In the early morning we arrived in Cai Be Village and embarked on a local sampan journey through the numerous picturesque channels of Ah Binh Island (between Vinh Long and Cai Be Market). The barefooted women standing on the sterns, deftly manoeuvred these long, thin boats through the narrow channels, as we thoroughly enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere of gliding through the Mekong Delta.
Following the sampan experience, we drifted through Cai Be Markets, marvelling at the way the wares are displayed on poles, lines and the rooftops of sellers’ boats. We watched as the vendor made a sweeping, graceful arc with a slender pole flexing under the weight of the ripe, spiky, vibrant dragon fruit towards the buyer’s vessel, like a practiced puppeteer. Making a purchase is quite simple, just draw along side of the boat carrying the goods you have your eye on and bargain. Things were quite laid back when we sailed through, but I can imagine how busy this scene gets when the stream of tour buses arrive from Saigon, packed with their time-poor passengers, only able to see the delta in a day trip. Glad we were taking a little more time for the whole experience.
Even though some of our party were feeling concerned about time and getting back to Saigon for connecting tours, our guide squeezed in another couple of visits before our transfer back to the city. The first of these was an ‘all-in-one’ cultural taste-tester, with the option to shop thrown in! We were shown the live snakes in their glass boxes, which freaked out quite a few visitors upon the realisation that the 15metre python was peacefully sleeping rather than dead. When she raised her head to the mesh roof of her fishtank to smell us with her flicking tongue, there were more than a few squeals. In Vietnam, snakes are bred for their meat and skins, but snake wine is also very popular, and when I say ‘wine’ I mean whiskey, and by ‘popular’ I mean with the locals and the odd tourist attempting to show they are ‘hard core’! To be honest, it wasn’t quite the firewater that most were purporting it to be – it just tasted like any other ‘rough’ spirit, similar to ‘raki’ in Greece…and I’m sure it would be ideal for disinfecting a variety of wounds. Tourists were both repelled and fascinated in equal measure by the fact that it was possible to purchase this product with a dead snake pickled inside!
For the less adventurous, there were other diversions in this factory/shop combo – the demonstration stations that showed the making of rice paper, sweets and puffed rice treats. If those edible souvenirs didn’t appeal, there was also an art gallery on the premises and some finely crafted wooden teapots and other ‘kitchen’ items available next to the postcards and silver jewellery.
Our 110 kilometres back to Ho Chi Minh City were restful – I was not the sole sleeper in the mini-bus! We had a very short turn around for our next Vietnam experience, and needed to drop our bags at our hotel, grab some lunch and be picked up for a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, about 75 km north west of the city.
We were dropped back at The Caravelle by the L’Amant tour people – most convenient for us, as this was the hotel we were checking into – and, as it was about midday, expected to simply drop our bags as check in was 3pm. The gentleman at reception was particularly lovely and helpful, and after some discreet tapping on the computer keyboard, handed us our electronic door keys to our executive floor room with his finger to his lips and a ‘don’t tell anyone’ – I guess being a returning customer does have its advantages!
The executive room was definitely an upgrade on the room of our previous visit, but for me the biggest plus was being on a lower floor – not having to wait for ages for the lift was a surprising bonus. But who am I kidding? – the robes, accessories, extra space in the room and complimentary buffet breakfasts were pretty fantastic, too!
We rushed through a tasty lunch at the hotel’s Restaurant Nineteen, a casual dining option just off the lobby on the ground floor. We relished in the fresh salads and veggie options that had not been so available on the cruise, and met our new tour guide from Indochina Treks who escorted us to and through the Cu Chi Tunnel experience. (This company have been faultless in all aspects, from punctuality and communication, through to the guides’ extensive knowledge.)
After a very long morning, I doubted my capacity to get the most out of a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, but with only one more full day to enjoy this city, we wanted to make the most of our opportunities. I have to admit, when on a strict time budget, it certainly made the whole experience so much easier having the private transport, driver and guide to take care of everything and look after us. I would also recommend visiting the tunnels later in the afternoon. We were picked up from our hotel at 1:30pm and returned about 6pm. The museum was far less crowded and the temperature was most pleasant.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are definitely worth visiting, so don’t be put off by the fact they are a little way out of town…or by the thought of the claustrophobic possibilities! There is much to see and do and learn about at the museum without actually going into a tunnel. The first thing on the list of events is a documentary/propaganda film about the history of the tunnels – which is much longer than their staring role in the American War. This little feature was very interesting and appropriately set the scene for the sites to come.
The first thing to check out after watching the film is an entry hole to one of the tunnels. This has been widened for our Western frames, but would still be a bit squeezy for some. The obligatory photo op followed and we scrambled out – well, John hoisted himself up, I (with my non-existent upper body strength) had to be dragged out by John and our guide. The entrances to these tunnels are completely hidden, and it’s only by closely looking at the ground after having been told there is one there that it can be discerned.
The booby traps are introduced to the visitor in a subtle way. As we move through the jungle the first of many painful, yet creative, traps unfold before us; each one making us exclaim, gasp, comment on in discomfort, fear and even awe. The resourcefulness and effectiveness of these creations are impressive, as well as skin-crawling! There are cantilevered floor panels that drop you onto a bed of sharpened bamboo skewers, impaling the victim instantly; ample variety of holes foot, leg or body sized, lined with metal spikes angled at such a way that removing limb from trap would cause even more damage; and ghastly contraptions that work on a complete revolve…with apparently no way out! Of course, some of the most strategic methods of attack in war involves incapacitating the enemy, rather than killing them outright – this takes out even more of the opposition’s forces dealing with the wounded instead of them moving on and abandoning the dead.
Up next was entering an actual tunnel. Now, once again, these have been widened for tourists, and I bravely set forth following my guide. The wide stairs leading into the bunker gave me a false sense of security, and as we turned around and entered the tunnel where the height from floor to ceiling was still about 180cm, I was doing really well. It was when we turned another corner (at only 4 metres in!) and I saw the relatively much smaller hole we had to get through and go further underground that I bailed. Was so very glad it was only John behind me, and not several tourists at peak visiting time! I scrambled back above ground as John continued the journey through the first leg of the tunnel. The section of tunnel available for visitors to explore is broken into 20 metre stretches; if you find that you’ve had enough after the first 20 metres, there is an exit point, and another every 20 metres until you reach the end of 100 metres. Because of the compactness of the tunnel, a crouched duck walk is the only way through (unless you choose to crawl), and after the first stretch, John’s knees had had enough! It’s amazing to think there is over 250km of these tunnels in this part of Vietnam!
There were open topped bunkers for ease of exploration by the tourists, including examples of kitchens, weapon production rooms and meeting rooms. We were amazed at the clever design aspects of the accommodation that prevented detection by the enemy. The most impressive of these were the cooking facilities, complete with horizontal chimney designed in such a way that when the smoke finally emerged a kilometre from the source, it did not rise, but dispersed along the ground, like mist.
One very popular component of the visit to Cu Chi Tunnels is a rather large firing range, where adults can let loose with an AK47 or M16. At about $1.50 a bullet, and the guns going pretty much non-stop all day, it’s a nice little revenue raiser for the museum! This part of the visit didn’t particularly appeal to us, but it was certainly popular with many others…mainly men, mostly in the 18-30 age bracket!
A snooze in the car on our 90min drive back to HCMC was much appreciated, especially considered the many miles travelled and the sights seen today. It also gave us the strength to continue into the evening, when we were meeting friends for dinner at The Temple Club, only a couple of blocks from our hotel. Set in a gorgeous old terrace, the perfect spot for dinner is the front of the building in the enclosed balcony looking down onto the street. It’s a little tricky to find as it is on the second floor and the entrance is through a doorway and down a corridor. They have great food, very good wine (which is hard to come by in Vietnam), and service with a smile. We had Hue fresh spring rolls (rolled in mustard leaves), vegetable curry, grilled eggplant and purple rice, spicy silken tofu, pumpkin flowers in garlic, and finished with a baked Saigon cheesecake. The evening was topped off beautifully with our stroll back to the hotel, the theatrically lit Opera House our beacon home.
We cruised aboard L’Amant.
Our travel agent on this cruise was Kelvin Do at Indochina Treks. We were very impressed with his efficiency, helpfulness, excellent advice, friendliness and price! His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org