That evening, while we sauntered around the tourist district looking for somewhere to eat we came across numerous cafes. However, these are not cafes in the way the west know them, no: a cafe here is different. For simplicities sake, every time I say “cafe,” replace that word with “travel agent.” The cafe business is big business here and uncountable operators vie for attention, and the tourist dollar, on every corner. Similarly, Vietnam is not much for trade-name copyright and it is possible to find multiple copies of the more famous operators; together with the official logo and more. They also tout to each other, as we soon found out when booking ourselves onto a full day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels and Cao Dai temple.
Cesca is someone who takes choice very seriously; it takes her an age to choose anything (apart from saying “Yes” to me on one particular occasion!) and I fully respect this (although it can be funny to watch). For her the selection of the correct tour operator is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, this careful process means that should the tour differentiate by any amount she will get annoyed and even blame her powers of choice. I am much more pragmatic; all the tours are the same, the offices and frontages are just ‘sales’. The back-end is always somewhat of a crapshoot. That is unless you are paying for something special. Our budget puts us firmly in the low-to-mid ranges and thus into the melting pot.
Sure enough, the tour turned out differently than expected. The first inkling that something would be amiss came when the guide changed the order of the tour as soon as we got onto the bus. We have been travelling for long enough to know that this is not a good sign in a tour. Our first stop then was the Cu Chi tunnels.
These large and widespread tunnels were the key ingredient of the VC forces in the famous Tet Offensive. Their size and depth even allows for underground hospitals, three level quarters and disguised kitchens. Our trip around them was at a little of a break neck pace for us, but we did see the various buildings, cleaver disguises and felt the indomitable nature of the VC soldiers who fought and died here.
The classic photo, but I couldn’t fit
Apparently, the system was so well hidden that one US firebase was built directly above a tunnel command section! The surprised Americans had to deal with enemy soldiers coming up all around their tents! We also saw a large collection of the various mantraps the VC used to booby trap US forces. These were all low tech but ingenious in their ferocity and inventiveness.
The “door” trap
The real traps were smeared in poo and therefore the main killing weapon was the environment itself. Mind you, stepping into a pit of spikes would definitely hurt as they were cleverly designed to tilt into your flesh and prevent you from being pulled out.
A US tank disabled by the VC around the tunnels
The highlight of the visit was a chance to go down a tunnel itself. Now the fighting VC soldier was generally very small indeed; subsisting on a very simple diet does not make for chunky soldiers. Consequently, the ‘tunnel’ open to westerners has been considerably widened. It made no difference as there was no way I was going to fit in there. Cesca eventually went in alone and reported that it was not pleasant. I wonder how it must have felt for the warriors of both nations to meet in such tunnels?
Down the tunnel
The US had its own “Tunnel Rats” who risked their lives to attack down these tiny, trap ridden and pitch black holes. I am glad that, due to my size, I would not be selected for such onerous duty.
After that flash-visit to the tunnels we were driven at break neck speed to the Cao Dai temple to see the lunchtime ceremony. Cao Dai is frankly the strangest religious movement I have ever seen. Once a powerful force in Vietnam, armed and ready to cause trouble, they have been beaten back to a small number of churches around the Mekong. Their Christian inspired and very colourful church sits majestically on a large space of land and hold services a few times each day. We arrived in time to be ushered into the rooftop cloisters and view the lunchtime service.
The colourful temple and worshipers
They worship Jesus, Buddha, Confucius and Lao-Tze (Taoism) all at once. Each member wears a coloured robe to signify their particular allegiance and the ceremony has much in common with a Christian Church service, but with mentally banging Vietnamese music performed by the band in the rafters. It gets stranger; the symbol of Cao Dai is the “Eye in the Pyramid” akin to a million Illumiantus conspiracy theories and bearing an uncanny resemblance to the back of the One Dollar bill. Even stranger still is their idea of a “saint” includes author Victor Hugo!
Frankly bonkers. Nevertheless, colourful and a real spectacle.
After this, the bus stopped at a typical lunch restaurant. The kind only visited by tours. There we met and spoke to a nice couple of Swiss guys who pointed out that it was only lunchtime and that their tour was identical but better spread out; this lunch being in the middle of the two stops. We had been screwed then. Sure enough, the “day” tour had ticked off both major items by lunchtime. Cesca and I looked at each other as we both knew where we would be going next.
The unscheduled stop at a shop.
This is an Asian classic. Every single tour, every single taxi, every single tuk-tuk you take in Asia will want to take you to a shop of some sort. With taxi’s etc, a firm “No” usually gets you out of it, but with a bus tour you are trapped. Sure enough, half-an-hour later we arrived at a factory that made and sold lacquered, shell inlayed, tourist tat. I do not mind such excursions in principle; many of these places are government run and provide work for the disabled. However, I don’t like being “hard sold”, in fact I am impervious to it and more than this I dislike being rushed through what I paid for only to find the tour slow to a crawl when passing through these places.
We were there for 45 minutes, longer than we had stayed at Cao Dai. Suffice to say, despite the quality of the items, Cesca and I declined to buy anything and spent the time wandering around the large and soulless display room. In my case being followed the entire time by a giggling group of Vietnamese saleswomen who found a visit by someone of my size to be a special event. I am, by the standards of my race, not a giant by any means. However, I do tower above the Vietnamese girls and have received a lot of attention from the ladies in this country.
Arriving back in Ho Chi Min, we declined further tours from this operator and went to the company the Swiss guys were on. We wanted another trip into the Mekong, this time for two nights on the waters. This tour went really well in comparison.
As usual, the bus booked and the bus gained related to each other in only the flimsiest of terms; as in they both had two sets of wheels, but the tour did get off to a good start on its way out of the city. The guide gave us lots of information regarding the culture of Vietnam and the city of Ho Chi Min and I found that interesting. A few hours later we arrived at the boat deck and swapped our bus for a collection of 10 person long tailed boats.
On the Mekong again!
These motored us around what was in effect, but disguised, water based theme park of small “villages.” At one we learned how to make coconut candy (and of course were invited to purchase) and at another we found out the processes of creating rice wraps; the sort used in spring rolls. This sort of very arranged experience was masked as much as possible from seeming too “touristy” (a horrible dirty word that Cesca and I pretty much use only in its most derogative way), but after so long away and seemingly hundreds of such tours, I could sense that the little rivers, villages, jumping on an off boats, row boat rides, and tromps across paths through forests amounted to about 4 acres of actual travel. Lunch and refreshments were provided along the way at small “village” restaurants and the food was OK or edible. It is just the sad fact that anything interesting, culinary speaking, results in the server trying to sell you the product you have just tasted. One such example was teas infused with bee pollen followed by a “local music show.” I can appreciate that this, so far, does not sound all that fun, but it was at least diverting. At one point I was invited to hold a large snake, something they expected me to either recoil in fear from or equally have that sort of red-faced male western enthusiasm, which I suppose is fears’ opposite. In fact my time working on an animal sanctuary in Australia had prepared me to handle the snake without batting an eyelid and appraise the serpent with somewhat of a trained eye. It was, of course, a python of sorts and we quickly made friends.
How to make rice sheets
As the theme park drifted away we were offered an upgrade in rooms. Some of the people on the tour had booked to stay in a “tourist village” down river with the room being huts overlooking the waters. We jumped at this and left the greater portion of the tour group outside a city hotel. Then we jumped into an enchanting long-tail boat ride through the night towards the village. On arrival we espied our accommodation and were impressed. The village was quite new and the rooms were well designed bamboo huts. They each had balconies overlooking the water and fine bed covered in a good mosquito net. After settling in we were invited into the kitchen of the main building to help with dinner, which was a basic course in cooking spring rolls. I opened up a local beer and Cesca and I started rolling, and then dunking the rolls in hot oil. After happily applying ourselves for ten minutes, they provided a fish dinner to go with them and, sitting down with some others, we started to eat. I was able to show off for the second time in the day by being able to properly fillet the fish for everyone, something we did back in London almost every day (fish being our main diet).
A spring roll and the local brew, all leads to a good meal
The real highlight was the next day. The Mekong trips here are justifiably famous for one thing; the visit to the floating markets in the mornings. Cesca had specifically picked a trip that visited all the markets in the area, to maximize the chances of good photos, and we eagerly motored into the throng to catch a sense of the event. These markets are real, not just for tourists, and we loved watching all the characters and spying the different types of shops (identified by the flags or items hanging from the sails). One boat floated up and I ordered a blissful Vietnamese ice coffee, which is like half a litre of espresso poured over ice cubes and that is it. Vietnamese coffee, like all South East Asian coffees, is of very high quality and unique in taste. It is often noted as the thing “most missed” by those returning home and I fondly remember it now (I am writing this in India, where they have NO idea about coffee).
A cold coffee injection wakes me for the morning markets
We visited the second market, which included a small collection of boat builders – a fascinating trade to watch before leaving the water for the bus again and starting our way back to the city. On the way back Cesca and I had a very funny experience. We were on the large ferry taking us across one of the bigger rivers, when a gaggle of umpteen university kids found our European’ness, and especially my size, to be of great humour. Soon the giggles behind hands turned to one unfortunate being thrust forwards from the party to question us. Simple and nice questions came forth and my replies caused no end of giggling, as obviously they did not understand a word of my responses! Soon after this one girl declared that I was “beautiful” (well, thank madam), Cesca was “beautiful” (tell me something I don’t know) and inquired if could she take a photo of she and I? As I agreed she trust herself down next to me and clasped my arm in happiness. This resulted in a line forming and Cesca and I being photographed with the entire class one after another! Including the boys! The last to sit down and grasp me was a man who informed me, as he hugged my arm, that he was the teacher! Of what, I do not know!
One the ride back into the city we got speaking to a cool pair of American’s travelling together. Little did we know, but we were destined to bump into these two many times over the coming weeks.
A final night in Ho Chi Min and we boarded our transport out and had our first experience of Vietnam’s bus network. This is pretty much is the only way to get anywhere in the country and is all privately run tourist busses of vastly varied quality. Our first experience was different to say the least. The overnight bus puts each person in a “pod” of sorts that is a reclining chair and plastic legs shield arrangement. One strange thing was that you had to leave your shoes at the door in a plastic bag. Each pod is singular and they are stacked in two levels all facing forwards. These are skilfully made busses and quite advanced as such things go. Each pod has air-conditioning and lighting, and blankets are provided.
Welcome to the crush-bus
However, they are designed for people under 5.5ft. Who have no hand luggage. At my size, especially my feet size, the experience of merely getting into a pod was akin to being tortured by a combination foot crusher and neck vice. At Cesca’s level of hand luggage (quite a collective of bags, cameras and presents), she could just fit in her pod, but had to clasp all her bags to her chest for the entire journey. I eventually had to sit half way up the chairs back and hold on for grim death as the bus flew though the night at just under light speed. I tenderly looked down the aisle and saw the road ahead. Our bus was spending more time on the wrong side of the road as the correct side. We were passing everything in flashes of lights and roaring horns. Corners, rough roads and narrow passing lanes were as nothing to this vehicle and it made for almost unbearable watching. As I pulled away I caught the drivers face reflected in the glass and made a solemn oath never to do so again. If that was his normal working face I shudder to think what his painting in the attic looks like!
Our morning arrival in Nha Trang was most welcome and I unfolded myself out of the pod and painfully left the bus into the welcoming arms of the Tuk-Tuk hired by the hotel to pick us up.
Nha Trang is mostly a beachfront city and as such is packed solid in the hot summer months. We were happily not in these months and so while the beach lacked the bright sun, we had a calm and leisurely walk down to the Sailing Club for lunch in its high class outside lounge.
Nha Trang is a quite pretty city
After a quick meal, Cesca and I played chess for only the second time in our relationship and then looked around the front. The food costs in Nha Trang can rise into serious London territory as the French influence here is strong. Our highlight was an unforgettable trip up to the large temple on the far side of town. This temple led up the side of the hill to two excellent giant Buddha statues; one laying down and one in the classic meditative pose. Both Cesca and I agree that this hill-top statue was the most impressive we saw in all of South East Asia and even more impressive than that found at Bodhgaya in India!
Big B at the moment of enlightenment and upon entering Nirvana
The view of Nha Trang from the top was enlightening in itself, it showed the city clearly as a beacon of civilisation amongst the massive jungle forest. If we had not had climbed up the many steps to this temple top we would have not have received this view as from the streets the city blocks the jungle and you can quite forget that it is there. Well, it is- in spades! Stretching for miles in all directions and encroaching into the city before being broken up by the civic structures. It reminded me of Rio as seen from the Christ statue.
Jungle abounds over the roof tops of Nha Trang
However, we moved on from Nha Trang on the next crush-bus. Or at least we tried to. A very drugged/drunken western girl had sat in someone else’s seat and the forthcoming domino effect was that almost the entire bus had to up and move seats/pods before we could leave, a process that took over an hour of shouting and local cursing. Cesca and I did our best to be very civil and obliging to the bus company representative as he quite looked fed up with the whole thing.
Our destination was Hoi An. A city that requires an entire post all of its own, coming next!