Vietnam

AsiaDestinationsSoutheast AsiaVietnam

The Cu Chi Stronghold

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Was it any wonder then, that only the men ate them while the women tried not to cringe?

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AsiaDestinationsFoodSoutheast AsiaVietnam

Food, glorious food

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It’s hard to get over what Ho Chi Minh is really today; I use its old name as much as as I do its ‘modern’ one and maybe that encapsulates what this place is really about. Crossing the road is the experience that I’d go as far as to say metaphorises Ho Chi Minh – hesitate and get caught in an interminable flow of traffic that will not stop; go slowly but surely forward and you’ll get to your destination much sooner than you think.

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The obsession with Vietnamese food continued well into the third day and searching out Cục Gạch Quán was an inspired decision, which, to my horror, proved that we would do quite a lot in search of unusual but good food. We cabbed to a charming house off the beaten track in rush hour and what was meant to be a 20-minute journey was doubled when the driver frustratingly decided that slow and indecisive driving gave more joy than grief to the world at large.

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Thankfully, the food more than made up for it, though that would meant eating street food in rather unsanitary conditions and getting exactly what the locals eat. We tried it anyway, and paid a little later with stomachaches.

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AsiaDestinationsFoodSoutheast AsiaVietnam

The Saigon Miracle

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The heat is on in Saigon.

After a confusing and unintelligible one-sided conversation with a taxi driver who stopped abruptly at the side of the road to exchange vehicles with another taxi driver, we made it (relatively safely) to the hotel. But I think the true miracle lies in not merely observing the chaotic traffic but walking in it. In a city of 10 million people and 7 motorbikes, crossing the road and coming out alive seemed to be a miracle each time. A short day and a half later, I’m truly thankful – as 2014 comes to a close and as far as ‘self-reflection’ is supposed to go – for limbs that are still intact and a nose that hasn’t yet bled dry from the pollution on the busy streets of Saigon.

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Choosing to do a food tour thus, with Back of the bike tours at Ho Chi Minh is possibly one of the smallest but best decisions I’ve ever made while travelling. Riding pillion on a scooter while a local guide whisks me from district to district to eat for an entire afternoon is an amazing idea that surprisingly hadn’t taken off that well in the countries that I’ve visited.

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Despite a late and panicked email confirmation on my part, Sin, Ai and several others with one-syllable names walked into the Pullman Saigon Centre at 1pm, briskly shook our hands and packed us efficiently onto their motorcycles/scooters as we headed for the first stop at Le Van Tam Park for the Green Papaya Salad. On the way, I learned that HCMC was in the midst of a ‘mild’ summer at 32 degrees Celsius while sweating my arse off on Ai’s scooter seat and that the owner of the Salad store sold 100 kilos of papaya a day – and with that, sent her son to study in America with those earnings.

My dirty dreams of owning a Ducati (obviously a license must come first) while we zoomed along the streets of HCMC came to an abrupt halt when Ai pulled onto the curb, dumping me in front of a roadside stall that served the most incredible Bun Thit Nuong (Rice noodles with grilled pork, spring rolls and pork sausage, 3-5 Trung Thien Voung street, District 8) I’ve ever had. The chatty, friendly owner has been doing this since she was 15 with her mother and at the ripe, golden age of 52, is now trying to matchmake her single female customers with her son.

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After some suspicious stammering, we were off again to Banh Canh Ghe’s Ocean Crab Soup with Tapioca Noodles (Nguyen Tro Phoung street, District 10). The shop’s name is a literal translation of the very sauce it is famous for: the light green chilli sauce that mysteriously disappears as quickly as the steamy, milky broth of crab, friend soybean curd and udon-like noodles after they appear on the table.

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Nearly full to bursting, there was still the fantastic Banh Khot (7 Dong Nai street, District 10) – mini, deep fried pancakes wrapped in a large lettuce leaf with a large amount of herbs and shredded green papaya. And there was still dessert at Trop 8 (306/4 Nguyen Thu Minh Khai, District 3) that included a variety of stuff: xôi kem (coconut ice cream and mulberry-flavoured sticky rice), a cold fruit platter, mango and vanilla ice-cream on sticky rice and blueberry homemade yoghurt.

Food bliss meter reached for the day.

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