When I last left off, I was preparing for 2 days relaxing in Kampot. Those 2 days turned into 4 days filled with early morning and late afternoon swims, fresh fruit plates, new friends, bike rides, stuffed Kampot peppers, adorable kittens, stow-away frogs and late night carnivals.
Our bungalows were right on the riverfront, and each morning fellow travelers and I would gather around for conversation and breakfast, each taking turns diving, back flipping or cannonballing into the cool waters of the Kampot River. A select few would make the 25 minute round trip swim across the river, fighting both the currents and our own endurance levels. More often than not we’d take breaks, floating on our backs while the morning clouds moved slowly across the soft blue sky. It was peaceful and serene, other than the occasional passing fish nipping at our toes.
(Above : Relaxing afternoon on the river)
(Above: One of 5 bungalow kittens. This one’s name is James Brown)
(Above: Found this frog in my bag after a few nights in Kampot. He was originally in an unzipped pocket, nestled deep in my bag)
As much as I would have loved to have stayed longer, I had to keep moving. I have a self imposed deadline to get to Chiang Mai, Thailand again by mid April for the Songkran festival, which means some semblance of a schedule must be kept. With that in mind, my friend Amy and I hopped on a bus destined for Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). One extremely smooth border crossing and two Banh Bao (ball shaped dumplings filled with meat/eggs/onions and other good stuff) later, we rolled into HCMC, the largest city in all of Vietnam.
I was actually very excited to get back into a big city. I’ve been bouncing around from sleepy town to sleepy town, and it was refreshing to feel the energy that comes along with 6.6 million residents (and roughly 6.6 million motorbikes by my guess). We didn’t prearrange any accommodations, so off we went for another late night hostel search. As always, it’s easy enough. We talked up some fellow travelers who lead us down alley ways full of hostels and hotels eager for our business. We decided on a modern looking youth hostel, hauled our over-sized bags up 6 flights of stairs, and hit the town.
As most travelers are want to do, we ended up staying in District 1, which is the hub for foreign travelers in HCMC. The streets are filled with youthful backpackers lined up in small red chairs, drinking the night away. Couples walk hand in hand, transfixed by the sea of neon lights all around them. A never ending stream of motos weave in and out of traffic while locals do everything in their power to get your attention in the hopes you might, just might, buy their wares. The city is alive and electric, and you can’t help but feel excited for the possibilities to come.
(Above: Not the most efficient way to help a friend move, but it works)
For the first two days of HCMC, we decided to hit up the historical museum and take a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, a preserved area of the Viet Cong tunnels in which guests can learn about the war, see various booby traps, and actually crawl through a portion of the Viet Cong tunnel system used during guerrilla warfare. The War Remnants Museum was well organized and accessible, broken down into numerous sections ranging from agent orange, war protests around the world and war atrocities, just to name a few. It definitely peaked my interest in learning more about the war and I found myself on Wikipedia searching for more complete and balanced (to no surprise, the information you receive here is ripe with propaganda) history. All in all though, the museum is informative and a must do for anyone traveling here.
The second crash course in Vietnamese War history was the Cu Chi tunnels. Our guide was a former captain supporting the U.S. Navy during the war, so our tour was peppered with true stories about his time in the war. In fact, he fought at the very location he was now giving tours, so often his stories were about where we were currently standing. He did a fantastic job both detailing the positive and negative aspects of the Vietcong, and his admiration for their tactical warfare skills was obvious. He broke down how the tunnel systems worked, with their multiple levels, air vent systems and various escape routes. We discussed the Viet Cong’s abilities to hide their true numbers in battle, to blend in with the villages, and their ingenuity when creating weapons from scrap parts. It was truly fascinating.
The big finale (unless you count the chance to fire AK-47s as a big finale) is crawling through the tunnels themselves. There is a 100 meter long section of tunnel that has been preserved for this experience. Well, preserved might be the wrong word. They actually had to alter the size of the tunnels so westerners could fit in. Our guide said something about our fat asses not being able to fit otherwise. I can confirm this, because there was a point where I got stuck for a few seconds or so. Whatever, I’m big boned.
(Above: Learning about the Cu Chi region near Saigon during the war)
(Above: Our guide, mid story)
(Above: Testing out the tunnel sizes in which Viet Cong would pop out and attack U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers)
(Above: A tunnel entrance)
(Above: Down we go into the tunnels)
(Above: my favorite shot of the trip. I’ve only been in the tunnels for 5 minutes, but it looks like I’m coming out after 5 years of no food or exercise.)
On a lighter note, the food here in HCMC is fantastic. After discovering a website run by local residents on the best street foods in the city, I’ve been roaming the neighborhoods in search of recommended food stalls and nameless restaurants. Everything has been delicious, but the fruit cocktail mixed with yogurt, crushed ice and some sort of mystery orange sugar juice has captured my attention. More than likely, you can find me down an obscure alley way, sitting amongst 20 or so young Vietnamese, feverishly slurping down dragon fruit, mango, coconut, avocado, guava, watermelon, and strawberry. It doesn’t get much better than this.