Friday, March 18, 2011

Native history in a foreign land

Yesterday morning we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's most populated city.  Our stay in Hanoi prepared us somewhat for the blur of motorbikes cruising in packs here down the busy streets.  The motorized scooters are people's main form of trasport.  It's estimated that there are 8 million people and 4 million motorbikes in the city.  Crossing the street is a leap of faith.  If you wait for a clearing and carefully look both directions as you've been told to do since learning to walk, you'd be waiting forever.  After Hanoi we learned to walk slowly and steadily so that the drivers can swerve around us.  It works best to keep the same pace and resist the tempation to run which would be counterproductive. 

The overnight train from Nha Trang was decent (so much better than the bus!), although neither or us slept much.  Bleary eyed and amazed at the scooter traffic, we found a taxi to take us to "budget alley" where we found a room, dropped off our stuff, and headed out in search of some Vietnamese coffee.  It's amazing.  A personal steel filter sits atop a small mug where the grounds brew coffee on the spot.  The drink is thick and rich, with a glob of sweet condensed milk to take some of the edge off.  We began our day feeling energized.

Taking directions from the Ho Chi Minh City walking tour, we started at an indoor market.  We we were amazed at all of the beautiful crafts and fresh foods for sale.  We made our way past the Opera House, the beautiful Hotel De Ville and stopped to look around at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.  There were artifacts from various periods throughout history and information on the customs and traditions of Southern Vietnam.

Taking advantage of the midday break during which most museums and buildings are closed, we stopped for lunch and refreshing frozen yogurt.

Next was the War Remnants Museum, proving very hard to digest.  The first floor walls were covered with protest stories and photos.  Communist propaganda was heavily present.  The next floors gruesomely detailed America's part in the war.  There were disturbing blurbs, images and statistics about its events and aftermath.

The whole museum was understandably one-sided considering our location.  Most of the foreign tourists we've encountered are French, Russian, Australian and British.  Americans traveling here is much more rare.  We continued to the Reunification Palace.  This is the former White House of the South, housing an underground bomb shelter for the president.  The building was called the Independence Palace until it was taken over by the North and "reunified" hence the new name.

Today we took a tour an hour outside of the city to the Củ Chi Tunnels. It was fascinating to see where so many people lived underground during the war.  The entrance to the living spaces were impossible to notice.  They were tiny openings covered with leaves and debris.  A kitchen stove's smoke went through three underground chambers before emitting into an area ten feet away under the jungle floor to remain undetected.

Ryan and I climbed into the tunnels, nine feet underground.  They have since been slightly widened for Westerners, but are still so narrow it's only possible to get through them by hunching over almost in a crawl.  Needless to say they're not for the clausterphobic.  The mere 40 yards we scooted along were difficult, but priceless in beginning to understand how the "Củ Chi Guerillas" lived.  Various intricate and deadly traps and weaponry were on display.  For a snack we tried what our guide called "Củ Chi Hamburger," dense tapioca root dipped in a mixture of salt, sugar, sesame and peanuts.

The tour finished with a documentary on the area.  It named US soldiers "crazy devils" and portrayed them as soulless human beings intending to kill civilians.  Hard to take.

Tonight we enjoyed one last glimpse of scooter traffic and our final Vietnamese meal.  We tried Bánh xèo.  The manager gave us a lesson on how to wrap lettuce and various flavorful greens around pieces of the thin and flaky crepe filled with meat and veggies, then dip the wrap into a tangy fish sauce.  All of the staff were extremely friendly and most spoke English.  One went as far as reciting our area code when we told him we were from Oregon.  We couldn't pass up a small sampling of dessert from the buffet.  A floating cake with coconut milk and a banana cake stood out from the rest.

In a few hours we'll be on our way to Cambodia.  We'll spend a brief day in the capital Pnohm Penh, then we're on to Siem Reap and the amazing Angkor.

We'll miss you Vietnam!

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