The countryside of Vietnam is simply stunning. Since we slept during most of our border-crossing bus journey across the Cambodian border, we missed our introduction to the land of rice paddies and intertwining irrigation canals. When we finally left the confines of HCMC and headed outside the city limits to explore the “real Vietnam,” I was struck by the beauty of the tranquil, watery landscape.
Ho Chi Minh City Day Tours– Aside from renting a motorbike, mastering HCMC’s spiderweb of streets and alleys, and navigating the popular tourist destinations on our own, we decided to ease the backpacker headache and book a tour. I know…I’m usually a do-it-yourself-tourist too, even if it takes me three times as long to accomplish the same task. However, Vietnam hasn’t yet mastered a tourist-friendly transportation system like we found in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. So…instead of being left to our own devices, we booked a couple of day tours with the Three Brothers Tour Agency and headed off to explore the MeKong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels.
Mekong Delta – The fertile plains of the Mekong Delta are often dubbed the “rice bowl” of Vietnam. For good reason, too. Centuries of rich sediment deposits from the mighty Mekong have given birth to one of the most densely populated parts of the country. Thriving vegetation snuggles along a labyrinth of nearly 39,000 square-kilometers of waterways, nurturing a sanctuary for growing fruits, sugarcane, vegetables, and an arable oasis for rice farming.
The Mekong’s floating markets lie about a four hours’ drive from HCMC, and here, where markets, villages, and schools float on sprawling, life-sustaining estuaries, we spent the day riding in a long-tail boat through the criss crossing brown canals and gazing at the sleepy villages, fish farms, and lush, green fields.
The markets were busy. Just after sunrise, the Delta crowded with small canoes and long-tails as local men and women hawked fruits, shrimp, coconuts, vegetables, rice, and home goods. Boats were stacked tall with freshly cut pineapple, watermelons, dragon fruits, and more. You wouldn’t find pesticides or greenhouse grown produce here. Nope. We rowed close enough to buy a sack of rambutans, a wonderful fruit with leathery skin and sweet flesh, reminiscent of grapes, and passed the treats around our boat.
The markets seem to be a swap meet of sorts. Though we were able to buy coconut candy, fruit, and an odd Saigon t-shirt, most of the commerce occurred between the locals. Rarely did money exchange hands. Rather, a bag of coconuts was handed over in exchange for rice noodles or a sack of fabric for a stalk of bananas. If only the rest of the world could prosper on sustainable agriculture and an even exchange of goods and services. Who needs a Super Target or Mejier?
Cu Chi tunnels- You don’t know the true meaning of claustrophobia until you have crawled through the Cu Chi tunnels, a vast network of interconnecting underground tunnels that were used as operational headquarters by the Vietcong guerrillas. The tunnels were an ingeniously disguised web of guerrilla fortifications that linked hamlets, villages, and various Vietcong support bases.
We toured the Ben Duoc in Cu Chi district, about 40 miles northwest of HCMC. Our guide led us 15 feet underground and then through nearly 50 yards of a pitch-black, water-pipe-like tunnel. Due to the unbearably low earthen walls, I was forced to crawl on my hands and knees and had to hold my flashlight in my mouth. We were later told that the tunnels were only half as high during the war. I suppose they didn’t have too many 5’9″ American girls crawling through their tunnels back then!
What amazed me was that the Cu Chi tunnels had several branches, but none of the branches were blocked off. Therefore, unless you had a keen sense of direction or a nightlight compass on your watch, you had to keep calling out to the person in front of you to make sure that you were heading in the correct tunnel (and of course, hope that they knew what they were doing too!). Has anyone ever gotten lost down there?
Underground, the Cu Chi tunnels featured living quarters, do-it-yourself ordnance factories, kitchens with concealed chimneys, cleverly designed conical bomb shelters, and even theater and movie halls. Up top, there were many entrances and exits, if you can consider a hole in the earth as an actual “exit.” I honestly don’t know how all of the landmarks were memorized back then…”third branch on the left,” “under the big tree in the forest,” or “next to the rock…the gray rock.” And the holes were tiny! Like, I had to hold my breath and contort my shoulders in ways that still make me cringe.
Teaching English in HCMC- We had an extra night before leaving HCMC so we decided to volunteer and teach English for an evening. An Australian couple had told us about Mr. Lee, a sweet Chinese man who was eager for volunteers to visit his school across town. After making arrangements, Mr. Lee picked us up and gave us a short tour of HCMC’s China Town before taking us to his school for evening classes.
Many of the children already knew basic English vocabulary, and they wanted our help with pronunciation and accents. We were more than happy to oblige, and Liz and I each taught three classes late into the evening hours.
Afterwards, Mr. Lee gave us a bag full of Cokes and chocolates and took us out for Pho. Over bowls of steaming noodles, he told us stories of life back in China before he moved to Vietnam thirty years prior. Mr. Lee gave us huge hugs goodbye and made us promise that we would pass his mobile number on to other English-speaking travelers.