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Vietnam: Cu Chi Tunnels

3 Apr

Towards the end of my trip to Vietnam, I joined a group tour of Saigon and Cambodia.  On our last day in Vietnam, the group headed about 70km North West from Ho Chi Minh City to the Cu Chi tunnels.  The Cu Chi tunnels are an underground network of tunnels built in the 1940s when the Vietnamese fought the Japanese during World War II and the French afterward.  They were used during the Vietnamese War (or the Americans War as the Vietnamese call it).

Tunnel structure (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Tunnel structure (Source: bbc.co.uk)

At its peak, the tunnel network covered up to roughly 250km from the Saigon river to the Cambodian border. The tunnels are usually built on three (or sometimes four) levels (see diagram above).
Level 1, the level closest to the top, is the entry level and was used by snipers, who would pop up and shoot at “the enemy” and then disappear far down into the tunnels.

Now you see him......

Now you see him……

Now you don't.....

Now you don’t…..

Level 2 is for living and cooking and Level 3 had several meeting rooms, hospitals and even theatres. It was possible to build these tunnels because the earth in this area is very hard (reddish clay, very hard due to the presence of iron oxide) giving a stable structure.
The tunnels were of significant strategic importance as they crossed the main land and river routes, allowing interception of American supply routes.
The tunnels were shallow and narrow and, apparently during the “American / Vietnamese” war, Mexican soldiers were tasked with entering the tunnels because they were the only ones that could fit. However, if soldiers managed to get inside, they were met with several different styles of booby trap to ensure that if you managed to escape one, the others would surely finish you off. The booby traps were nasty and included planks of swinging nails, collapsing trap doors with foot-long spikes.

Watch your step!

Watch your step!

The floor trap collapses, trapping the leg with spikes

The floor trap collapses, trapping the leg with spikes

A basic floor trap

A basic floor trap

Biting Jaws

Biting Jaws

Easy in, not so easy out

Easy in, not so easy out

The spikes themselves had barbed endings ensuring that they created more damage on the way out than on the way in. Frustrated with their ability to penetrate the tunnels, American troops resorted to bombing. As a result, Cu Chi is the most bombed, shelled, gassed and exfoliated area in the history of war.
On the third / fourth levels of the tunnels, there were workshops where un-exploded American bombs, seized by Vietnamese soldiers, were broken apart and re-constructed into several smaller scatter bombs and re-used. Shoes were made from truck tyres and so on.

Vietnamese "soldiers" cutting unexploded bombs to extract the explosives....

Vietnamese “soldiers” cutting unexploded bombs to extract the explosives….

To create smaller "scatter"  bombs

To create smaller “scatter” bombs

DSC_0040
Our guide, who fought in the Vietnam war, spent 15 days hiding in the tunnels.  I could barely spend 15 seconds inside.

The tunnels had been widened to allow “visitors” to fit more comfortably. I entered from the living area, in which the coal pot was going.

Cooking took place in the tunnels

Cooking took place in the tunnels

It was hot outside and even hotter inside. The “smoke” from the cooking caused my eyes to burn and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. (Smoke from cooking underground was channeled and extracted, at night, from the tunnel in several areas resembling termite hills which were far from living areas.)

Termite Hill?

Termite Hill?

The tunnel ceilings are low so that most people cannot stand upright and must crouch in an uncomfortable position.

The widened tunnel is still  small and narrow.  The Vietnamese did not have torches either.

The widened tunnel is still small and narrow. The Vietnamese did not have torches either.

Although smaller visitors to the tunnels find walking through the tunnels not too difficult, it must be remembered that they have been enlarged. Moving through the tunnels would have been a pretty nasty experience for even the smallest individuals.

HCMC: Foodie Tour

17 Mar

Later in the evening of the HCMC sights tour, I joined XO tours again for their night time foodie tour.

I had already had Pho, pronounced (Fah), arguably the national dish of Vietnam, in Ha Noi but it was at the mini-chain, Pho 24.  It was nice but not great.  Fortunately, my colleague Jason had kindly given me some tips of what he considered to be the best Pho places in HCMC, Pho Anh and Pho Hoa, where the Pho was truly delicious.

Pho Anh from Phi Hua on Pasteur Street

Pho from Pho Hua on Pasteur Street

 

District 1 –  Bún bò Huế

However, the guys at XO insisted that Bún bò Huế, which we tried in District 1, would be better.  The name derives from Bun (rice vermicelli), Bo (beef) and Hue, where this style of soup originated.  The soup has different noodles to Pho (cylindrical rather than flat) and is made with beef and pork.  It is similar in style to Thai food, with a balance of sweet, salt, sour and hot.  The broth is prepared by simmering beef bones and beef shank with lemongrass and then seasoned with fermented shrimp or fish sauce and sugar for taste. Spicy chilli oil is added later during the cooking process and at the end, along with herbs and other condiments.

Bun Bo Hue

Bun Bo Hue

 

District 5 – Chinatown

Our second stop was Chinatown, at the Binh Tay market, a short bike ride through traffic, from District 1.

View from the bike

View from the bike on the way to Chinatown

This is a huge market in District 5, which sells wholesale goods and therefore is not focused on foreign tourists.  There are several sections to the market, each selling a different type of goods, such as household items, dried goods etc.

Binh Tay Market, Chinatown

Binh Tay Market, Chinatown

 

District 8 – Lau De 3Q – Do it yourself BBQ

Lau de 3Q

Lau de 3Q

 

We then moved on to an outdoor barbecue in District 8, where we tried, among other dishes, barbecued goat breast.  (Note that the number 3 is pronounced “Ba”, so 3Q is pronounced Ba-Cue – i.e. BBQ.)  The goat is softened by marinating in fermented tofu and then barbecued directly at the table.  Marinated Ochro is grilled alongside this and it is served with a dip of more fermented tofu and chilli oil.

Barbecue in action

Barbecue in action

 

Ochro, fermented tofu and chilli oil, green kumquat with chilli salt

Ochro, fermented tofu and chilli oil, green kumquat with chilli salt

 

We also had barbecued squid and prawns and of course, frog legs

Frogs Legs

Frogs Legs

 

District 7

We next passed through District 7, with its wide tree-lined streets, where a large expat community lives.

As there are hardly any police in the area, I was able to jump on the bike.

Crazed bike rider

Crazed bike rider

 

District 4 – Seafood (and duck embryos)

Finally we ended up at District 4, where we stop for seafood among other things.  We had barbecued quail, crayfish cooked in chilli salt,

Crayfish with Chilli Salt

Crayfish with Chilli Salt

scallops with lemongrass and chilli,

Scallops

Scallops

Very revolting duck embryos, which I refused to eat,

Duck Embryos

Duck Embryos

 

and Clams in spicy broth.

Clams

Clams

 

We also had the nicest desserts that I had in Vietnam – coconut jelly, served in a whole coconut.

Dessert

Dessert

First, the coconut water is set with agar-agar – it was sweet so may have had sugar added.  This is then topped with coconut cream, also set with agar-agar.  The result is an attractive, light dessert, with clean flavours.

Coconut Jelly

Coconut Jelly

I went back to the hotel, having enjoyed the food in Saigon. Well except for the embryos…

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) – The Sights

15 Mar

XO XO

Having learnt from my time in Ha Noi, when I found the city difficult to penetrate, I decide to sign up for two half day tours in HCMC with XO tours (http://xotours.vn/).  XO Tours are a small company, whose tours usually include a lead tour guide, with detailed and in-depth knowledge, an assistant who rides alongside and the female bikers, who also have good local knowledge.  I sign up for “The Sights” tour in the morning, and “The Foodie” tour in the evening.

The Sights

I arrange to meet my driver at the Opera House.

The Opera House

The Opera House

After meeting her, I jump on the back of the bike with my heart in my mouth and set off for Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office.

My driver

My driver

Notre Dame is a catholic church built by the French in Saigon.  It has Sunday mass in English and Vietnamese.  Unusually for a church, its doors are not all open.  Our guide explains that as several generations of a family may live in a single house, young couples are always looking for a place to meet.  The side doors to the church are kept shut to avoid any untoward incidents.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Inside the Cathedral

Inside the Cathedral

The Old Post Office can be found opposite the Cathedral. The building was constructed in the early 20th Century and was designed by the French architect, Gustave Eiffel.

The Old Post Office

The Old Post Office

Inside the Post Office

Inside the Post Office

Reunification palace

The Reunification Palace was also known as the Independence Palace and was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates.

Reunification Palace

Reunification Palace

Reunification Palace

Reunification Palace

In 1954, after the French surrendered to the Việt Minh they withdrew their troops from Vietnam. According to the Geneva accords, to which France was a signatory, Vietnam would be divided for two years, until 1956. The 17th Parallel would act as the temporary border until a vote based on universal suffrage was held to establish a unified Vietnamese government. North Vietnam was under the control of the Việt Minh communists, while South Vietnam was under the anti-communist State of Vietnam.   Instead, in September of that year, the Palace was handed over to the prime minister of the State of Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm, by the French.

In 1955, Diệm declared himself president of the newly proclaimed Republic of Vietnam (after a fraudulent referendum) and renamed the building the Independence Palace.

Diem was widely hated and in February 1962, two pilots of Diệm’s Vietnam Air Force, rebelled and bombed the palace, instead of going on a raid against the Việt Cộng.  Diệm and his family escaped the assassination attempt. As it was almost impossible to restore the palace, he ordered it demolished and commissioned a new building in its place.

Diệm and his ruling family moved to what is now the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. However, he did not see the building completed as he and his brother (and chief adviser) were assassinated after a coup d’état led by General Dương Văn Minh in November 1963. Legend has it that they had negotiated their peaceful release but his brother was incapable of acting in a civil manner and began abusing Van Minh’s troops as he was being released.  One of the generals lost it and assassinated them both.

In April 1975, a tank of the North Vietnamese Army bulldozed through the main gate, ending the Vietnam War.  In November 1975, after the negotiation convention between the communist North Vietnam and their colleagues in South Vietnam was completed, the Provisional Revolutionary Government renamed the palace Reunification Hall.

Pittman Apartments

The famous picture, shown in the link below, was thought to have been of the final evacuation of the US Embassy at the fall of Saigon.  In fact, it was the last chopper leaving the “secret” CIA headquarters, the Pittman building.

http://mcgarnagle.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/saigon-helicopter-large.jpg

Clearly the long line of people waiting would not get on this helicopter.  They waited for hours but none returned.  They had worked for the Americans in Saigon and would be classed as traitors for doing so.  No-one really knows what happened to those people afterward.  If they managed to survive, they would not be admitting the work that they had done.

This is a picture of the Pittman Apartments today.  The building is very likely to be demolished to make way for a shiny new building of the new Saigon, like that shown across the road.

The roof at the Pittman Apartments

The roof at the Pittman Apartments

The link below is an article written by the Dutch photographer Hubert van Es about that day and the subsequent events.

http://www.mishalov.com/Vietnam_finalescape.html

Jade Emperor Pagoda

This is a Taoist Pagoda, built by the Chinese in .  It is also known as the Tortoise Pagoda.  People buy tortoises at the entrance to the pagoda and release them into the tortoise ponds, to signify the release of life.  Unfortunately baby tortoises are often eaten by any larger adult tortoises that may remain in the pond.

The Turtle Pagoda

The Turtle Pagoda

Tan Dinh Market

We went to the Tan Dinh Market in Saigon.  They were selling food items (frogs, clams, herbs, fish pork, dried shrimp), dry goods as well as clothes and souvenirs.  We stopped at a stall to have some yoghurt, which was delicious and slightly sweet and crème caramel, served the Vietnamese way with black coffee.

Creme Caramel with coffee

Creme Caramel with coffee and ice

Thich Quan Duc

At our last stop, we visit the statue of a monk, Thich Quang Duc, who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June 1963.  The 6.3m bronze statue features Thich Quang Duc sitting in a flame and was built in 2007.  Quang Duc was protesting against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government led by Ngo Dinh Diem. Photos of his self-immolation were circulated across the world and brought attention to the policies of the Diệm government. After his death, his body was re-cremated, but his heart remained intact.

Thich Quan Duc

Thich Quan Duc

Coffee!

Having survived my first day driving through Vietnamese traffic, I celebrated with a fabulous Vietnamese coffee at Trung Nguyen coffee shop near the corner of Le Loi and Pasteur.

Vietnamese style iced coffee

Vietnamese style iced coffee