Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Tunnels, chocolate and Mr Bin

Wednesday 16th March 2011

MP3 track of the day: Deeper Underground – Jamiroquai

Weather: Extremely overcast, yet still very humid.


I wasn't looking my best today; my hair was greasy, I was wearing a t-shirt with large white sweat stains on the back and, overall, I realized that pulling any women was out of the question. Why was I looking like a tramp you may ask. Well today I was off to the 'Cu Chi Tunnels'. The name, Cu Chi, was given to the tunnels due to the area they occupied. I presumed that copious amounts of squeezing ones self through dark, muddy and hot underground tunnels would be required, therefore I guessed that I would get rather dirty and sweaty so I didn't see any logical reason to put on anything new.

I ate my breakfast, waiting in anticipation for my tour leader to come and pick me up. Four German girls, and two British guys (including the guy I met in Malaysia back in December), were also booked onto the tour. At 8:15am a rather skinny old Vietnamese man arrived at the guesthouse. He shouted for all 'Cu Chi tunnel half day tour' customers to follow him. I followed him through familiar alleyways until I was on a familiar street. Opposite me was the travel agency I waited in for yesterdays Mekong Delta tour. Even though this tour was operated by the same company, there was no waiting around and soon I was getting onto a coach. The second positive was that the vehicle used wasn't a mini-van; it was a large coach with orange fake leather seats, air-conditioning, big windows and loads of leg room. Just like yesterday every seat on the coach was taken.

Yesterday I headed south to the Mekong Delta, today I was heading north-east back towards the Cambodian border. As we drove through the city our tour guide stood up and introduced himself. Mr Bin was his name and he was a veteran of the Vietnam War. Having been born in Ho Chi Minh City, before immigrating to New York, he fought for the American navy. He was a sixty-one year old gentleman who, very proudly, announced that he spoke five languages. This was very admirable however I felt that he should try to concentrate more on English. He began to tell us the history of Vietnam from the French occupation to present day. I tried to listen to what Mr Bin had to say, really I did, however due to his accent, none-use of the plural sense (fifty dollar etc) and broken sentences it became very difficult. I did discover some gems of information; the fact that Mr Bin had lost his girlfriend, and farther, during the war and that, as he was a solider for the American Navy, the North Vietnamese army put him in jail for a few years after the war ended. Another interesting fact was that Vietnam has a 'two child per family' policy which I didn't know about.

Mr Bin talked for almost ninety minutes and, whereas I managed to get pearls of wisdom like the ones above, most of the information he gave was lost in translation. I have to be honest, Mr Bin was becoming so impossible to understand that, suddenly, I could see his mouth moving but my ears blocked out any sound. I decided to concentrate on the view outside the window. The ride seem to take us forever and I was wondering just how far these tunnels were from Ho Chi Minh City. Mr Bin came on the microphone … again … to announce that we would soon be making a rest stop. There are no public toilets within Vietnam and so the tour had put in a stop at a local factory where we could use their facilities for free. As we got closer to said factory I found out that this was a factory for handicapped people (called the 'Handicapped Handicraft Warehouse' … I take it political correctness doesn't exist this far around the globe) to produce goods for tourists.

Mr Bin announced that we were to have a twenty-five minute 'rest stop' here and that everyone needed to be back on the coach by 10:15am. As I had almost half an hour to kill I decided to have a look around. The toilets were located at the back of the warehouse; to reach said toilets I had to proceed up one, of two, narrow isles. As I pressed ever forward there were goods to my left, and to my right a few handicapped workers finishing pieces off. Lots of tourists stopped to look at the products being painted and I had to admit that the quality of workmanship was very good indeed. As I walked ever forwards I couldn't help but notice some of the injuries, or birth defects, the workers had. Legs were missing, arms were deformed and other body parts weren't in there correct positions. I immediately made the assumption that most of these injuries, or birth defects, came from either explosives or 'Agent orange'. A lot of the birth defects I saw here mirrored photos I had seen in the War Remnants Museum.

The toilet stunk, however it did give me a little breathing space to come to the conclusion that I would purchase a small souvenir, to help these people out. Once out of the toilet I took a left and went into the main store. There were huge jars, urns and works of art all of which were of the highest quality. I saw familiar items, such as wooden boxes and the decorative plates, that the workers had been working on in the other room. However, when I looked at the prices, the markup was huge; most items cost $35.00 or more. What's more I saw the same identical mirror, and wooden box, that I had purchased in a market two days ago. Warehouse price $8 … market price $3. Firstly who says warehouse prices are always cheaper than stores and secondly, were these items actually created here at the Warehouse? They were identical to the ones I had purchased in Ho Chi Minh City (and I've seen thousands others all over Southern Vietnam). Due to this 100% markup I left empty handed though, looking at the excellent quality, I could have spent thousands of dollars decorating my imaginary 'flat'.

I bordered the coach with five minutes to spare. It only took another hour to reach the Cu Chi tunnels which made me wonder why the 'rest stop' was needed. We all piled off the coach and lined up to purchase our entrance ticket. Now this may surprise you that, considering this was a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, the entrance ticket wasn't included in the cost (the entrance ticket being quite an important part of the tour). It surprised me too, especially when the entrance fee was 80,000 dong (£2.70) making this tour cost as much as my day trip to the Mekong Delta. I got my ticket and proceeded inside to await the other members of my group.

The time was now 11:30am; it had taken us three hours to get to this far and, considering the tour was scheduled to end in Ho Chi Minh City by 2pm, the numbers just didn't add up. Mr Bin walked us through security and we entered the main part of the site. The site was covered in trees; freshly fallen leaves covered most of the dirt tracks that lead in all directions. As we made our way through the surrounding wood I could hear gunfire in the distance. Apparently there's a shooting range on the site where tourists could have a go at firing a weapon … for a charge of course (though the sound did add some realism to the area). I went down some dry-dirt steps into a great big hole. The hole was covered by a timber, and leaf, roof and inside were rows upon rows of wooden benches, a TV, a giant map of the area and a model of the trench system. Mr Bin fired up the a ten minute DvD which talked about the tunnels. Again the English was great and there was bias towards the Viet Cong. I didn't really take much of the information in and, before I could blink, the film had finished; Mr Bin turned the TV off. Mr Bin then came into his element by giving a first-hand account of the fighting that occurred here. He held a big stick in his left hand and, whilst using it to point at the big map behind him, talked about the conflict that occurred. It was very interesting however, due to time restraints, we had to move on.

Once outside the 'TV room' Mr Bin lead us along a dirt path. Even though the trees provided adequate shade you could still feel the heat from the sun. We stopped, everyone looking down at a piece of rectangular wood, with rope handles, lying on the floor. The group made a circle around Mr Bin as he lifted the wooden top from a very small hole. This hole wasn't the entrance to a tunnel, it was a sniper position. A single Viet Cong would hide himself within this hole and appear, briefly, to shoot at the enemy before going back into the ground. A few members of the group tried to fit into the hole with varied success; it was certainly a tight fit.

We then moved onto a dog trap. We all congregated around a wooden square fence; within the fence was a rectangular shaped piece of camouflaged wood. Mr Bin hit one side of the wooden trap door so that we could see it spin. A hole, with bamboo spikes at the bottom, presented itself to us and Mr Bin explained that this was a dog trap. The US army used dogs to sniff out the Viet Cong in the tunnels. In return the Viet Cong built these traps and put food, or worn clothes, at the bottom. I don't think I need to paint a picture to explain what happened when the dog stood on the trap door.

By 1965 the tunnels were 250km in length with three levels. This amount of tunnel network needed air vents and this was the next thing Mr Bin showed us. The air vent we saw was a very tiny hole, about four inches in diameter, that could have been an animals hide for all I would have known. The US, again, used dogs to sniff out these holes (so they could pump gas down) and the Viet Cong countered by putting hot chillies within the air vents. This, apparently, burnt the dogs nose senses rendering the dog useless.

We were moving at quite a pace; a few people, who had hung back to take photos, missed the explanation of sites and the whole tour seemed very rushed. Our next point of interest was a destroyed US tank, left in the place where it was destroyed. Why the Americans were using tanks in this environment was beyond me; the Viet Cong could hide tank mines, and troops armed with anti-tank weapons, everywhere making armour an easy target.

After this Mr Bin showed us a Viet Cong armory (reusing un-exploded American bombs against the USA) and went through other Viet Cong 'booby traps' that American forces fell foul of. We were then lead to a souvenir store where we had 'fifteen minutes free time' to purchase food and souvenirs ... or fire a gun. Yes that's correct I was given the opportunity to fire either an AK-47, M16 or many other automatic weapons; the only problem was that you had to purchase a minimum of ten rounds costing 250,000 dong (£8). I declined the offer and was pretty furious that we had run around the main sites only to spend fifteen minutes in a store. Typical South East Asia.

I waited ... and I waited until Mr Bin announced that it was time to 'enter the tunnels'. For most of the group this 120 meter crawl, underground, was the highlight of the trip. For me I wasn't looking forward to it at all. Fortunately you didn't have to go into the tunnels if you didn't want to; however, having come all this way, I put my nerves to one side and joined the queue … there were emergency exits every thirty meters so I could always leave the tunnels early if I didn't like it. I climbed down the first set of steps into the tunnel … only to reemerge to the surface two minutes later. It wasn't the width of the tunnel (I'm still as skinny as usual), it was the height. The top of the tunnel came below my waist and there was no way I was going to fit through. I left the tunnels and walked the 120 meters to the exit point; I may have looked like a greasy, sweat t-shirt stained wimp, but at least I wasn't stuck. Once everyone had reemerged Mr Bin told us that the tunnels had been widened for westerners (obviously not enough) which begged the question just how small were these Viet Cong. From this you could appreciate the problems the Americans had getting into these tunnels.

That was it, two hours around the tunnel site and our tour was over. A few tourists had paid extra to arrive back in Ho Chi Minh City via a US x-military boat. For the rest of us Mr Bin gave us directions to the coach park and he said that he would meet us shortly after getting the other tourists on their boat. I didn't mind not taking the boat; firstly it was very expensive and secondly there was now more room on the coach so I could now stretch out. Oh the way back I assessed my tour; overall I was very disappointed. Mr Bin had been an interesting character (though I wish he would shut up sometimes) but the continual bombardment of purchasing goods, when the time could have been spent on the attractions I had paid to see, was very annoying. Overall I felt the trip to the Mekong Delta was a lot better value, considering the price was the same for both tours.

Mr Bin didn't talk on the way back; I stared out of the window fully aware that we were going to be back late. We pulled out off the car park around 1:30pm and arrived within Ho Chi Minh City at 3:00pm. This meant that our 'rest stop' this morning must have been thirty minutes out of the way … which made me even more annoyed. Even though I didn't want to visit the 'War Remnants Museum' I took up Mr Bin's offer of being dropped off there. You see the 'War Remnants Museum' was located near the 'Renufication Palace' and that was located near something I hadn't done in ages. As you may recall, at the beginning of my tour, I was tasting a few expensive chocolates from each country that I visited. That came to an abrupt end in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia where no local chocolatier could be found. On my walk around the city two days ago I had stumbled across a store called 'Boniva' which creates fresh chocolates.

The inside décor was the usual surgical white with clear glass cabinets. I went up and down the cabinets until I decided upon five, individual, chocolates consisting of 3x white, 1x dark and 1x milk. I paid £2 for the five chocolates, thanked the cashier, and left the store. Due to the heat I couldn't really savor the individual flavors and so I began devouring. Overall I would give these chocolates a seven out of ten. They were beautifully weighted, designed and finished. The chocolate tasted creamy and reminded me a bit of Belgian chocolates however, I felt that the chocolate taste overpowered the taste of whatever the individual chocolate was supposed to be (for example I couldn't taste the 'mango' within the mango chocolate, The chocolate taste dominated too much). My final criticism was that, even though the chocolates were perfectly finished, their presentation gave no clues to what they would taste like. I usually associate the colour red with a strawberry chocolate however, this time, red was used on a mint one. I finished the chocolates rather quickly; tasting these made me realize just how much I miss decent British, or Belgian, chocolates … ho hum!

I had a quick lunch before heading back to my guesthouse to book my coach to Da Lat tomorrow. I leave at 7am tomorrow morning and arrive in Da Lat sometime between 4pm and 5pm. Due to the lateness of my arrival I decided to pre-book accommodation however, at £9.10 for the cheapest room I could find, it was going to be expensive. I met a traveler who had just left Da Lat. He confirmed that there were no dorm rooms within Da Lat and so a single was the best I would find. He said that £9.10 was expensive, but not by much. I sighed and booked two nights. Yes it was going to be expensive, however I want to see Da Lat (it's up a mountain, 300km north of Ho Chi Minh City, so it should be cooler). I want two full days up there and so I hope to get a night coach out of Da Lat giving me that second day without paying for a third night ... I do hate night buses though. I spent the rest of the evening packing, washing my greasy hair and generally getting ready for moving on. Having to be up around 6am meant that I needed an early night, and that's exactly what I aimed for.

So Ho Chi Minh is over; it's been a hectic four days and so I hope Da Lat is more relaxed. My only worry is that Vietnam seems to be more expensive than I planned.

Toodle Pip!

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