Sunday, June 10, 2018

Tunnels and Rivers

I was anxious to explore the countryside and I quickly booked a trip to The Cu Chi tunnels. They are located 30 km from the Cambodian border and are the "official" end of the Ho Chi Minh trail. The "start" of the tunnel and trail system is near the DMZ, about an hour north of Hue. To add some perspective to the tunnels: soldiers, food, guns and ammunition were smuggled through these tunnels and along the trail which were located about an hour from Saigon.

Yes I did squeeze myself down the tiny shaft and crawl along the same tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war. The tunnels have been widened slightly for tourists so we can fit out fat selves in but the experience is just the same. One of the tunnels ran over 50 meters and "bottle-necked" to the original size about 40 yards in. The option to squeeze through the last 10 meters was there but the guide blocked it sensing the obvious, we were never going to fit. Yes these soldiers were tiny by our standards. They lived in these tunnels  during the day and coming out to fight at night for years.

This area of the country saw quite a bit of fighting during the War. When you walked along the jungle paths you made sure to stay on the paths regardless of the fact you have been told all ordinance has been cleared from the area.  *Although the Vietnam War ended decades ago, walking outside marked tracks can still be dangerous because of numerous unexploded ordnance devices..bombs!* - Wikipedia

The bomb craters were still visible and deep hidden bunkers was clearly on display. During the war any bunker would have been camouflaged so let me tell you, it was scary stuff when you walk the along the jungle path towards the bunker. It was two spaced logs buried under a mound of earth connected by the tunnel network. A machine gun and crew would be laying in wait to ambush whatever and for whomever walked up the trail.

Sure, it was interesting to climb into the tunnel for a photo op but we will never know the horrors and suffering of living in and fighting from them.

The next day I headed to the Mekong Delta and again I could not get the war out of my head. The Mekong was notoriously dangerous and was brought to our attention with Apocalypse Now.

After a one hour on the bus, with an hour to go, we stopped at the Vinh Trang Pagoda to view the three famous Buddhas (past, present and future). I guess this would be the Buddhist Christmas Carol. After 30 minutes we headed to the Mekong village of My Tho. From there we took a rickety old boat across the river to the hamlet of Cahn Bao. Tourism is important here but this town is also prosperous with cocoa and chocolate making, natural honey, a large variety of fruit orchards, flowers and artisan crafts. My favorite was the coconut candy and I filled my pockets with purchases of them to devour as we went along.

We floated down tributaries surrounded by jungle and clogged with hyacinth. We rode bicycles around the island after a huge lunch of fish, pork, rice, noodles and vegetables. We observed how the locals lived and prospered. There was no talk about the war regardless of the fact this area was almost devastated during the Tet offensive of 1968. There are stark reminders of the war with the Americans and the French before that however, like Cambodia, the Vietnamese are trying to move their country forward. I must say they are doing a fantastic job. Did you know Vietnam is the number 2 producer of both rice and coffee globally?

Floating along the Mekong and then slowly paddling through the narrow tributaries gave me an eerie sense of the danger that lurked everywhere here. Naturally the only danger for me was..well nothing. The lush jungle and all its variety of greens mixed with the deep brown water creating a picture perfect setting. The silence only broken with the slashing of oars on the water and the call of various birds in the tree branches high above. It was a bit touristy but not exploited.

The heat in and around Saigon was oppressive so a reprieve into the mountains is called for. Dalat is a modern mountain town with a few interesting sights and a climbable mountain. However, it is also notorious for rain at this time of the year so my hiking may be cancelled. It could be 3 days of wandering around a mountain town in my rain poncho and sitting in coffee shops drinking glorious Vietnamese coffee and reading whatever book I can pick up. Who knows, who cares.

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