We arrived at the airport and immediately hit the road to head to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Our local guide in Saigon offered us a bit of a glimpse into a strained dynamic between northern and southern Vietnam. He frequently made comparisons between the North and the South, emphasizing how the South is superior in all ways and insisting that our guides in the north must have been bad-mouthing the Southerners.
The hours we spent at the Cu Chi tunnels were absolutely incredible. We wandered through the forested area and saw bunker areas, hidden entrances and even booby traps. We saw examples of the living quarters and meeting places, and learned a bit about what living conditions were like at this base. Dmitriy got to shoot an AK47 and he was quite excited about it. At the end of the tour, we had the opportunity to go through a section of the actual tunnels the Viet Cong utilized during the war. If you’re claustrophobic, this experience is certainly not for you – crouched down like a ball and shuffling forward, a guide leads you further into the tunnels, the walls seemingly closing in the deeper you get.
We had some tea and lunch and then headed to the War Remnants Museum, dedicated to the Vietnam War – or the American War, as the Vietnamese refer to it. It was sobering, and at many points disturbing. From testimonials and photos of those injured or affected, to an entire exhibit on Agent Orange, we saw some heartbreaking things. Each story surely has two sides, but it is easy to forget what the Vietnamese people went through from the comfort of an American living room. In the abstract, I’m sure most Americans will agree the war was terrible, for the American kids sent to fight and especially the Vietnamese, but knowing this and seeing the museum, displaying the damage in unapologetic pictures and personal stories, two very different things. The echoes of the war still reverberate through the South, 40 years seeming like not so long a time. It’s an important place to visit and I’m glad we did.
The next day we drove about two hours to the Mekong Delta, soaking in the scenery of lush greens, rice fields and rivers. We stopped off at the Vinh Trang Pagoda, built in the middle of the 19th century. Once we arrived in Ben Tre Town, we took a boat ride along the Ben Tre River. We stopped at a brick factory and saw how bricks are made, from the initial shaping process, to the drying and heating process. We took a motor cart through the fields to a little area where we had lunch. The highlight, by far, was sipping on fresh coconut water on the boat back, with the breeze cooling us down.
Once we got back to Ho Chi Minh City, we did a bit of touring before heading back to our hotel for a quick shower.
Funny side note: Dani pressed the button on the safe in the room (that may or may not have specifically said “do not press”). The result…it played “happy birthday to you” over and over and over and over again. Cruel joke? Slow torture? A little bit of both?
Our last evening in Saigon, we headed to Noir for dinner. It’s a restaurant where you dine completely in the dark – all staff are either blind or hearing impaired. After a cocktail and a few ‘practice’ games using a blindfold, you’re led into the room and to your table. It’s quite an interesting sensation – it’s pitch black, you can’t see a thing, allowing your other senses to heighten in response. Once you sit down, your waiter or waitress guides your hand to the different silverware and glasses in front of you. Each course was served with paired wine, with the waiter specifying how to enjoy the meal (i.e. left to right, clockwise). We weren’t told what we were eating, so we tried guessing as we ate. After finishing our dinner and readjusting to the light, a manager came out to show us exactly what we ate and drank – we were wrong very, very often!
It was a fabulous experience, particularly for someone who is as picky of an eater as I am. It’s incredible what our taste buds can do if our eyes don’t have the chance to ruin it.
The next morning before our flight we took a stroll through a large park that was filled with group exercise classes. The morning sun illuminated tai chi classes, old ladies doing some sort of dance class, and old men playing a game that can best be summarized by this SAT analogy – baseball:kickball :: badminton:this game…Not exactly the serene atmosphere we were expecting, but it was fun to see. Still, the early morning was perfect, and on our last day we got to see real Vietnamese culture in it’s industrious, early morning splendor.
We had pretty high expectations for Saigon, but it ended up being our least favorite of all the places we went in Vietnam. It may not have helped that I really didn’t care for the local guide we worked with, but overall it felt like a less authentic environment than what we were able to experience in the North. Saigon is certainly a huge, bustling city, but it’s a more reminiscent of an Eastern European capital, Westernizing with the times. While ironically Saigon is probably now “real” Vietnam, Hanoi and the rest of the places we visited seemed more authentic.
After a spectacular trip, we happily headed back to NZ, eager to share our new home with Dani.