Friday, January 9, 2009

Vietnam and Cambodia and then Vietnam Again Part 2

The 22nd we set out on the bus to the outskirts of Saigon. Our crooner (video later) of a guide, Linh, shared a little about his history. Apparently, his father was a captain in the South Vietnamese army. When then North took control, they sent all members of the South Vietnamese army (and probably police) to "reeducation" camps. The higher up in rank, the more time in the camps. Linh's father spent 8 years doing manual labor. Linh also told us that because his father was a captain, Linh is not able to join the communist party. If Linh has children, they too will not be able to join the communist party -- three generations removed is the rule. So in spite of his university degree he isn't able to easily get a government job (as most are in Vietnam). Hence why he is a tour operator and not a chemist.

When the bus stopped we met our bikes as well as the truck driver, and a man who would only be known mysteriously as "The Mechanic" like in some sort of Sergio Leone spaghetti western. We would ride for about 20km to the Cu Chi tunnels and get to short tour of that area. The short ride was mostly to get fitted for our bikes. Despite being on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, there was still an abundance of traffic, mostly motorbikes, but the occasional person on a bicycle. Our first and only break on the ride was at a rubber tree farm. They basically shave off a piece of the bark and the rubber (white in colour) slowly oozes out of the tree filling up a cup.

We arrived on our bikes at what looked like a theme park with many large air conditioned buses parked out front. These were the Cu Chi Tunnels, at least those open to the public. There are over a hundred kilometers of tunnels in the area, consisting of three levels, each going deeper. The Americans tried to bomb and destroy the tunnels, but they were extremely difficult to find. After a brief indoctrination video that looked like it was produced in the 1960s with a camera from the 1920s, we were taken to the different exhibits. Some demonstrated the boobytraps that were set up by the Viet Cong, others the entrances to the tunnels. In true Disney-fashion they even had exhibits with animatronic Vietnamese soldiers working as blacksmiths extracting gun powder from unexploded bombs. The coup de grace of course were the tunnels that have been reinforced for the tourists to enter. The first stage has been enlarged for westerners, the second stage, only slightly enlarged, and the third stage was just the way it was. Jenni went through all three, but David dropped out after the first stage. Even though they had been enlarged, it was all on hands and knees for David. One cannot help but admire the ingenuity and tenacity that went into buidling and maintaining the tunnels.

For ventilation they used termite mounds, simply punching a whole in them.

Trap door with spikes at the bottom.

Jenni getting into the tunnel.

You could pay to go fire an M-16 at the "National Defence Sports Shooting Range."

Video inside the tunnels.

After a fast-paced 10km ride after the tunnels, suggested by none other than Jenni :), we headed back to Saigon. The rest of the evening/afternoon was free for everyone. We went to a dingy little Indian Restaurant that had dingy Indian food that wasn't too bad.

Last view of Saigon traffic:

The 23rd we left Saigon for the Mekong Delta. We drove for about two hours before biking, stopping at a Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai is a religion that was established in 1926 in South Vietnam. It is a mixture of a number of different religions including Christianity and Buddhism, and Victor Hugo is considered a saint. So there you go...We're sure Caodaiists appreciate the detailed summary we have just given their religion. Don't be alarmed by the Swastikas. You see them all over Buddhist countries, and were an important symbol long before the Nazis ruined it.

While the roadside duck was a tempting offer, we had a schedule to keep and 50-60 km to cover on the bikes. This was perhaps the busiest day of the tour. Our biking crossed terrains that varied as widely as busy paved roads to roads made entirely of sand. We crossed many tributaries of the Mekong either by bridge our little ferry boats. Eventually, we loaded our bikes onto a diesel powered boat that took us along the Mekong for lunch.

"The Mechanic"
Lunch was a 4 course meal that included Elephant Ear fish.

After lunch we got back on the boat, and did a short tour along the Mekong to a small stretch of land where they make coconut candies, and poprice. Poprice is just like popcorn, only with rice. When the rice has been "popped" they mix it with caramel, and it is sort of like a rice crispy treat. They use the rice husk to fuel the fires for both the coconut candies and poprice. We then took the boats past the floating market, which was a cluster of various sized boats. Each boat had a particular item hanging on the outside which designated what they sold.

Poprice popping...

Along the Mekong and the floating markets.

Each house had a TV Antenna sticking out of it.
At the end of the floating market we met three row boats that took us through the narrower and shallower channels of the Mekong. There are thousands of little islands in the mouth of the Mekong. As we boarded these tiny rafts, we were give the traditional Vietnamese conical shaped hat to wear and keep the sun out of our eyes (at least that's what we were told). The we were taken along the little channel past people's homes. Our guide, Linh, serenaded us with traditional Vietnamese songs about the Mekong as we jerkily navigated the river. It lasted a bit too long for David, given his aversion to boats of all sizes, but he survived. And as we got back into our larger boat next to the bikes, the friendly rowboaters pulled out their engines and sped back through the channel.

Much to David's relief we finally left the boats behind and took our bikes on to one of the islands. This was probably the best biking we did on the whole trip as we navigated through the back roads of these little houses, barely wide enough for a person let alone 7 bikes, crossing small arched bridges. In a shocking turn of events, David was cycling in front of Jenni (a rarity) when we hit a steep slope where Jenni came off her bike. David turned to see Jenni standing there having nearly been dunked in the Mekong. We eventually reached our Homestay in one piece as the light had just faded away. It was a lovely little place with one big communal room. Dinner was excellent and well-received, and slowly we all left the table at different times and fell asleep on our cots.

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