I uploaded these pictures to Flickr several days ago, and I've just been sitting on them. This was a long day, but a wonderful one, and it's going to take a little time to synthesize properly!
So - here goes. If I don't dive right in, I'm going to miss my self-imposed August 13th deadline by a mile, aren't I?
Husbear's friend Fiona gave us the contact information for a tour guide she and her friends hired when they went to Vietnam last year or so. We started talking with him in Italy and eventually set up a full day tour for the day after we arrived. It was expensive, but we had a tour guide (and car!) all to ourselves. Hai would be coming to the hotel to pick us up early for a full day of touring HCMC/Sai Gon and environs.
We had to have breakfast first, though...
I greatly prefer Vietnamese noodle soup breakfast to the Thai rice soup breakfast. Husbear ordered pho (beef noodle soup) while I stuck to pork. These particular soups we bought through our hotel, and they were more expensive and blander than noodle soups we had elsewhere (check back later).
Noodle soup in this hot climate really makes sense, when you think about it. The slightly salty broth replaces electrolytes and rehydrates you, and it's a great way to stretch a small amount of meat.
Hai picked us up at the appointed time, and we met our driver and our extremely pimp ride.
Hai was a great guide. Anyone planning a trip to HCMC, write us at email@example.com for his contact information. We told him that we didn't know too much about the sights to be seen around HCMC, but that we were fairly mobile on our own and wanted to see things it would be tough to see without a car.
His company usually gives tours to older Americans in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and when he saw us he blurted "You're so YOUNG!" His English was great, and he wanted to ask us questions about idiomatic expressions (why do you pitch a script?). He knew lots of Carson and Henny Youngman jokes (like I said, the majority of his customers are quite a bit older than us!).
We all got into the car and were driving out of Saigon (the people that live there seem to go back and forth between calling the city "Saigon" and "Ho Chi Minh City", so I figure I don't have to choose either) when we passed a large memorial on the side of the road.
We pulled over, and Husbear and I crossed the street to get a closer look. This takes a little more dexterity than in the States - many crossings don't have traffic lights, and even the ones that do have people doing death-defying left and right turns. It's Naples cubed.
The memorial is to Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who self-immolated at this busy Saigon intersection in 1963 to protest then-president Diem's treatment of Buddhists. My generation might know him best as the guy on the cover of that Rage album.
We only took a couple of minutes there, but it's obvious that he's still revered by Vietnamese Buddhists.
Our first stop was to have been at a school on the outskirts of HCMC, where we could meet the kids. Unfortunately, it turned out that summer break had begun only the day before, so we had to scratch that visit. That was fine with me, as I wasn't sure how I felt about being show-and-tell anyway, but to my chagrin we were destined to be show-and-tell at our next stop.
We pulled into a dusty driveway with several small thatched buildings around a central courtyard. Hai told us that this family makes rice paper wrappers and they'd be happy to show us how. We piled out and were suddenly surrounded by oh my gawd the most adorable chilluns.
"She will be a humdinger!" Hai exclaimed.
The family wanted a group shot, too. I felt a little strange about all of this attention, but I think they were just as interested in us as we were in them. I would like to draw your eye to the universal older/younger brother dynamic on display in the center left of the picture.
We also met the family chickens, most of whom were in better shape than this guy.
There's no avoiding live poultry in Southeast Asia, unless you stay in your hotel the whole time. Even then, it better be a Western style hotel!
We did get a demonstration of how the family makes their rice paper wrappers. The woman showing us made it look so easy, of course... just spread out some rice water on the top of a steamer, put the top back on the steamer for a moment, then transfer the finished wrapper to a waiting mat where they'd dry.
Then we got to try. I went first.
The first one I made was the best - from there, they became progressively more mangled.
Husbear, of course, got better and better from his initial try. The family was impressed, especially that he was able to do this left-handed!
After trying our hands at rice-paper-wrapper making, we got back in the car and went to a rubber farm. These are very common in the area around HCMC. I was interested to learn that they work very much like maple syrup farms; the trees have a slash cut in the side each morning, during the coolest part of the day, and they drip sap into a shallow bowl for the next few hours. This sap is then taken to a nearby factory where it's processed into blocks of rubber for sale.
It's possible to see the old slashes in the trunk of this tree.
Here's where the day became significantly less comfortable. Our next stop was a Viet Cong cemetery.
The graves are mostly those of people who died in the nearby Cu Chi tunnels, which we'd be visiting shortly. Each is inscribed with the date of enlistment and the date of "martyrdom", some of which were months or just days apart.
The cemetery was empty of visitors except for us. We looked at the murals outside and felt significantly unbalanced and strange. These people were killed by the American military in a long miasma of a war, and as an American I felt guilty. Obviously, I understand that it was kill or be killed, but that understanding doesn't change the basic fact that these graves hold people killed by Americans. We've spent our lives hearing the American viewpoint on what the Vietnamese call the American war, and it was time to see things from the Vietnamese perspective.
The next stop was the Cu Chi tunnels themselves. Each group must have a military guide in the tunnels, portions of which have been widened out to allow tourists to fit. Some of the bunkers and planning rooms have actually had the dirt roof removed and been covered by metal roofs, so you can see portions of the networks without going underground.
Before getting to the actual tunnels, you walk along paths through the trees, past dioramas of Viet Cong fighters.
It was wonderful being there with Hai. He answered our questions without once rolling his eyes at how little we really knew of the conflict. His father and uncle both fought in the war on the side of the South Vietnamese and were put in reeducation camps for years after the fall of Saigon. His uncle has since emigrated to California.
We sat with a few other tourists and watched a propaganda film about the Cu Chi tunnels made during the war. The tunnel inhabitants were portrayed as plucky villagers, out to defeat the American menace and huge firepower with just their wit and their small guns. And their hideously effective-looking spiked booby traps. We learned that Viet Cong fighters were given multiple awards for killing American soldiers - they were called American Killing Heroes. (Here's another tourist's experience watching this film, with some more quotes.)
We saw some of the ways the Viet Cong disguised the entrances to the tunnels. They built long tubes so cooking smoke would come out well away from the tunnels themselves, and they disguised tunnel entrances as termite mounds.
Then, we were taken outside to see one of the tunnel entrances. Our military guide brushed back some leaves, displaying a very well-fitted wooden trap door. He then hopped down into the entrance, replacing the top. It was really hard to tell where the entrance was, even through we'd just seen him go down it... and then he popped up behind us and was looking at me expectantly.
I really thought I might not fit.
They wouldn't even let Husbear try. After I wiggled down and came back up for air several yards away, the top was replaced and we were rushed off to a new entrance, a little wider and easier to see than the one I'd dropped down.
This one led, after some uncomfortable hunching and a barely-controlled fall down a small slope, to an underground planning room. We were told that this was where parts of the Tet Offensive were planned, when Viet Cong soldiers burst from the tunnels and there was fighting in the streets of Saigon.
We were shown spiked, evil-looking booby traps by the sides of the door in this room, which were meant to catch American "tunnel rats" when they jumped to the side of the door attempting to clear a room.
Then our camera battery died. We had the option of crawling underground for (if I remember correctly) 50, 120, or 300 meters. Each level went deeper underground and became tighter. I could only handle the 120 meter crouch before I had to get back up, but Husbear made it the full 300 meters.
300 meters is 984 feet. Parts of the tunnel were so narrow Husbear had to go facefirst on his elbows. He cut his hand on a rock and came up sweating like crazy, covered in mud.
And people lived in these tunnels for weeks at a time.
Then, we got to eat boiled taro root dipped in peanuts. Not bad until we were told that's what the Viet Cong tunnel residents lived on while they were underground...
We skipped the area where you could pay to fire an AK-47 ($1 per round!). Hai took us to a restaurant he likes that's nearby for lunch.
Yeah, I'm only up to the lunch portion of our day.
Ben Nay is very nice and has a beautiful setting on a river. Many of the tables have their own little huts, for privacy. We had almost the whole restaurant to ourselves.
Hai took care of the ordering, and taught us to eat each dish in the Vietnamese way. We had fried fish, sliced pork, a brothy soup, rice, pineapple, spring rolls, shrimp crackers... a real feast.
The Vietnamese have a way of eating their sauteed greens that we immediately took to - they make a dip out of soy sauce and chilis and dip each bite. Highly recommended.
Then, back to HCMC with a stop for a much-needed ca phe sua da - iced strong coffee with sweetened condensed milk. We had a great time watching the traffic on the way back into town, while Hai tried to teach us the six tones of Vietnamese. We didn't do very well.
Back in town, we stopped at the Cholon market. This is HCMC's Chinatown, home to a large Chinese population. First we made time for a little streetfood.
So, we didn't end up spending too much time at the Cholon market.
We got into the sweltering interior, with its narrow alleyways and towering displays, and Hai said, "You know... I think Ben Thanh market would be better."
Never let it be said that the Vietnamese don't have a sweet tooth.
Before leaving Cholon behind, though, we stopped at a pagoda for a glimpse of the religious side of Cholon.
We shoulda sampled this woman's wares on the way, but we were still full from lunch. Now I'd kill for whatever she's selling. I'm very hungry. Is it dinnertime yet? Can we have some authentic Vietnamese food? Check out the French bread in her basket, along with the grill she's carrying around.
The pagoda. I'm an idiot, because I didn't write down which one this was, and from the descriptions in our book it could be one of several. Help, Hai?
Again, the incense packed a pretty serious wallop. We learned from Hai that the cones overhead have prayers attached to them, and we figured sending up a prayer with incense would be a fitting thing to do on our three-year anniversary. (Happy late anniversary to us!)
Next, a brief drive to Ben Thanh market. When we were looking for places to stay in HCMC, I was pretty insistent that I wanted to stay near this market, partly because Noodlepie has a whole section about it on his blog that I'd been salivating over for years.
Ben Thanh is pretty overwhelming, at least for a first-time visitor. About a quarter of the inside is given over to food stalls, which we planned to visit later. The streets outside look normal during the day, but turn into a thriving night market later on. A huge variety of goods are for sale inside - cloth for tailoring, ready-made clothing, shoes, purses, tourist shlock (mixed with some nice stuff, as always), and food. Food food food. This was what we wanted to see, and Hai led us through the teetering booths while being peppered with questions.
"Fermented fish paste and fish sauce with shrimp."
"I... don't know."
At least we were all in good company. (Turns out it's gac. No, really.)
To Hai's credit, if he didn't know what something was, he's ask the person selling it. Often the Vietnamese names didn't have a translation he'd know, and he'd offer to look up the Latin names for us.
For instance, most of the specimens in this pile of greens.
An insane number of treats were on display in that market. We had a great time looking around, wanting to buy everything. I think this is preserved shrimp with green papaya? Or noodles?
We asked Hai to help us put together a small bag of fruits we'd been wanting to try - mangosteen, custard apple, jackfruit, things of that nature - and were a little surprised to learn that you haggle for food here, too! In Italy, food is displayed with the prices and that's what you pay. Not so in Vietnam.
Jackfruit is enormous, but most sellers will break it down and sell small packets of the flesh.
That was where we parted ways with Hai - he, to go to his ballroom dance class (he was learning the cha-cha) and us, back to our hotel with lots of pictures and a bag of fruit.
After a much-needed shower, we were back on the street looking for a restaurant recommended by Hai - the Huong Rung, where he promised we could sample some of Vietnam's more... exotic treats.
We'd heard that one of the ways Vietnam's growing middle class has embraced conspicuous consumption is by eating strange animals. There are restaurants all over Vietnam that trade in such foods as dog, cat, snake, mouse, and songbird.
We'd already told ourselves that we wouldn't eat anything endangered... which is why bat was out.
This place had a huge menu. Not only were there pages and pages of a la carte items, there were also ten or twelve full menus, like you see above. Dove and cobra and bat and lizard and rat, if I recall.
We spent a long time perusing the menu with our Tiger beers, and eventually ordered more greens, which we set to like old pros - putting a bite at a time in our bowl of rice, and dipping each bite in our spicy soy dip.
We also ordered a whole grilled eel, which arrived coiled on the plate topped with herbs and with a side of peanut chili sauce. I prefer the Japanese eel, with its sweet barbeque-type sauce. The sauce here was outstanding, but the eel was a bit dry.
We had fun playing "recreate the eel!" with bits of skeleton.
But the pièce de résistance, which Husbear had to actually act out and then draw for them to believe we wanted it...
Field mice! Pretty sure these little guys aren't endangered. We ordered two, because who wants to share a field mouse?
They were... good? Ish? They tasted a lot like quail. Sort of gamey. And as you can probably imagine, there isn't a whole lot of meat on a mouse, with the exception of the hind legs. We felt good about our ordering, not to mention really full, and waddled back to the hotel satisfied.
Like I warned you at the outset, it was quite a day. But at least we ended it with a bang.
Have a great weekend! We've rented a light kit to take pictures of my new haircut. Overkill? I think not.