, but our guesthouse hadn't managed to do so. I tried to hack around it myself, but my skillz aren't so good. Chuck finally had pity on me and helped me out. At 8:00 PM went out for a pho dinner and some donuts, and at around 9:00 PM we grabbed a taxi to the airport to join the massive crowd waiting outside. We waited for quite a while, watching each passenger as they exited the building and spotted their waiting family, or greeted a driver with their name on a sign. I loved the group of school kids meeting up with their waiting parents. The annoyed looks on some of their faces as their Moms happily descended on them was priceless. Eventually, my own Mom appeared in the doorway. I jumped up and down to attract her attention as I waved hello across the waist high barrier. We met up near the edge of the crowd and happily exchanged hugs and kisses and all that. It had been a long time since I had seen her, and I found it was really nice to do so again. I guess I had been a little scared that I wouldn't know what to say or do, which was kind of silly because she's my Mom and of course I'd know what to say and do. It's not as though not seeing her for so long had changed any of that. So yeah, it was great to see her! We chatted about our travels and her trip and her life back in Florida as we tried to find a taxi. The first two taxis we asked wanted to charge us $15 to $20. We had paid $6 to get to the airport, so there was no way in hell we were paying that much to get back. We walked past the line of waiting taxis and to the next terminal where one driver was happy to take us for the meter price, which ended up being $6. Much more reasonable. Back at the hotel I stayed up talking with Mom until almost 1:00 AM. We had a big day of sightseeing ahead of us, so we decided to go to bed at that point.

We woke up around 9:30 AM, which for Chuck and me is pretty early. We had some pastries and iced Vietnamese coffee (well, I had the iced coffee - Mom had hers black and hot so as to avoid ingesting any dirty ice, and Chuck doesn't like coffee) for breakfast, and then hopped online together to plan out our route for the day. Once that was worked out and our course plotted on our handy tourist map, we set out to see the city. First we went to the Ben Thanh market. Chuck and I had been there before, during our first visit to the city, but we thought Mom might get a kick out of it. The vendors were predictably pushy and determined, which was a great introduction to Vietnam for Mom. We didn't do any exploring in the market – I'm sure it would have driven Mom mad (or maybe I was really protecting my own sanity...). We merely passed through on our way to see the opera house, which was a 15 minute walk down the road. The opera house ended up being closed which was a bummer, but we did get to see a presumably just-married Vietnamese couple taking wedding photos out front. The bride was wearing a beautifully sequined and very expensive looking gown, with its long train flowing down the steps of the building. We got a few shots of them and then moved on. Another 20 minute walk brought us to the river. We had to cross a big scary road to actually reach the water front, though. Traffic in Vietnam is notorious throughout SE Asia as being some of the most dangerous you'll encounter. You've got to be very careful when crossing the road, as people don't really like to stop. But there is a technique, and it doesn't involve waiting for a break in the traffic, as it is likely there will be none. What you have to do is look for a small opening in the lane closest to you - just big enough that the car or motorcycle has a decent amount of time to start braking or plot a course around you. Step out and keep going. Don't stop and wait - just go. At a moderate pace and in a predictable line. What you're counting on is that the traffic will go around you rather than stop. It's pretty scary, but that's how it works. I've been told that it's helpful to look directly at the traffic as you walk - like holding off a rabid dog with the force of your stare. We implemented this technique and safely made it across. We were like car whisperers. Or motorbike whisperers. Bad ass. We found a bench along the river and sat there for a bit, watching people go about their day. There were a number of people with nets who were collecting something out of the water. I couldn't tell what it was, but I suspect they were catching turtles. Making turtle soup? They eat snails and duck embryos in Vietnam, so eating turtles would be rather reasonable. The river wasn't very exciting though, so after a rest we left it behind and headed towards the Independence Palace. We were harassed pretty relentlessly by the numerous rickshaw drivers as we walked, but they were fairly good natured in their harassment. They'd pedal down the road next to us asking where we were from and where we were going and try to convince us that their rickshaw was the most awesome thing ever. One driver even tried to tell us that all three of us could fit in just fine. Maybe three Vietnamese people, but certainly not us big Westerners. Crazy rickshaw man. We stopped at an ATM at one point where Mom's card got stuck in the little card slot - not all the way in, but not sticking out far enough to be able to pull it back out. One of the security guards solved the problem for us by using his bank card to force it the rest of the way. I was sure her card would just end up stuck deeper in the machine, but instead, it registered that her card was there and processed a transaction. Next, we popped into a soup place for some pho. It wasn't the best pho we'd had, but it was a good introduction for Mom. Eventually we did make it to the Independence Palace. The palace was the seat of power for South Vietnam up until 1975 when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the front gate and put an end to the Vietnam war. Or the American War, as it's called in Vietnam. It was abandoned and left pretty much exactly as it was. Now, tourists can go and see the palace, frozen in time at 1975. All the furnishings are 70's style, and the war-rooms in the basement are filled with ancient looking radio equipment. There's really not much more to say about the place than that. It wasn't too exciting. After exploring the building for over an hour (it was a big building) we moved on. Mom and I grabbed some fresh coconuts to drink as we made our way to the War Remnant Museum. I do love those fresh coconuts when they're nice and sweet. The walk was short enough that we were just finishing up our drinks as we arrived. The museum was a fairly plain, open building filled with lots of pictures and a few big guns. Many of the pictures were of children and adults who had been deformed due to the use of agent orange and other toxins – some through birth defects and other from having been burned in napalm fires. They were pretty intense photos. The courtyard had some planes and helicopters to pose with, as well as a display of the various horrible holding pens and torture tactics that were used during the Vietnamese war. There was definitely some propaganda to be found in the descriptions of the different displays, but I didn't think it's was ridiculously overwhelming. I did notice that they referred to the defeat of South Vietnam as South Liberation Day. I suspect there were many southerners who would object to the word “liberation.” We spent 45 minutes there before getting sick of the gruesome photos, and headed back towards our guesthouse. It was about tea time for Mom (she likes to have her afternoon tea) so we looked for a coffee shop as we walked. Vietnam is well known for their coffee, so it wasn't long until we came across a nice little place. It had AC too, which was a great relief. I'm not sure I've mentioned that Vietnam is freaking hot, but it is. It's really hot. Especially in June. So the AC was lovely, as was the fancy tea they served to Mom. And my iced coffee was brewed right at the table in this little metal cup device that I'd never seen before. And Chuck's pineapple-orange shake was one of the best shakes I've tasted. It was a great way to relax after all the walking we had done. And back at the hotel we all continued our relaxation in our respective rooms until hunger hit us. By that point it was raining pretty hard. The guesthouse lady was nice enough to lend us each an umbrella, and reminded me to wear my bag strapped around my chest. She did that every time we left the guesthouse: point at my bag and motion across her chest. I think it was probably a good habit to get into in Vietnam (due to purse snatching), so I was glad for her reminders. We ventured out into the wet, immediately soaking our feet in the unavoidable little puddles. Not wanting to go far in the rain, we headed towards a local place Chuck and I had eaten at during our first visit. While walking down a side street, we saw an unexpected face having a drink in a small restaurant. Matt - the English guy we had met in Cambodia - had made it to Vietnam, and we just happened to run into him. We said hi and chatted for a few moments before moving on. We found the restaurant and took a seat in the tiny, short chairs on the sidewalk. Mom laughed as though she felt completely absurd sitting in the child sized furniture. But the absurdity was worth the food if you ask me. We had a lovely hot pot, some tamarind chicken, and beef luc lac while we watched the crazy traffic fly by in the rain. Good times.

We were scheduled to go on a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels on the 21st, which meant waking up fairly early. We had our breakfast and then made our way to the nearby tourist shop where we were to be picked up. I loved that there was a Christian Vietnamese man proselytizing as we waited. I hadn't seen any of that in a long time. When the bus arrived we climbed aboard and claimed the front row of seats. The tour guide told us about the tunnels as we made the two hour trip to Cu Chi. We learned that they were excavated during the Vietnam (American) war by the guerrilla fighters not as just a base for combat operations, but also as a home. A very small, cramped, maze-like home. They cooked, ate, slept, and tended their wounded, all underground. And we would get a chance to crawl the tunnels and get a taste of what it might have been like, minus all the explosions and death. We arrived at the site, paid our entrance fees, and followed the guide to a pavilion in the forest. A black and white video began playing on a small screen at the front of the pavilion. As an American I thought the video was kind of funny because they kept mentioning the heroism that came along with "killing Americans." was given a medal of honor for killing Americans, etc. It didn't offer much beyond that, though. Throughout the video we would occasionally hear these loud bangs from the surrounding forest. We didn't know what it was, but no one seemed to be panicking so we ignored it. After the movie we followed the guide around to the various points of interest: a tiny (very tiny) entrance to the tunnels, a bunch of bamboo-spike booby traps, a cooking vent, an old tank, etc. I was pretty impressed by the tunnel entrance. It was a rectangle hole in the ground that was about 16 inches wide and 10 inches across. I'm pretty certain that my butt wouldn't have fit through it, but a few of the smaller people who were on our tour lowered themselves in. Even they barely fit. The small entrances must have made for a good defense as I doubt the large American soldiers would have fit very easily. Not to mention that even if they did get inside, they would have had to figure out which way to go to get to the tunnel-dwellers. Our guide told us that there was one instance where they did make it inside (using one of the larger entrances), but they didn't last long due to not knowing the tunnel layout. They were slaughtered in the tunnels in the dark. Eeeps! After a while we made it to the gift shop where we could buy snake whiskey, rice wine, cashew brittle, and any sort of tourist knick-knack you might fancy. We also discovered the source of the loud bangs: a shooting range. Being an old war site, I guess they figured a shooting range would be a nice addition. I loved the metal drums stacked at the back of the field as targets. They were so full of bullet holes that they might have crumpled under their own weight at any moment. Past the tourist shop we came to a rice paper station, where they had a bunch of the rice paper wrappers used for spring rolls and such, lying out on woven rattan mats to dry in the sun. And past that, we finally came to the tunnels themselves. Well, from what I understand they aren't THE tunnels. THE tunnels are too unstable after all these years, and they're a bit too small for us Western tourists to go crawling through. The tunnels we were at were replica tunnels, dug slightly larger than the original network to accommodate larger bodies. So imagine my surprise when I stomped down the dirt stairs to the tunnel entrance and had to squat. Our guide was the only one with a flashlight leaving the tunnels dark save for a few random lights along the ground. The tunnel was around 4 feet high for most of its length, although at one brief point it lowered to 3 feet. We had to kind of sit on our butts and scoot through that section, unless you were brave enough to crawl on your hands and knees at a downhill angle. I wasn't. I prefer my head to remain a good distance higher than my feet at all times. There were quite a few tunnel exits along the way, and I think a few people got out before reaching the end. I was surprised that I found myself feeling slightly nervous and cramped in there, given that I'm not really a claustrophobic person. I had to focus on my breathing and think happy thoughts a couple of times during the crawl, but it wasn't bad by any means. I could see how someone might freeze up and panic though. Mom, Chuck, and I all stuck it out through that first stretch of tunnel and came out the other end slightly dusty and very sweaty. I think the trek took us less than 5 minutes total, but I was relieved to be out. However, there were still two more tunnels to go! We could choose to remain above ground if we liked, but I came for the tunnels so gosh darn it, I was going to see the tunnels. Mom came with me to crawl through the second stretch, but she and Chuck both remained above ground for the last tunnel. The whole experience was a surprising taste of what it might have been like back during the war. Cramped and dirty. I bet they had a lot of back problems. And when you add in the possibility of dying, it must have been beyond awful. Humans can be thoroughly amazing creatures. After the tunnels we were treated to some steamed tapioca root dipped in crushed peanuts. Honestly though, "treated" is far to generous a word for this snack. Tapioca is one of the most tasteless foods on the planet. Thank god for the peanuts. And on top of the tapioca, they served us hot tea. We were all dripping sweat and they're serving us steaming hot tea. I don't know who was in charge of planning snack time, but they obviously didn't quite think things through. Okay, I'm being a little unfair - the tapioca was served because that was apparently the staple food of the tunnel-dwellers. But the tea. What was up with the hot tea? This was the end of the tunnel tour, so once we had all sufficiently rejected our tapioca we were led back to the bus and on to our next destination: an art workshop for disabled people. Victims of agent orange. We were all feeling very awkward about this part so we tried to mentally prepare during the ride there. I steeled myself against the sad eyes staring pitifully at us as we walked past on our perfectly good two legs, their blistered fingers slaving away at making vases and picture frames, their useless twisted feet bent strangely beneath them. Nothing like boat loads of pity to convince you to buy things you don't need. When we arrived, Chuck chose to stay on the bus, but Mom and I went out to brave the workshop. It was a huge warehouse, stuffed to the brim with undecorated vases huge and small, picture frames, plates, bowls, jewelry boxes, and who knows what else. There were wooden tables spread all throughout and the disabled artists were hard at work adding eggshell mosaics, mother-of-pearl scenes, or otherwise painting the different items. And wouldn't you know it, no one was eying us pitifully. No one was milking their disability for all it was worth. In fact, I couldn't even tell that most of them were disabled. We actually ended up kind of liking the place. It was really neat to see people being so artsy, many looking as though they actually kind of enjoyed their job. And the resulting pieces were quite pretty. Not my style, but nice none the less. Mom ended up buying a few things as souvenirs. We all filed back onto the bus for the last time and drove back into Ho Chi Minh. By the time we arrived the sky had darkened to a heavy charcoal and rain had begun to drizzle. In an attempt to figure out where we were within the city I was keeping my eyes out for street signs, and to my surprise, I recognized a name. It was the street where a restaurant we had been looking at online was located. We quickly asked the tour guide if we could just get off there, which was fine of course, and we piled out into the sprinkling rain. Making rash decisions doesn't always work out for the best though, as we would soon find out. We didn't know whether the restaurant would be to our left or right, so we made a guess and headed off to the right. We walked a long ways down the road, ducking under any awnings or ledges as we passed. The rain was slowly picking up speed and pretty soon Chuck and I had each bundled our head and shoulders in shawls (Mom and I were each carrying one) while Mom used her umbrella. We did our best to avoid puddles as we veered off the sidewalk due to the many obstacles that made their homes there: pot holes, motorbikes, lamp posts, people. We never found the restaurant. It turned out the restaurant had been moved to another location and our search was in vain. We ended up eating at an alright little indoor place after walking for more than 30 minutes. I was exhausted and fighting a bad mood by the time we sat down. After our lunch we walked the short distance back to our hotel and took a much needed break. A few hours later, around dinner time, we reconvened and went to a nearby BBQ joint. It was good food, but the service wasn't all that spectacular. That's what you get for going to a "fancy" place I guess. And after that we stopped into a little bia hoi place and shared a plastic jug of the local beer. A lot of Vietnamese cities brew their own cheap, nasty beer, and each morning it's delivered to all the little restaurants that are willing to sell it. There's a limited supply, so once they run out, that's it for the day. It's super cheap at about $0.25 a pint, but the downside is the massive hangover it gives for even a light night of partying. Ours came in a little plastic jug and tasted like dirty watered down beer. The whole establishment (all 100 sq ft of it) was filled with backpackers, so it wasn't any sort of "authentic" experience, but it was kinda fun as we watched the rowdy drunkards around us joking and laughing and getting all worked up about the World Cup match that was on in the restaurant next door. It was a good end to a long day. Sleep was no stranger that night.

We woke up nice and early on the 22nd to breakfast and check out. I loved the little pastries at that place. We walked to where our bus to Nha Trang would pick us up. It was just down the alley, nice and close. The bus was unlike anything I'd seen before. It had little beds in it! Permanently reclined seats. Bunkbed style. I'd never seen such a thing. They were actually pretty comfortable too. Perhaps the 12 hour ride to Nha Trang wouldn't be so bad after all.

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