Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Oy Zoy Oy

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We start the day at 0645 by getting some banh mi (assorted meats, vegetables, etc. on a French-style short baguette roll) from a street vendor, along with some pastries and snacks. We figure we’ll need the food at some point, since we’re off on a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels; despite being only about 50km from HCMC city center, it’s a two-hour bus ride through the near-permanent gridlock here.

(It doesn’t help that speed limits are about 60km/h even on major highways. Good luck doing anything close to that in the city. To help mitigate this chaos, they’re currently building an elevated railway in the central districts, so maybe in 10 years’ time there will be semi-reasonable transit…)

Our tour is led by Jackie, who at 62 has seen many brutal chapters in Vietnam’s history: the conflict between North and South, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, the American intervention. Since reunification in 1975, the population here has nearly tripled to 91 million, which brings with it a number of challenges; there’s the aforementioned perma-gridlock, increases in dengue fever transmission, and the like to contend with. In exchange, however, the country has known relative peace for nearly 40 years. Vietnam is predominantly Buddhist, with Catholicism, Hinduism, and a few others as minority faiths. This is reflected in the many temples and pagodas around HCMC.

(You might be alarmed to see a symbol that resembles the swastika, which was a symbol of peace long before it was co-opted by the Nazis.)

Unfortunately, our tour is headed for the far more touristy section of the tunnels at Ben Dinh. We learn later that the other section, Ben Duoc, is favored by locals; it has a memorial temple, a campground, and sections of the old village, and is generally truer to history than the museum-like presentation of Ben Dinh. Nevertheless, the tour is interesting. I climb down into a section of the original tunnel, which is pitch-black and barely spacious enough to kneel, along with four other members of our group. The air is musty, and navigation is all but impossible. There’s also a “rebuilt” section of about 200m, featuring replicas of makeshift maternity wards, kitchens, and sleeping quarters from that time. After 15 minutes of crawling through these tunnels, we wonder how the Viet Cong spent years in them…

Before the American programs of aerial bombardment and jungle defoliation, the tunnels stretched for nearly 200km in the Cu Chi area. 80% of this extent was destroyed, with many thousands killed as they hid within. The use of Agent Orange was intended to expose these hiding areas, but it caused enormous casualties on both sides. Indeed, the jungle is scarcely what it was; unlike in the lush rainforests near Cairns, the canopy here is patchy, supported only by new growth from after 1975. The largest trees are maybe forearm length in diameter, and in some places the jungle has grown back around bomb craters left from nearly half a million tons of ordnance.

To add to the eerie atmosphere, there’s a firing range where you can fire assault rifles and other weapons of the era. These punctuate the tour with bursts of gunfire. (It’s not our cup of tea, but you can pay by the bullet to add to the noise; it’s roughly US$1-2 per bullet, or 20-40k dong.)

Back in town, we eat something new from yet another street vendor. We don’t know the name, but they take a ricepaper roll skin, spread margarine and quail’s egg across it, fry that over a charcoal grill, stuff it with a scallion-shrimp-carrot mixture, and liberally squirt hot sauce overtop. We grab a pair of these and sit by the fountain in the roundabout one block away from Notre Dame (not sure which direction), taking in the sweltering heat and city noise. To paraphrase Valkyrie’s doctor: under no conditions should you eat street food, but it’s delicious!

We repair to the guesthouse for some downtime before dinner. After another delicious meal at the nearby vegetarian restaurant, we sit over in the park near Ben Thanh, where we are joined by four or five locals eager to practice their English! One of them does this as a hobby, coming to the park every day to converse with tourists so he can improve his already impressive command of the language. He teaches us a phrase in Vietnamese (see below!) We spend an hour or so chatting with them, then head off to Ben Thanh for some of the colorful sticky rice. Extra-glutinous rice topped with sugar, dried coconut, and a sort of coconut milk syrup – yum!

HCMC’s been great, but we’re yearning for something less frenetic and more authentic. Tomorrow, we plan to grab a scooter and book it south towards Soc Trang, and hopefully afterwards we’ll make it up towards Nha Trang and Da Lat. Exciting!

Learn Vietnamese

  • ối giời ơi: similar to “oh my gosh”; Google Translate renders it as “Oh Gee!”