Vietnam-Cambodia-Thailand, Day 1, Part 1: Of egg shells, claustrophobia, and bun moc (Cu Chi Tunnels and downtown Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam)

Needless to say, I love to travel. Aside from the thrill of exploring the world and experiencing what it has to offer, I think largely it’s because of the escapist in me. It’s the need to run away from it all. It’s the yearning for that space and time where bills, work and problems don’t exist. It’s that fleeting moment of freedom from the same worries that will still be there when one returns.

The trip I had just almost a couple of weeks back fulfilled all of those desires. It was perfect.

All pumped up for a life-changing trip...

Ever since some of my HP friends went on a Southeast Asia backpacking trip a few years back, I’ve promised myself I’ll do the same as soon as I can. That became a reality after a flight we booked last November, as usual thanks to Cebu Pacific’s seat sale, and a group of eager, “May seat sale? Tara!”-type of teammates I have now.

Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh City. It was more of a passageway for me than a destination, to be honest – the real target for me was Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat which was the second leg of the trip – so I wasn’t really excited about what Vietnam will bring. Fortunately, I was proven wrong.

We arrived at Duc Vuong Hotel around half an hour past 1 AM. We were greeted with this as we entered our rooms:

Hello Kitty popcorn! In fairness, this was good...

I know right? Quirky and surprisingly, delish (as we would discover after tasting the Kettle Corn-ish popcorn.). There wasn’t much to do by that time aside from freshening up, settling down and calling it a night. Besides, we needed to be up early for a (relatively) unplanned day.

We woke up and were ready to go about at around 6 AM the same day and proceeded to the hotel’s buffet breakfast. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in my photog mode just yet so I wasn’t able to snap pictures of the breakfast spread. It was glorious, yes, but it was also the first major indication that I wouldn’t be on a diet for that 5-day trip. Bacon. Sausages. Cream puffs. Green noodles. Dragon fruit. A rather chocolate-y coffee (Vietnamese coffee is goooooooood.). Epic diet fail but major vacation win. Hehe.

We then proceeded to the tour desk inside the hotel itself to arrange our Cu Chi Tunnel trip. Because of our uber tight schedule, this was the only official tour we planned ahead. We decided the remaining part of the day would be spent on an ad-hoc, self-guided city tour. The half day tour, which included two-way transport and entrance fees for five and a side trip to a handicrafts store, set us back 1,030,000 VND. Yup. No typos there.

On our way to the Cu Chi district, we passed by this:

Jollibee trumps McDonald's. Our very own at HCMC. :)

We shared a van with four other tourists, by the way, and we instantly knew one of them was Pinay based from her reaction upon seeing Jollibee. Sayang we were already in the highway when we saw it. We would’ve eaten there for sure if we had the chance…

After an hour or so, and after passing by a series of rubber tree plantations (neatly aligned rubber trees were a sight), we arrived at Handicapped Handicrafts. If I heard Eli correctly (he was our tour guide by the way), the shop employs differently-abled locals to work on art pieces that are of export quality. I told my friends that the tour of the place was a good example of clever marketing. First they lead you to the workshop area where you see people working on their craft and very meticulously at that. I was very, very impressed especially with the careful setting of broken goose egg shells to form visual patterns. Amazing hand work. Guests are then led to a gallery that displays all of the different varieties of art that the shop produces: simple souvenirs, plates, vases, murals, wooden slippers, ornaments, and the works. The craftsmanship was evident in all of the pieces. Very impressive. I really contemplated on buying something but eventually decided against it due to luggage concerns.

One of the classics in the store. Amazing attention to detail. All of those specks are egg shells!; Goose egg shells meticulously mounted on a canvas. Patience much?; Clever, albeit cheesy, play on words.; The gallery.

I think we spent a good half hour there before we were called back to proceed to the Cu Chi Tunnels. We reached the historic place after just a few minutes. I didn’t know what to expect then. Prior to the trip, I just saw some pictures from another teammate who recently visited the place and that was it. As the tour progressed, especially after the video before we departed, I was deeply affected.

Poster girls (and boy)!

Cu Chi is one of those places that you have to really experience to get to know what it really is about. It’s very surreal. You wouldn’t believe the fear and panic I felt when we were traversing the 20-meter underground tunnel. I’m not claustrophobic by any means, but that short time I was crawling that tunnel was a harrowing experience. There were longer 40- and 60-meter tunnels but I was too afraid to try it. Seeing the booby traps was also something. Aside from the anxiety caused by the imagery of American soldiers unknowingly stepping into these cleverly deceptive set-ups, it sparked an almost instant appreciation of Vietcong’s creativity, skill and innovativeness. (By the way, Cha, Vietcong did not come from Vietnam plus Hong Kong. Hahaha! It’s actually a contraction of the Vietnamese translation of the words “Vietnam communist”.)

Oh hello there stealthy underground tunnel entrance...

Uh oh!

That's a real, abandoned, defeated American war tank right there.

All smiles moments before the harrowing 20-meter crawl...

There was a shooting range inside the compound too and Maan bravely decided to give it a shot (pun intended). I know, I know… Us guys did not try it. Lousy, right? But, in fairness to us, we supported her. Jason and I were behind her when she shot her rounds. :)

Ikaw na Maan!

The tour ended with a short film about the Vietnam War. It focused on how Cu Chi was before the war – in essence, perfect – and how the war changed it. The stories of the affected women and children, all the destruction brought about by human conflict and all the lives that were lost touched a nerve. How could men inflict so much pain on others? How would I have dealt with it if I was born during that time? Why go through all of that in the first place? Is there really a justification for war?

I personally left the place thankful that I did not have to live in that era in humanity’s history and hopeful that no one in the future will be subjected to anything remotely near what we just learned about.

It was a good hour past normal lunch hour by that time. We were really hungry already but we had to wait another hour to get back to HCMC proper. We were bummed that the tour organizers had to stop by a souvenir shop that had pesky wait staff. We eventually reached the hotel minutes past two in the afternoon. Everyone just freshened up a bit and we were off again to grab late lunch.

The search for lunch was a blind one. We were resolved that we were to eat at a sidewalk but we did not have an idea where to go. Good thing we spotted this nondescript stall just beside Saigon Square. Believe it or not, there was only one item in the menu. It was a Sunday and it was bun moc day. We didn’t have any idea what it was, and Cha had hesitations if she was going to have some. Add the fact that the lady who manages the stall barely spoke any English and you have the perfect tourist dilemma: to eat or not to eat? Thank heavens we decided to do the former.

Bun moc: Hands down the best chow of the entire cross-country trip.

The bun moc we had was arguably the best food I ate for the entire SEA trip. Yup, that includes the scrumptious meals we had at Cambodia and Thailand. It was just so tasty! The soup – I drool now just being reminded of it – was perfectly rich. The greens and herbs intensified the earthy flavors and the various pieces of processed meat (all of which we had no idea what they were made of) offered a welcome addition of texture and taste. So unlike any pho I’ve tasted here in Manila. The charm and authenticity of eating where the locals ate without any of the pretensions of a fancy restaurant was a bonus too. And oh, it was dirt cheap! Just 27,000 VND for the entire meal with drinks! That iced coffee? The best of all we tried in the three countries as well. Two words my friends: lunch jackpot!

Hands down the best iced coffee with milk of the entire cross-country trip.

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring HCMC’s default tourist spots. We first looked around Saigon Square for the elusive original TNF bag to no avail. We then walked across the street and saw an Adidas outlet store where Leah bought Glen’s World Cup ball and where Anthony impulsively bought running shoes. (Come to think of it, he also impulsively bought underwear sold on the sidewalks after that. Hahaha!) We then moved to Ben Thanh Market where we serendipitously bumped into fellow Pinoys who pointed us to stores that sell cheap ass TNF bags. Now while I’m not one to endorse fakes, how can you resist 65L technical bags that are worth 500 Philippine pesos? And they had it in orange! Wala lang… We continued walking downtown and passed by the Reunification Palace (Until now I’m not sure what got reunified. The North and South perhaps?), the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Saigon Central Post Office, before finally going back home for dinner.

One of the default HCMC destinations: Ben Thanh Market. TNF bags anyone?

Reunification Palace. Google knows what exactly was reunified. :)

Ho Chi Minh City IS motorcycle city.

How about some okra for a snack?

I <3 this picture.

In front of the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica.

Easily the grandest post-office I've ever seen. I guess e-mail penetration rate is low in HCMC?

***

Up next: Dinner “We are family!“-style, KFC, bowling and Bitexco Financial Tower.

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About Paolo
Paolo Mandingiado is a guy in his 20′s who loves to write about – you guessed it – food, places, passions and life. He is an IT professional and keeps himself busy by running road races, practicing yoga, playing badminton, continuously learning, going places and attempting to live life to the fullest.

One Response to Vietnam-Cambodia-Thailand, Day 1, Part 1: Of egg shells, claustrophobia, and bun moc (Cu Chi Tunnels and downtown Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam)

  1. Pingback: Of rituals, cabbages and the real deal (Yabu: House of Katsu) « The Paolo Project

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