Wednesday January 30, 2013
Day 21 of G
We had a nice buffet breakfast at the hotel. I had Pho Ga with lots of noodles, bean sprouts, onions, shrimp and quail eggs as well as fruit and flan, of all things. Jeff had toast and a ham and cheese sandwich. The quartered hard boiled eggs looked like they had been sitting out forever. they looked particularly nasty: dry, discolored and shriveled up. It turns out that they are called hundred year eggs and are preserved with salt and vinegar. I was not brave enough to try one.
We have seen Burger Kings, KFC, Subway, Baskin Robbins, Pizza Hut but no McDonalds.
We all boarded a bus at 8 to go to the Cu Chi tunnels. We got to have a nice drive through Saigon rush hour traffic. About an hour and a half later we stopped at a little shop where they were making rice paper, rice wine and rice spirits- 45% alcohol. The rice paper making was fascinating. The liquid rice mixture is poured into a heated large round pan in a very thin layer. The woman than rolls the paper out of the pan with a rolling pin shaped tool and lays them individually on large bamboo screens which are carried outside to dry in the sun. The rice papers at this point are almost invisible. They dry for about four hours in the sun. You can here them "popping" as they dry. Just like rice crispies after you pour milk over them!
Then we walked across the street and looked at a rubber tree "plantation". The trees were being milked and the rubber sap was being collected in bowls attached to the trees. It was quite fascinating. The workers start at 5 in the morning and score several thousand trees in a day.
We reboarded the bus and went on to Cu Chi tunnels, "the holy revolutionary base of Military Committee Saigon". The area is called "the land of fruit and rubber" because of all of the different types of fruit and rubber trees. This place is where the people of the area and the Vietnam Cong fought off the "crazy devil Americans" and tried to become "American killer heroes" and lived in the tunnels. The propaganda film was pretty over the top but interesting. The tunnels anunderground warren in 3 levels, totaling over 200 km long and go as deep as 66 feet down. They were all dug out by hand and the dirt removed with baskets. They had places to eat, cook, sleep, meet, plan and medic areas.
It is amazing how these people lived and survived. A lot of the fighters were women. Ar one time there were16,000 people living in these tunnels. We Westerners can barely even fit in the tunnels and these people lived in there! We watched a couple of women tourists actually get stuck trying out the tunnel entrances and needing help to get out.
We watched a propaganda film and then toured the grounds. There were lots of photo ops. Most of our group went through one tunnel. Sharon and Yoon braved two of them, and the second one was even smaller than the first. Sharon had quite dirty legs when she emerged. And this is the winter dry season here. I can't imagine the hotter wet season here. The Viet Cong lived in these tunnels for years. During the day they would come out and if possible become farmers and tend the crops. No wonder the Americanss couldn't tell friend from foe, farmer from fighter.
The Vietnam Cong came to Cu Chi by way of the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos. It must have been an incredible trek.
The tunnel I went through was one of the larger ones. We had to walk through it about 40 meters bent over in half. Some people had to go to their knees to get through. There is only room for one person at a time, no room to pass. This was one of the upper level tunnels. There are three levels of tunnels and the tunnels get smaller as you go deeper. There are bamboo air holes built in and they figured out how to cover up the smoke from their fires. The booby traps were incredibly frightening. They were camoflouged so well that there is no way you could see them before getting maimed or more probably, killed by them. The traps came in many nasty varieties but basically they all seemed to have a theme of sharpened bamboo stakes 'poisoned' with human feces. After seeing this it is no surprise that we lost the war. No one I know is anywhere near this tough.
We had a tea and taro break. The taro was sort of like a baked potato but with less taste and a more fibrous texture including some inedible fiber sticking through the middle of it. Yum.
Five of the group shared a "package" of ten bullets and each shot 2 bullets from an AK47 for 30,000 dong per bullet. Sharon and Yoon were the first to rush over to shoot. They really got into the whole Cu Chi experience. Sharon is such a good sport. She wants to try everything there is to try.
Back in Saigon the group split up. Jeff and I went with the philosophy of we are only here once so let's keep trucking even though a nap back at the hotel was sounding incredibly lovely. We toured the War Remnants Museum. Again it pointed out how tough these people are. The American war equipment was incredibly intimidating. I can't imagine facing that with what the Vietnam Cong had available. The photos and pictures of the jail, conditions, torture and such were very graphic and horrible. I had to stop looking after a while.
We then walked past the Reunification Palace but it was after 4 and they had closed at 4 so we kept going to the big market. It was another large, stinky dark market and we had both had enough of Saigon by now so we went back for a shower and clean clothes before meeting up with the others for a drink at the Rex Hotel.
The shower. Hmmm. Did I mention how much I dislike this hotel? As well as the previously mentioned flaws there are many, many more. It is definately my least favorite hotel of the trip. So of course we are here for 3 nights. This room has the cheapest plastic toilet seat I have ever had the honor of sitting upon. When you plunk your bottom on it it skitters sideways partially off of the bowl. The door to the hallway which is about two feet in front of the foot of the bed lets in light all the way around the door all night long. To turn off the lights in the room you have to get out of the bed and walk over to them and then find your way back to the bed without tripping over anything which is not so easy since all of our belongings are on the floor because there is no other place to put our things. Maybe the light from the hall does come in handy.
Back to the shower. We have a small jacuzzi tub with a spray hose that you pull out to take a shower. There is nowhere to hang the spray hose once younpull it out so you must either kneel or sit in the tub to use it. At least the water was a decent stream and temperature. How soon I have forgotten the 'all in one bathrooms' where we had to shower with the toilet and sink in the shower.
On we went to the Rex Hotel for drinks after meeting Claude, the French Canadian, who is the newest traveler to join us. We are now sorely outnumbered by the Canadians. He works as a teaching electrician in New Caledonia, a set of islands that is a French protectorate 2 hours northwest of Australia.
The Aussie girls led the way. Apparently they have visited the establishment before. I sat by Hannah and we made plans for her to visit us in the future. I will try to get her an externship at one of the specialty/ 24 hour vet hospitals.
The Rex hotel was a famous journalist hangout during the war. There are famous photos of some of the journalists being evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the Rex during the evacuation of Saigon. The outdoor bar on the top floor is amazing. It is very elegant and provides great views of Saigon. Of course the prices are commensurate with the decor and views. Jeff and I each had 1 drink and our bill was 450,000 dong ($22.50). This is much more than most of the dinners we get for the two of us including alcoholic beverages. I assured Claude that this was very unusual and that this was by far the most expensive place we have been so far on the trip.
We taxied over to the Vietnamese Aroma restaurant. 20,000 dong ($1) for 6 of us. The restaurant had some Mexican food! I couldn't resist and ordered fish with spicy mango salsa, Mexican rice and guacamole. The guacamole was 9,000 dong or just over 40 cents. It was actually quite tasty but I couldn't finish it and John kindly helped me out again. Jeff had a shrimp appetizer on sugar cane skewers and tacos. He actually ate everything that wasn't green! The meal was less than the drinks at the Rex. And then Jeff scored by finding 700,000 misplaced dong in his wallet. We don't have to hit the ATM again before we leave Nam! Of course this just begs for another dong joke about Jeff misplacing his dong.
The taxi ride back to the hotel was a whole 50,000 dong. In the taxi we were telling Claude about visiting Ho Chi Minhs mausoleum and I think that we offended the taxi driver because he went from being talkative and involved with us to turning on the radio very loudly and ignoring us. I guess it was time for bed.