We started out today with a half-day tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, about a two hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City. The bus ride and tour was another one of those tourist bottlenecks where all the foreigners merge onto one space like a swarm of locusts. I was reminded again of my initial impression of HCMC being really quite full of tourists. We travelled on a pretty large bus with every seat taken, and every single traveler on the bus was a westerner. Martha said it made her feel like she was on a high school field trip…. except, a field trip at a high school where you can’t stand any of your classmates and they all stink. This like seven foot tall russian guy that we had also seen the day before was wearing the same muay thai boxing t-shirt as yesterday. Him and his whole group stunk soooo bad. I guess when you’re seven foot tall and built like you could tear a door off the hinges you feel entitled to stink as much as you like. Yeah, so Cu Chi is a tourist machine. A machine. They crank through absolute swarms of foreigners. The attraction is the tunnels that were originally built by Viet-Cong and used during the war. There’s 240 km of tunnels, but only certain sections have been protected and preserved. The section available to go through has been enlarged to, as our tour guide put it “international size” (as opposed to Vietnamese size). Read: we’re way too damn fat for their tunnels. I would’ve thought this meant that the “enlarged” tunnels would be easy to move through. They were pretty tight though, and if you have a tendency towards claustrophobia, it might just lead to freak out time going through the 100 meter stretch with turns and ups and downs and sections of pitch black. Add to that the fact that it was sweltering and damp and you had a line of smelly slow pokes in front and behind…. yikes. I kinda had to relax and find a happy place and get centered a little mentally going through a few spots. And damn, those were the “enlarged” tourist tunnels. Viet-Cong spent years in these tunnels. They also showed us a lot of the booby traps used against Americans in the war as well as some of the tricks in jungle combat. I can definitely see how we lost that war. The place also has a shooting range like the one in Cambodia, but they only have regular automatic rifles and it’s really crowded. At similar prices, I’d recommend blowing stuff up and shooting things in Cambodia over Vietnam.
After getting back from the day trip, we did a little shopping and mailed home a Vietnam bundle from Ho Chi Minh post office. They have a very impressive postal system here. The best postal system on this trip was Thailand though, where they even sell really cute postal service swag.
Toured HCMC a little more and moved from some of the historic French buildings into an upscale area lined with designer shops and boutiques. Whatever capitalist/communist hybrid system they have going here seems to working well, at least on the outside. Did a little street photography around town today as we’re getting a better sense of safety. Every major street crossing is still an adrenaline rush with motorbikes zigzagging around you coming within feet and even inches. The picture up top was taken today just as the sun was setting. It’s an HDR, but otherwise was not manipulated whatsoever. Martha says it looks “fake as hell,” like I photoshopped Ho Chi Minh into the shot. I really really love that shot though. It captures several icons of the city in a postcard perfect kind of way.
We were headed to the grocery store after the sun set and cutting through 23rd September park when I decided to grab another slow shutter nighttime shot. The park was bustling with people: families with kids playing, groups of teenagers goofing around, couples cuddled up on parked motorbikes, vendors selling food and toys. The place was really alive with people and filled with lots of laughter and the undertone of many conversations. I found an empty spot to grab a shot and in a moments time Martha and I were pretty well surrounded with friendly and curious locals. We didn’t think of it at the time, but it’s really just like any mentions of the park on trip advisor or wikitravel. Go to 23rd September park in the evening and sit down somewhere and you’ll likely be approached by local college students looking to practice their English. I had a group of maybe eight or so and Martha had another group of maybe six. We all chatted for quite a while: politics, money, food, trash talking neighboring countries, and general life in our respective countries. All the people were in college or finished college in the past few years. It was really very interesting talking with people our age and it definitely broadened my perspective on the people here. There is a tremendous void between the personalities, behavior, and aspirations of the young generation here and their parents and grandparents. Maybe Vietnam is going through what America went through (socially) in the 1960s. I don’t know. Really enjoyed that though. Martha became fast friends with a girl in her group that lives near the grocery we were headed to so she walked with us and showed us around a little bit. We thought we were getting pretty good at crossing busy roads here, but this girl was a professional. She brought us through a dense river of motorbikes and just held her hand up with a calm certainty. Nice way to close out the day.
Couple of brief food items:
Martha has been after a cup of something called “weasel coffee.” Basically, weasels go and eat coffee beans and after they’ve, umm, fermented their way through the weasel, they’re, umm, recollected, cleaned and roasted to be consumed in an expensive coffee brew. We found a place that serves it, but after further research, the coffee there doesn’t actually involve weasels, or any animals. It does however utilize a fermentation process that supposedly very accurately mimics the flavor of “real” weasel coffee without utilizing any animals. From my perspective though, it’s the difference between and $50 cup of coffee and a $3 one. It was the most delicious and potent coffee brew that has ever crossed my lips. A rich syrupy dark roast with a smooth finish. We grabbed a 1/4 kilo to bring home. We initially thought “too bad we didn’t find it earlier or we could’ve sent it home with everything else” but then we read that this kind of coffee gets confiscated and quarantined in customs.
Also, a couple more initially unidentified fruit samplings. The big one is called a “Water Apple” and it is definitely the first time we’ve ever seen it. It has a crispy, red, snappy skin like an apple, but that is about where the similarities end. The flesh has the texture of a juicy cold watermelon, and it tastes as delicate as an asian pear. Both of us give this fruit a thumbs up! The small one (acerola) looks much more delicious than it tastes. It looks like a cherry from afar, but when you get close to it, it looks a lot like a tiny apple. It has a sour taste to it, and apparently it is supposed to be eaten with a spicy powder that it usually comes with. There isn’t much flesh on it, because inside there are three seeds that take up most of the size of the fruit. As for the texture, I guess you could say it was juicy and almost like a soft “red delicious” apple. We can’t say we liked it, but we can’t say we completely disliked it.
Tomorrow is our last full day in Vietnam. Stay tuned…