Day 1 – Ho Chi Minh City
This was the first full day in the city. I had had a pleasant night’s sleep, and was ready to press on. I found a booklet in my room about trips which the hotel ran, including one which had been recommended to me by the Australian couple on the cruise I went on. These were the Cui Chi tunnels, which the North Vietnamese used during the war. I asked at the reception on my way out that morning after breakfast, expecting the trip to be the following day, but no, they told me to return at 1pm for the trip.
I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go. I wanted to go and see the cathedral and the old post office, and get an idea of the city and what it was like. The map in my guide book was not too bad, especially because I did not get a map from the hotel. And so, after breakfast, I set out. I had a rough idea of how to get to the cathedral, and was counting the roads as I did so, following my map. It was closer, than I thought it would be, and closer than the map implied.
This cathedral was not like Hanoi’s; it was a completely different style, and the inside was a lot plainer, less impressive. The post office, which was immediately next to it, was still used as a post office, but inside there were impressive maps and telephone exchanges. There were also souvenir shops inside, where I bought a t-shirt (of the Vietnamese flag – red with a yellow star on it), and some post cards. I also sent those I bought in Hanoi.
After this, I went to the Independence Palace. This was very close to both the cathedral and the post office. The palace was where the South Vietnamese president lived during the 1960s, and was full of period furniture. There was even a helicopter on the roof which was how the president came and went.
After this, I stopped at a nearby restaurant for lunch before returning to the hotel for 1pm. I was then taken to a local tour company and got on the bus with everyone else to go to the tunnels. I had to pay when I paid for my room at the hotel. The tour has an English speaking guide, but it was sometimes difficult to understand what they were saying because of their heavy accent and also the microphone system on the bus.
The tunnels were about an hour or two away. On the way, we stopped at a lacquer factory, where there were many lacquer goods, and we briefly saw a demonstration of how they were made (Tintin seems to be a popular topic here. I’d already seen several lacquer plates in the post office in the centre of HCM of Tintin, and there were more here too).
We then arrived at the tunnels. They were in the middle of the woods, although originally the tunnels were far, far longer. I befriended another Australian couple who had befriended an older American woman – who, it turned out later, was an English teacher in California, called Lynne. The tunnel system itself was interesting, particularly as we got to crawl through the tunnels ourselves. We could get out of them at 20, 40, 60 or 100 metres. The Australian guy got out at 60 metres. I also got there, as did his girlfriend, whilst Lynne and some of the others went on to 100 metres. In all honesty, my thighs were aching – I obviously don’t do enough squats. You really had to crawl through the tunnels on your hands and knees and so was not the most comfortable experience in the world.
What was perhaps particularly impressive was the hidden tunnels throughout the area. There was a small patch of ground, with leaves covering it, but actually hid the entrance to a very small hole.
We were then taken to watch a short film about the tunnels, before we left. My hotel was about a five minute walk away from the pick up/drop off point for the bus. Most people got off one stop before that. Lynne was a little lost. So I walked with her back to her hotel (we first walked in the wrong direction before figuring out where we were and walking in the right one). She was particularly interested in my job as she was tired of teaching in California but still enjoyed teaching and was interested in teaching in Asia. We exchanged details in case she had any questions, and I stopped at a local restaurant for food before returning to the hotel. It was about 8 pm now, if not later.