Getting off the plane in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, I was very nervous again, especially when I saw a sign with my name on once we got off the plane. The man took my passport and paperwork and told me to take a seat. The rest of our group went off to get their visas processed. This was a very worrying time for me as I thought I was about to be put on a plane back! It was a long process of waiting for the officials to get all the paperwork done. Eventually we made it through and our driver with our minibus was waiting to take us to the hotel. We stayed at the Renaissance in down town Ho Chi Minh City which has a fabulous pool on its rooftop!
We all enjoyed a delicious lunch at the hotel – I love Vietnamese Pho, which is a noodle/bean sprout/beef soup that is divine. I think I will be living on that for the week! The best thing about Pho is that you can have it in so many different ways and you control the flavor. It is usually served quite simply with the rice noodles submerged in special meat broth with your choice of meat on top. A separate side plate allows you to add as many or as little of the bean sprouts, onions, basil leaves, lemon, chilli and coriander to your liking.
Off to explore the city in the afternoon – we walked from the hotel around alot of the streets and into the main Lunar New Year display (can’t call it Chinese New Year in Vietnam!!). Of course, many places were closed because of this celebration, but everywhere had beautiful flower displays and therefore, good photo opportunities.
New year decorations are just like our christmas lights but with flowers, corn, and other symbols to highlight the start of spring. It was wonderful to see everything lit up – it really does extend the holiday season! It is very hot in Vietnam and the kids had had enough after 2 hours so it was back to the hotel to take advantage of the roof top swimming pool. All 4 children had plenty of fun here – they are all water babies. The hotel recommended a restaurant for dinner for us and it was very good. We ordered a lot of dishes that we could all share and everything was delicious. Isabelle and Oliver were adventurous and tried some new things too! We were even entertained by a local playing on a musical instrument.
The following morning, our driver picked us up to start our 90 minute drive to the north of HCMC to visit the tunnels at Cu Chi. It was a bumpy ride as the roads are terrible! One of my over-whelming memories of Vietnam will definitely be the scooters and motorcycles. They outnumber any other vehicle by at least 20-1 and they crowd the roads loaded with everything from huge packages of toilet paper, plants to live animals to families of four with joyful toddlers and sleeping babies who manage to stay on these 2 wheeled vehicles with apparent ease. I was very happy to see that 95% of all riders were wearing helmets. Many of these were also wearing masks or had wrapped their heads in towels or sheets too!
The tunnels of Cu Chi are a network of connecting underground tunnels located in a district to the north of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that span across the country. It is rumoured that the tunnel network is over 250KM. The Cu Chi tunnels were the location of many military campaigns during the Vietnam War (the locals call it the American War) and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tet Offensive in 1968. The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped achieve ultimate military success. For the Viet Cong and Vietnamese locals, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, Vietnamese soldiers and fighters would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and only come out at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds.
This was an incredibly moving experience. I could not believe the engineering, architectural miracle that was created over many years. In some places, the tunnels are 4 levels deep and include deep fresh water wells, cooking, sleeping, and even hospital set ups. The secret tunnels, which joined village to village and often passed beneath American bases, were not only fortifications for Viet Cong guerillas, but were also the center of community life. Hidden beneath the destroyed villages were underground schools and public spaces where couples were married and private places where lovers met. There were even theaters inside the tunnels where performers entertained with song and dance and traditional stories. Having previously held the belief that these tunnels were created during the Vietnam War, it was eye opening to discover that the network was actually started decades earlier during the French occupation of Vietnam. The tunnels were extended and built out during the conflict in the 1960’s. Even more amazing to me was the fact that this complex system was built with bare hands and bamboo shovels.
It was horrendous to see the traps that were set for the enemy – so evil with lots of bamboo sticks, covered pits and nasty ways of trapping people. Having lived in America for so long and interacted with many US Vets of this war, it was also interesting to hear the other side. As in any situation there are always 3 versions – his story, her story and the truth, which is usually somewhere in the middle. In summary (in my humble opinion), this was a horrific period in time with no real winners, a tremendous loss of life and has left a lasting impression on both sides of the world. Even in times of peace, the tunnels continue to serve as an enduring tribute to the sheer human will to live and Vietnamese peasants’ wartime ingenuity.
One of the trap doors into the tunnel system. You can see the size of the opening compared with Isabelle’s shoes.
The experience of crawling through these tunnels was unforgettable. Even though the tunnels at Cu Chi have been “westernized” – made larger for western people to get through and with low level lights installed, it was still a heart thumping, stomach churning adventure. Oliver did one tunnel run and then did not want to go back down. Isabelle and I (along with Jenny, Dan and Luke) went down as many as our guide showed us. Some of them were long, dark and required getting on hands and knees. It was claustrophobic, dirty, dark, dusty and muddy. I highly recommend it!
After the tunnel adventure it was time to wander back through the jungle to meet our driver. Along the way we had the opportunity to see a local making flip flops out of discarded tyres! We could also try some of the simple food that was eaten during the War. All of the kids loved the fresh coconuts here!
Next stop was at the Firing Range (a very short drive from the tunnels). We wanted to have a go at firing AK47’s. It costs about $1 per bullet to fire and so we bought 8 bullets to share among us. Oliver was too small to reach and John did not want to go. That left the ladies, Dan, Luke and Owen. As Owen had fired many of these when he was in the Army, he was very helpful in setting everything up for us. It was very loud!!
Our hotel had recommended and booked a restaurant for us to have lunch at. This was about 30 minutes from the tunnels on the way back to the hotel in HCMC. Our van pulled up into an idyllic place and we were very excited about more local food. Especially me, as I cannot get enough Pho!! We were a little suspicious that there were no cars or people around. True enough, once we walked over the bridge to the restaurant, a man came out and told us he was shut because of Lunar New Year. Our driver tried to explain that we had a reservation that had just been made that morning, but it was obvious that we were not going to eat there that day!
We decided to go back to the hotel for a very late lunch and more pool time to relax.
The next morning was the start of our relaxing break at the beach. The only thing that stood between us and that was the long, boring 5 hour car journey. It is only 114 miles (according to Google Maps) but because the roads are so bad, the entire trip was done at about 35 MPH at top speed! We had considered taking the train, but colleagues of mine who have travelled extensively in ASIA, advised against this in Vietnam. Apparently, the local kids all throw stones and rocks at the passing trains so all the windows are boarded up. You cannot see out and you are stuck for an equal length of time to a car journey with many other people. At least, when we had a driver we could stop at our request and also see some of the beautiful scenery of this lovely Country.
There are rest areas set up at regular intervals along the road. Each of these has a shady hammock sleeping area.
Our driver was constantly on the horn – beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, every time we overtook a scooter/motorcycle. As I already said that these outnumber cars by 20 to 1, the horn feels non-stop and became quite irritating. We stopped for lunch where I had …….. Pho!!
Eventually we got closer to the ocean and passed through some lovely little villages. There is much evidence of a land trying to re-invent itself and compete in the 21st century. It is obviously still a very poor nation and it is hard to see so much of that on the sides of the roads. But, the Vietnamese people are wonderful – very friendly, always smiling and a warm, welcoming race.
We arrived in Mui Ne on the coast in the late afternoon and met the owner of “Villa Panda” who showed us all the facilities of this lovely Villa on a golf course by the ocean. This would be our home for the next 5 days. He also took John and I shopping to buy some staples to keep us going. He kept a running commentary going with restaurant and bar recommendations, shopping and beach access. Once back at the Villa we quickly unpacked and settled in. Time to explore!
Tourism has transformed Mui Ne into a resort destination since 1995, when many visited to view the total solar eclipse in 1995. It has many resorts on the beach, as well as restaurants, bars and cafes. Mui Ne is a popular destination for Russian tourists, and many of the restaurants and resorts are Russian-owned. The strong sea breezes make this the kite surfing capital of the world. None of the beaches are crowded and I love that feeling of space when you are relaxing.
The town has a Florida feel to my mind. It is very casual and relaxed. Our villa is lovely – 4 double bedrooms, so perfect for our 2 families of 4. The kitchen and living room are spacious and open. We could walk to the beach but it would be a long uphill return and it is only a 5 minute car journey.
The golf course has a 5 star hotel which has a luxury recreational area with a pool system of 5 interconnecting pools. Our next few days were spent alternating between the beach and these pools. It was very relaxing.
Jenny and I bought some boogie boards for the kids. These were a big hit and not only with the children. All the adults couldn’t resist either. The waves were perfect for this – large enough for fun for all, without being too rough for our littlest man!
After a very relaxing stay in Villa Panda in Mui Ne, it was time to return back to HCMC for our flight to Hong Kong. John & Jenny and their kids were an absolute delight to be away with and I can’t wait for our next adventure!
It was another horrendous 5 hour trip in the car, but this time we started it at 4.30am to make our flight time. It was lovely to watch the sun come up and see so many people going to church at 5:00am – they were packed. I was very surprised to see so many Christian churches – I guess that is the consequence of prolonged European influence. The French baguettes in Vietnam were also some of the best I have tasted! We passed field after field of dragon fruit growing. I thought this was marijuana as all the plants had lights around them! In stopping for the toilet on the way back, it also is apparent that squat toilets are not unique to China!
A fantastic Chinese New Year for all us!