Tag Archives: travel vietnam

Version 0.92 (Cu Chi Tunnels and a Mekong River Tour)

07/27/19

I leave Vietnam tomorrow, not for any new foreign land, but for America (sounds quite exotic actually, now that I think on it). Yesterday I went on a guided tour to a couple of places: one, Cu Chi Tunnels, northwest of Saigon, and two, a short Mekong River trip. I developed a fondness for our guide immediately: intelligent but with a sort of silly sense of humor, a bit like he was playing dumb in order to get a laugh. The biggest surprise in regards to our guide, or, say THE surprise, was his obvious distaste for the communist government and communism in general. Well, that’s not the surprise—I imagine that might be a common feeling—but his outspokenness about his feelings is the surprise. Up to that point I’d not heard anyone talk about anything remotely political the entire four months of my time here. Of course the war itself was much more complicated than communist guerrilla forces vs. America and the American backed nationalist forces, and I will have to do much reading and/or watching into the history of Vietnam and the war when I have time. That won’t be anytime soon though.

Cu Chi Tunnels were in my opinion the best part of a too long tour. I definitely recommend to break these into two separate tours, or even better don’t bother with the Mekong River tour but take a bus to My Tho or Ben Tre, or rent bikes in Saigon and drive yourself instead. Get a homestay for a couple of nights using Air BnB or some other service and explore the area on your bikes or by foot. The Mekong River and its delta are ENORMOUS, and deserve more than an hour of your time. Also they’re not something that requires a guide in order to get the best experience of, unlike the Cu Chi Tunnels which have a significant history that may be explored at length with someone who has the knowledge to do so. Anyway, to put it simply, the Cu Chi Tunnels were fascinating from an historical and educational perspective—far more than just a cutesy tourist ride. The tour turned into a bit of a wildlife walk, too. This was a surprise. I’m not sure what I was expecting of the site, but an open forest plumbed with wandering trails and filled with animal life was defintely not it. I couldn’t take a step without a butterfly fluttering across the path or dancing in the bordering foliage, and birdsong filled the silences between our tour guides explanations and the group’s questions and chatter.  We even spotted three different types of lizards on our walk. The air was clean, clear, and cool (relative to south Vietnam summer temperatures). The forest was how any forest should be. Really, I felt less like I was walking through a tourist site, but more like I was wandering through a war memorial, but without the often accompanying somberness or solemnity of a war memorial.

The Mekong River trip felt a bit too touristy for me. Nothing educational or particularly interesting, just two people paddling, or in our case because the tide was so low, pushing a group of four of us through an island canal that loops back on itself. It seems they once used these boats for fishing and various other things (probably transportation), but now it’s just a tourist ride which simply doesn’t feel authentically cultural to me, no more than a means of generating income (which I’m not saying is bad, these people can use all the extra income they can get, but it’s just not my thing, and leaves me feeling uneasy in much the same way the cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) do even though, again, these are jobs that provide income to people). Anyway, in our case the water level was so low the paddlers couldn’t even paddle but instead pushed us along with long poles they carried in their boats, and because the canal was so narrow at the bottom it became a cluster fuck in places with boats banging up against each other regularly as they passed each other. It probably didn’t help, either, that we arrived very late in the day so that I thought they might refuse us. There was a road closure somewhere between Ben Duoc (where Cu Chi Tunnels are located) and wherever our river tour took place (my guess would be somewhere near My Tho).

The day was long (half the twelve hours sitting in a van) but worth the $55. However, the smarter way to go would be to follow my previous recommendations.

So, I go back to the U.S. tomorrow. Flight from Saigon to Hong Kong at 11 am, then flight from HK to LA six hours later. I’ll meet Danny at some point and hopefully chill with him a few days before cycling north to Seattle then east to Missoula. Those are my vague plans at the least. I would really like to visit Jacob in Missoula.

Version 0.90

07/23

I have just sat down, and am waiting on my coffee order to be delivered at the La Viet in District 3 that my Grab driver unceremoniously dropped me off at moments ago. I found their cafe to be a good place in Da Lat to do a bit of writing, and as all the reviews on Google stated how great a place this Saigon location is to work from I thought I might go. There are a few other cafes in the vicinity that I can walk to as well whenever I decide to leave.

The Grab ride was a surprising and fascinating one, largely because Saigon is a huge city—one which I am completely unfamiliar with. I must correct myself though. The ride wasn’t surprising in any way, but my arrival at my destination was, as we simply stopped at the opening of an alley and my driver signaled for me to get off. I don’t know where I thought I was when we arrived, but I certainly did not think we were at my destination. I imagine if my interior world had a face, a visage to read, it would have looked similar to Harry’s after going for a bit of a tumble on Dumbledore’s arm. That ride, looking back, was fascinating because of the surprise—the sensation of time and distance passing while on our way was nil. It was just me flowing through the streets on the back of this motorbike driven by a guy in a green jacket and helmet.

Yesterday I was moved. On one occasion, possibly two. I visited the War Remnants Museum. That was one. And I guess I could say the espresso I had at Saigon Coffee Roasters was moving as well. It was certainly the best one I’d had in Saigon, and possibly all of Vietnam, so that would be the second occasion. But before all of that I visited the fine arts museum. The museum building, while a bit run down, is a fabulous old colonial villa constructed in the early 1930’s. A/C is only provided in select rooms—those with particularly important works—and the three story structure encloses an inner courtyard. The topmost floor is my favorite. It is full of artworks pre-1975, meaning they were created before the end of the war. To these eyes they seemed much more cultural than the later and more contemporary works which have a more personal, inward looking, and often abstract form to them, and seem to me less culturally Vietnamese and more global. Many of these earlier works were simply depictions of everyday life, similar to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings of Dutch/Flemish life and town scenes. But what moved me and interested me most about the works on the third floor was just how immediate they felt to the war—how they brought it forth into the present day—and how so many of them directly depicted the war’s influence on daily life.

The War Remnants Museum is really special though. I will start by saying that in my opinion it’s fair and objective, and isn’t anti-American, though I could certainly see why some particularly sensitive people might think it is as it is highly critical of America (I would say for good reason!). The combination of written testimony regarding the war by various political figures around the world, and the imagery in photographs and news articles is well arranged, and it’s those photographs and the testimonies of so many against the war, and also certain statistics relating to the supply and usage of munitions during the war that does such an admirable and convincing (if one for some reason needed convincing) job of the absurdity, the madness, the stupidity of war in general, and the Vietnam War in specific. In the two hours I was there I probably only covered three-quarters of the exhibition space, and at only 40k dong entry I am certain to go back. It is an absolute must-visit for any traveler who finds him/herself in Saigon.