“Get your whiskey, come on everybody!”
Our cheeky tour guide Lero revealed his terrible sense of humor early in the morning as he passed out water bottles. Without the motorcycles, the best way to get to the Cu Chi Tunnels was via a unmanageably large tour group. Two hours later, we filed out of the gargantuan tour bus as Lero reminded us, “Okay everybody, don’t forget your money or your honey.”
We were herded through the ticket turnstiles and along a path with hundreds of other tourists. The first attraction was a rectangular hole in the earth about 2′ wide and 1′ long that served as a tunnel entrance that the Viet Cong used during their guerrilla warfare against U.S. Troops. They had incredibly elaborate tactics for sneaking around the Americans and attacking from concealed positions. Lero allowed a few of us to lower ourselves into the dark void underneath the rectangular hole and attempt to crawl through to the other side of the tunnel. The ground was covered in dead leaves and dirt, and the ceiling was lined with miniature bats with eyes that glowed when my cellphone light turned in their direction. Needless to say, it was quite a relief to make it out on the other side.
The tunnels housed the civilian army, as well as their families. This required chambers to be made for cooking food, making weapons, attending to medical needs, and more–all deep underground.
Since most of these fighters were simple farmers, they used weapons that were traditionally meant for hunting animals, like poison-tipped spears in hidden pits or spiky trap doors in the earth.
Lero brought us to the entrance of another tunnel, and I assumed it would be just as uncomfortable as the first one. This one turned out to be much more strenuous and went on meter after meter for at least ten minutes of crawling and sweating in the cramped space. Finally we made it out and continued to sample some of the delicacies of the Viet Cong–potatoes and tea. With a new respect for the ingenuity of the Viet Cong, we headed back to the hotel in the city.
From the beginning of Phong Ngu Lao street to the end, there is easily over thirty establishments offering massages, manicures, and pedicures for prices under $5. I was a bit skeptical, but figured it was worth checking out, so Byron and I selected a parlor at random and were escorted upstairs to enjoy our massage. After being subjected to bruise-inducing pressure, head smacking, smelly pillows, and constantly chit-chatting “masseuses”, I wouldn’t have paid a cent more. However, I redeemed my spa experience up the street at a much more legitimate nail salon and had a lovely conversation with a nurse from Philly who was sitting in the chair next to mine.
Just before the sun dipped past the horizon, we speed-walked to the Alto Heli Bar, located on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Building. It was quite the process to get up to the bar, passing through security checks and several elevators, but the view of the city from the top was magnificent. We sipped our overpriced beer while admiring the city change from being swathed in golden sun to being blanketed in dusky black, drawing attention to the constant flow of red and white lights emanating from the constant traffic below.
For dinner, Byron was intent on finding a restaurant that serves dog, a common delicacy for Vietnam. At first I was not in the mood to go on a quest around the city, but I found an international grocery store that sold Tostitos and salsa, so I was perfectly content. After asking many locals, we eventually walked down a large alleyway that was supposedly the place that all the dog meat restaurants were located. Sure enough, the Vietnamese word “thit cay” was plastered across the menus and glass cases containing the meat. A friendly group of Vietnamese men waved us in and had us sit down at their table to drink rice wine with them. They ordered for us and continued to refill our glasses while laughing and smiling at us.
“Moat! High! Bo! Yooo!!”, they cheered (a common drinking chant).
The waiter placed the plates of meat in front of us, and it was accompanied with a distinct meaty smell that I’d never experienced before. I tried not to think about the origin of the meat as I tried it. It wasn’t too bad, maybe similar to thin pork, but I would never feel the need to try it again. Our Vietnamese table friends taught us how to wrap the meat inside a leaf with basil, lime juice, salt and pepper. At least then I couldn’t really taste the meat with all the other ingredients masking it. After thanking our friends for their generosity, we headed back to the hotel with warm feelings and a sense of gratefulness for having a special local experience.