Scratch lightly beneath the slick veneer of modernity here and the old way of life that clings to the dusty side streets in the form of weathered women still wearing the Non La (the leaf hat) and hawking her wares emerges. Yet as much as Saigon powers towards the future, being in the heart of District 1 can be a harrowing time and a last-minute booking on Viator to the Cu Chi tunnels made sure that we had a day away from the madness here.
As far as it typically goes with many of my travel plans, the day was off to an inauspicious start when a sweating and harried-looking Les Rives Experience representative arrived at the hotel a half-hour late by Vinasun taxi. The official (or made-up?) story he gave was that the tour-guide had met in an accident, though I suspected it was simply a story he concocted, because to admit that he forgot about our reservation was just unthinkable. Arriving late at Saigon’s pier while the rest of the tour group shot accusing glares at us took an inch of thickened skin and a nonchalance developed after a few days of blithely crossing the roads here.
Nhu was the guide for the day, an egregious man who calls the whole tour group ‘team’ and herds everyone around with a friendly but firm hand. 16 years of taking groups through the tunnels and he still hasn’t lost his passion for telling stories. Even the most unschooled in Vietnamese history would get the basic gist of what he is saying: the Cu Chi tunnels are a complex network of underground tunnels started by the Communist forces in the 1940s, which became a major feature in the war between the American forces and the Viet Cong soldiers in the 1960s-70s.
At the height of the war, tens of thousands lived underground in incredibly claustrophobic spaces, setting brutal but inventive traps for those who dared to trespass on hallowed Viet Cong ground.
The rest of the afternoon was spent at an organic vegetable farm, a small rice-paper making hut, a rubber plantation and a cricket farm (why do the damn crickets look like cockroaches?!). Bugs, after all, as one of the guys in the group said, are the food of the future, as he put fried cricket after cricket into his mouth. The Travel Companion (TC) even enthusiastically remarked that they tasted like fried chicken skin.
Was it any wonder then, that only the men ate them while the women tried not to cringe?