Sunday, March 30, 2008

Cu Chi Tunnels

(PICTURE: Me sliding into the tunnel.)

Yesterday Hien took Ryan and I to the Cu Chi Tunnels. To quote Lonely Planet, "The tunnel network of Cu Chi became legendary during the 1960s for its role in facilitating Viet Cong control of a large rural area only 30km to 40km from HCMC. At its height the tunnel system stretched from the South Vietnamese capital to the Cambodian border; in the district of Cu Chi alone there were more than 250km of tunnels." 
To paraphrase there's a hell of a lot of tunnels under the ground that the Viet Cong used during the war. If you're a Platoon fan you'll remember the scene when the soldiers argue about who will have to go into the tunnel. Nobody wants to because it meant pretty certain death. 
The actual site is a huge tourist attraction. When we arrived there were buses and buses of foreigners ready to explore the tunnels and fire some artillery at the on-site shooting range. Our tour guide's name was Joey: "My name is Joey. Joey. Joey like a kangaroo. Baby kangaroo. Yeah, Joey" which he told us at least three dozen times. The only thing he told us more was that, "I like Americans because I like Yankee dollars." 
Anyway, Joey led us around the site and gave us a lecture about the tunnels followed by a ten minute documentary that could have been made by a four year old with an ibook. But rather than deconstruct the documentary I'll comment on the tunnels. Immediately upon walking into the compound we walked up to a tiny opening in the ground. Joey asked who would like to go into the tunnels first. I wish I could say that I was the first volunteer but I was staring at the hole thinking there was no way I could fit into it. One thing it doesn't take long to recognize out here is that Americans aren't quite the same size as Vietnamese (I'm already having nightmares about trying to find underwear that will fit me). 

Well, some guy volunteered to go into the tunnel who was a little smaller than me. He shimmied through the hole and after a second disappeared into the darkness. The next volunteer was Hien who is clearly braver than I am (and in my defense, a lot smaller). Hien dropped into the hole and also disappeared. We were told by the kangaroo guide that there were a couple of paths in the tunnel but only one that led to the exit about forty feet away. Forty feet isn't very far at all so I figured people would start popping up in a minute or two at the most. Well, five minutes went by and nobody came up. 

Just as I started to think this was some kind of cruel joke the first guy popped up out of the tunnel. He looked a little flabbergasted and exclaimed, "Don't go left. It's a dead end." Left by the way was the direction Joey said to go in. Followed by the guy was Hien. She had a giant smile across her face which was soon wiped away as she banged her head on the top of the tunnel. BAM. 

Hien and the random guy both made it out alive so I thought I could do it too. I handed Ryan my stuff and jumped right into the hole. I had to raise my hands above my head in order to fit but with just a little shoulder shake I slid right down. At the bottom of the hole was the tunnel and looking into it I couldn't see a thing. I hadn't seen darkness as dark as this since I had gone spelunking at Camp Airy. Showing no fear I crouched down and began to crawl through the tunnel. I put my left hand in front of me and felt along the wall for the way to go. After going for about twenty feet or so I felt a fork in the road. Left or right. That decision was easy since I already knew the answer. Right it was. After crawling for about two minutes my mind started to feel a little uneasy: "Shouldn't I be near the end already?" "What if they forget to remove a booby trap?" What if this is the path to Cambodia?"...

As I started to slightly freak myself I felt something squishy with my left hand and immediately heard, "Hey, that's my bum." Apparently some British guy had jumped into the hole before me and I had caught up to him. He asked if I kindly not touch his butt again and I assured him that the Cu Chi tunnel was the only one I wanted to explore.  He and I continued to talk to one another as we made our way foward. Eventually he yelled out, "thank god, I see a light." I turned the bend and indeed there was a light. However, I saw something else too: A BAT. The bat apparently didn't see me though because it flew right into my face. I know bats are blind and that they use sonar so it really made no sense. However, the freaking bat slammed into my face. It was clearly startled too and flew backwards a foot then flew into my face again. The next few seconds were a blur as I ran/crawled towards the light. I began to run up the steps and in a high pitched voice cried out, "Jesus Christ, did you see that bat?!" Before I could get an answer I felt a huge blow to my head. No, it wasn't the bat again. It was the tunnel ceiling--the same one Hien had hit her head on minutes earlier. 

My Motorbike Gang

Here's a picture of my Ho Chi Minh City motorbike gang (minus my sweetheart Ryan who was taking the picture): Me, Hien, Linh, Au and of course Uncle Ho. 

I know it looks like I have a little belly but I assure you it's just the lighting in the post office. 

Vietnam Is Treating Me Right

(PICTURE: Hien putting on her apron.)

You know you're doing something right when you've been in a country for less than twenty four hours and a beautiful girl invites you over for a home cooked meal. I know what you're thinking, it must be the haircut. 

Yesterday was a traveler's dream day. Hien and her friends Linh and Au took Ryan and I out for a tour of Ho Chi Minh City...on their motorbikes. Despite being assured by Hien that she was, "The best driver in Vietnam" within the first hour we were almost run over by a city bus. I saw the bus coming the whole time and figured Hien had too. This was not the case. Luckily her cat-like reflexes kicked in inches before we became road pancakes. Some say you see your life flash before you right before you die, well, my life didn't flash before me but I had two very clear thoughts:

1. No way in hell am I ever getting a motorbike.

2. I'm definitely getting a motorbike because it can't get much more dangerous than that. 

Oh, and Mom, don't worry I was wearing a helmet. It's the law here. 

Hien and the girls took us to see Reunification Palace (the place where the famous helicopter took off with the last Americans out of Saigon), a very famous post-office and an extremely busy market where we drank very sketchy fruit/vegetable/yogart-ish drinks. After the Palace, Ryan wasn't feel up to par so Au took him back to our guest house. Hien, Linh and I ventured on to another museum and to see a water puppet show. 

Water Puppets are a big thing in 'Nam. It's just like it sounds, there are puppets performing in/on top of water. Water puppet theatre has been around for thousands of years. How, I don't know because it was the most boring thing I have ever watched. Basically it was like watching a rubber ducky splash around in a bathtub for thirty minutes. Snooze city. 

After the show, Linh went home and I got a private tour on Hien's bike. We drove around the city as she pointed out a few other sites. Much to my chagrin, Hien kept talking to me while driving. As much as I love talking to her, I wanted her full attention on the road. Remember, this was only a few hours after a bus almost kissed me with its front, middle and back tires. Luckily, we went without any further incidents the rest of the day with the only thing that could potentially kill me being some sketchy street food we ate (the bowl of soup had pork, coagulated blood, fish, crab, and I think one other meat). Oh, and just a note, I never thought I'd say this but when it comes to cleanliness I think Cambodia has Vietnam beat. In Cambodia they at least pretend to sterilize the silverware by dipping it into luke warm water. Here they make no such attempt to even fool you. Simply there's just a pile of chopsticks and spoons in a container which you pick up and use. Man, I miss those healthy living days of Cambodia. 

At the end of a long fantastic day with Hien she dropped me off at my guest house...and told me to be at her house an hour and a half later for dinner--she and her roommate were cooking for Ryan and I. I shouldn't really make this seem like a spur of the moment thing since I basically bullied Hien, via email over the last three months, into cooking for me. 

Ryan and I showed up at Hien's place (which is also the school I'll be finishing my classes at since she takes care of the property) and were treated to an amazing meal. What made it so amazing you're probably asking yourself? Well, probably because Ryan and I helped fold the spring rolls. I'm sure they would have been great on their own but we added that perfect seasoning--American hands. 

It was a great first full day in Vietnam and one thing is certain, I'm well taken care of in Ho Chi Minh City.