September 16-19, 2016
Our workaway host Dung introduced us to several of her friends in Can Tho. After spending some time with her friend Jenny, Jenny invited us to take a short 3 day trip with her and three of her friends to Son Island. We set off on our 4 hour scooter road trip through the countryside to reach Rach Gia, a port city on the coast where we planned to take a ferry the following morning to Son Island. The drive was beautiful until we hit some roads in poor conditions. They were riddles with potholes and mud puddles. Trying to avoiding some of the treacherous pits, our tire hit a pot hole and we took a spill. Only a few minor bumps and scratches thankfully, but our friend Jenny wasn't as lucky.
About 15 minutes later we saw Jenny's bike turned on its side on the shoulder of the road. We quickly pulled over and found her at the family owned restaurant on the side of the road. She was clutching her finger and it was bleeding everywhere. A man from the restaurant took her on his scooter to the nearest medical clinic, fortunately only five minutes away. We were left with her friends, who only spoke Vietnamese, and we did not have a clue what was going on, where Jenny went, if we should wait for her, go to the clinic....Her friends went to work righting her bike and trying to get it to work. We followed them to a repair shop to drop off the bike and then to the clinic. We found Jenny in good spirits, though she was shaken up and scratched up, she was cleaned and bandaged. The doctor said she would lose the nail on her middle finger. She had lost control of her bike while trying to avoid a dog that had a ran into the street. The rest of the drive to Rach Gia was uneventful (thankfully!).
Getting Too Far Off of the Beaten Path
The following morning we set out to the port around 6:30am to catch the three-hour Ferry to Son Island. Buying tickets was a breeze. Traveling with people who speak the native language is really convenient! While sitting on the boat we noticed that we were not only the only tourists on the boat, but also the only tourists in the entire harbor.
We popped some Dramamine in preparation for the voyage and continued to wait for the boat to depart, until we were approached by uniformed officers. They did not speak a lick of English but Jenny communicated with them for us. Apparently we did not have the proper paper work to visit the island. Because we would be leaving Vietnam and going into open waters we needed some kind of special permission that we clearly did not have. Jenny went back and forth with the officers for several minutes with no luck. She was heart broken when she realized it was not going to work out for us. She insisted she leave the boat and join us back in Rach Gia, but we insisted that she go with her friends and enjoy the trip. Reluctantly she was convinced and we said our goodbyes. I guess sometimes it's possible to get 'too far' off of the beaten path.
We returned to our scooter and began our long journey back to Can Tho in order to get a bus to Ho Chi MInh City. We stopped along our route for some coffee. The coffee tasted different than usual and we realized we were trying our first fake coffee. Though Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee in the world, some places use fake coffee made of corn, soy beans, and who knows what else, because of the lower cost.
Ho Chi Minh City
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh after a 3.5- hour ride from Can Tho. Though renamed Ho Chi Mihn City after the fall of Saigon in honor of Hồ Chí Minh, the first leader of North Vietnam, the locals still largely refer to the city as Saigon.
In Ho Chi Minh City our hotel was located a block away from a large night life/bar scene, streets packed full of a monotonous blend of western restaurants, music and bars. (Fun fact: in Vietnam they serve their beer in a mug over ice with a straw. Sacrilegious to us, but openly embraced here.) Ho Chi Minh City was ok, but we weren't wowed. The traffic is intense, though expected. There's an average of one motorbike per every two people.
We had great difficulty trying to find local food and cheap street eats in Ho Chi Minh City. Though we managed to track some local delights down and have added Bahn Mi and Bo La Lot to our culinary cache. After being deprived of good bread for too long Banh Mi was a welcomed treat. The French staple, the baguette gets a Vietnamese twist when prepared with homemade mayonnaise/butter, sliced chili pepper, cilantro leaves, cucumber, a tangy-sweet daikon and carrot pickle, a drizzle of soy sauce and a variety of meats like, liver pâté, cold cuts, roasted chicken, grilled pork. We found a tiny cart grilling up pork sliders for their Bahn Mi and ordered one. Perfection.
Bo La Lot, a new favorite, consists of seasoned grilled rolls of minced beef wrapped up in wild betel leaf and char grilled on the barbecue. The plate the we ordered was served with rice noodles, pickled vegetables, herbs, lettuce and rice paper in order to wrap up the beef roll into a little spring roll. I'm sure the other customers in the restaurant were amused by our reaction to the array of food served to us as we went about trying to nibble on and determine what the plasticity sheets in front of us were. It was rice paper! Neither of us had seen it plain before.
War Remnants Museum
We visited the War Remnants Museum which contains several exhibits about the Vietnam War (as we know it), or American War, as it is referred to here. Many rooms included graphic photographs showing the devastation of the war. What stood out the most to me was the exhibit about the use and effects of Agent Orange and chemical defoliant sprays. Dozens of photos captured the crippling physical and mental birth defects of those born to parents exposed to the chemical dioxin found in Agent orange. The effects of this chemical have been be found to continue to effect the family down to the fourth generation. Even though the war is long over, the effects of dioxin are still present, and the compromised quality of agricultural lands from chemical defoliants are still a reminder of the horrific war that claimed the lives of over a million Vietnamese.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are an hour and half drive from Ho Chi Minh City. We signed up for a tour and allowed ourselves to be bused and guided for a day. The tunnels span 250 kilometers, took 25 years to complete and were used by the Viet Cong (communists) during the war. The tunnels are a complex system complete with air holes, small entrances (Vietnamese sized, too small for Americans), and booby traps. As the US largely relied on aerial bombing. the Viet Cong were safe underground. They spent most of their time in the tunnels which grew to accommodate entire villages complete with kitchens, factories and hospitals. The US army, once aware of the tunnels sent men referred to as 'tunnel rats' into the tunnels but due to the booby traps, casualties were high. We had the chance to enter a small section of the tunnel and just few minutes down there was enough, they were hot cramped and uncomfortable, it's hard to comprehend how people lived their lives underground.