Tuesday, February 18, 3:50 p.m., Ho Chi Minh City
After breakfast, we got on the bus for a two-hour drive to the Cu Chi Tunnels, part of the vast network of tunnels, spanning over 120 miles, in which Vietcong soldiers and ordinary folks hid and lived during the Vietnam War (or, as they call it here, the “American War”). Our guide D told of some of his own experiences – his father’s disappearance for four years and re-education, and D’s own time as part of a bomb-clearing team. Pretty harrowing. He also gave us a lot of background on the tunnels and how they were constructed.
They were built on three levels, and included dedicated kitchens, mess halls, meeting rooms, ammunition storerooms, and bathrooms (removed from the other rooms by an L-shaped hallway, and cleaned every day). Ventilation was said to be decent, and the tunnel entrances were protected by booby traps. Crawling through one of the tunnels, one that had been specially widened for visitors, it is almost unfathomable how they made this all work.
A tunnel of the original dimensions was also available for a crawl-through, but I had neither the fortitude nor the thinness. Even in the widened tunnel I repeatedly bumped my head and shoulders, and my legs were near to giving out after so much crawling. All of today’s talk of ruthless bombing and Agent Orange wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, make an American proud.
Driving to and from the caves, we got to see a fair slice of Vietnamese village life. We got an exhibition of how rice paper for spring rolls is made. D mentioned four things the French left after their time in what they called Indochina – buildings (like the Post Office we saw yesterday), baguettes, coffee (which is mostly drunk, strong and sweet, in central and south Vietnam, the north being more partial to tea), and rubber trees (brought from Indonesia, and now very common here). Amidst the many rice fields and other agricultural land were homes, ranging from mere shacks to large Western-style near-palaces, an assortment of vegetable and fruit vendors, tiny restaurants, motorcycle repair shops, a few phone and technology providers, and here and there a school or warehouse.
Once again the ubiquity of motorcycles must be noted. They’re used to transport everything from families of four or five to, yes, refrigerators – we saw a man with one strapped on his back, unable to stop at red lights due to the weight.
After a nice pho lunch, we made a brief stop at the Vietnam History Museum, which D quickly led us through. Numerous lovely sculptures, many Buddhist or Hindu, were on display. I only wish we had had twice or three times as much time to go through the displays in detail and understand more about the periods of Vietnamese history. I suppose I’ll have to read a book one day…
Our evening started with an impeccably coordinated fifty-minute performance by the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre.
An orchestra of six – live musicians, and good ones! – accompanied the seventeen vignettes that were acted out by water puppets manipulated by, I believe, eight people.
It was totally delightful, and one can see why kids would be entranced by it – adults are too! Vietnam has had water puppetry for upwards of 1,000 years. According to D, it started as a way to amuse children getting wild in the water. Now their play could be accompanied by stories of Vietnamese life and mythology and traditional story telling.
After that we had a wild cyclo ride through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City at rush hour. I felt a little conspicuous in the vehicle, especially since I ended up first in a line of sixteen cyclos for most of the 45-minute trip. But being in the middle of that traffic, surrounded by hundreds of motorcycles, the cyclo driver expertly weaving his way through the mess, was an amazing confusion of sights, sounds, and smells.
Kids smiled at us as they saw us drive by, and a few adults looked at us with something like disdain. It is strange that as congested and noisy and fast-paced, or insanely-paced, as street life is here, I also find it fascinating and kind of attractive. Maybe it’s the anonymity one can enjoy in such a mass of humanity. Maybe it’s the feeling that these thousands of people are out and about doing significant things. I don’t know the source of the attraction, and need to meditate on this further.
Our final activity was a cooking demonstration, followed by yet another delicious meal in which I was amply provided with vegetarian choices. This trip has featured the most tasty, and most attractively presented, tofu dishes I’ve ever had; it inspires me to look into my own tofu cooking possibilities when I get home.