Before going to our hotel we headed off to the Cu Chi tunnels
by MichaelJM on November 10, 2011
We’d been given a couple of names by our guide and when checking out Pho 24 (which is a Vietnamese fast food outlet) that I notices a sign indicating that An Restaurant was at the back of Pho 24 and was indeed accessed through the cafe. It seemed strange walking through one cafe to access a restaurant but we did it.An was a small and smart looking restaurant and we were welcomed by reception staff who genuinely seemed pleased to see us. A small courtyard dining area was full of diners, but we much preferred the air-conditioned inside dining area which was much quieter and of cooler. The ambient temperature was a welcome change to the oppressive heat of the streets of H Chi Minh CityWe were getting to be predictable with our choice of dinner drink, four glasses of local beer but on this occasion broke with tradition as we ordered our own individual main courses with no intention to share. Well perhaps we might try the other available dishes as the meal progressedMy wife had after over a week in Vietnam had reached overload with the food and opted for a simple meat omelette (no questions asked about what meat) whilst I chose chicken with ginger and boiled rice. The blend of spices and harmony of taste was superb and I thoroughly enjoyed the meal here at "An". Our friends opted for noodle dishes - mixed rice noodles with shrimps, calamari and pork; pork with fine rice noodles.As usual the meals were brought to the table when they were ready and so they all came at different times. We’re getting used to this service style so the first served got tucked in to the meal without due ceremony. Of course they were greeted with a barrage of comments from the rest of us – "you start now whilst it’s still hot", "don’t bother about me, I’ll catch us" etc. etc..The presentation of the food in the restaurant was a delight and the fine rice noodle dish was particularly delightful. The presentation of the rice noodles was a surprise and I can best describe them as looking like mini rolled towel. Ok so that’s not an enticing description, but it’s the closest I can get. The down side of this dish is that I suspect the preparation time was quite long and so the rice noodles were cold by the time they arrived at the table. Overall the in this restaurant was excellent with the waiters being attentive and responsive. The restaurant was clean and comfortable and we enjoyed a most pleasant meal in this hidden away restaurant.
by MichaelJM on November 9, 2011
Our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City was the Duxton Hotel (pronounced Dus ton). It was nice and central, close to the financial tower, and referred to as boutique style.Check-in was real quick and soon we were on our way up to the fourth floor and our room for the next three nights. The room was now what we’d come to expect on this vacation. A queen sized bed, comfortable easy chair and a desk and office chair. I was disappointed that the internet was not to hand in the bedroom although in the downstairs lounge wi-fi was available. There was tea and coffee making facilities in the bedroom but only two sachets of coffee and milk. However, I mentioned this to the porter who immediately arranged for extra sachets to be brought to my room. Still I had difficulty extraction more than four out of room service. Throughout our stay it was very clear that the tea, coffee and powdered milk were on rations!My wife was pleased that there were ironing facilities in the room and after an afternoon nap she set about ironing trousers and a blouse. I was less enthralled with this service, but felt obliged to at least iron my trousers before we set off for our evening meal. The bathroom facilities were fine with a large bath and shower facilities and the usual complimentary shampoo, shower gel and conditioning creams. However, it failed miserably on the bath robe and towel front. There was only one robe in the wardrobe (not that we were likely to fight over it) and we couldn’t get anywhere near wrapping the towels around us. The dining room was on the ground floor and breakfast was an extravagant affair. There were plenty of cereals, fruit juices, and yoghurts to choose from and the "personalised cooking counter" prepared fried eggs, scrambled eggs, omelettes, pancakes, waffles and of course the Vietnamese savoury breakfast (something I have no wish to try). There were sausages, hash browns, bacon (although on our first morning they ran out of bacon), cold meats and cheeses, several different types of bread, croissants and several jams. There was a counter laden with fresh fruit and to satisfy the sweet tooth you could select from muffins, doughnuts and Danish pastry. In short you could not go hungry with the choice of breakfast food and it was well set out and easily available (other than the bacon). A great breakfast that would clearly set us up for our day of sight seeing.This hotel has a small swimming pool on the 3rd floor and I was pleased to be able to swim a few lengths after a long day on my feet. It was peaceful gazing up at the skyscraper above me and as I was the only person in the pool I could float on my back and rest my weary limbs.Like our trip to Hanoi we left the majority of our luggage at the hotel whilst we were sailing overnight in the Mekong Delta. It was no nonsense and no problems on our return as we were shown in to our bedroom for the final night stay in Saigon.
Now I don’t often find a place that I’m real negative about, but I’m afraid that my dining experience at the restaurant at the Cu Chi tunnels is one of those places.We’d arrived at the tunnels around noon and as we’d been up since 5.30 am we were all ready for something to eat. The restaurant was the only one at the tunnels and we understand that it is government owned and has only been functioning for about 18 months. It’s in a good setting at the side of the Saigon River on a stilted veranda that’s accessed by way of a narrow rope bridge over a narrow inlet. It’s quite a nice route over classic Vietnamese jungle scenery down to the river where clumps of Water Hyacinth can be seen floating downstream. I could almost imagine the Viet Cong swimming underneath with a bamboo cane stuck through the vegetation. Our guide saw we were struggling to choose a meal and he suggested that we select the banquet style meal at 150,000 per person. This had 7 courses and, he said was much cheaper than choosing a couple of individual courses. The maths certainly stacked up, we were all peckish and the menu seemed to offer a good selection of foods. We ordered a beer each, "333" is the local brew and disappointingly this came in cans. We had to ask for glasses as none of us fancied slurping out of the can.We chatted animatedly about our pending experiences at the tunnels and waited for the meal to arrive. It seemed to take an age. The service was close to being slapdash and when it finally arrived it was plonked down without ceremony. In fairness the spare ribs were quite tasty but there weren’t many of them. There were four measly pieces of chicken, which once again tasted OK but with the sparse portions we could hardly taste them. The five portions of battered prawns were again a bit on the light side and a couple had the shrimp’s tail (not overly meaty!!) and a lot of batter. Finally the rice arrived with a huge dish full of pork chop soup. It looked foul and tasted as if the vegetables and meat had "been boiled to death" and water added to create the volume. None of us were impressed with it so we made do with the meagre portion of rice. "Never mind", we thought, "at least we are having fruit at the end of the meal". How disappointing, it was a plate of fairly tasteless pineapple. We devoured it, because we were still a bit peckish, but it left us wanting in terms of volume and taste.I’d certainly recommend that you eat outside of the Cu Chi Tunnel complex as this place is not value for money.
Of course no visit to Vietnam would be complete without visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is the tunnel network that dates back to the 1940’s when it was built by the Viet Minh as part of their struggle against the French. It was later extended by the guerrilla movement of the Viet Cong during the thirty year wars with America. It was this huge tunnel network of over 125 miles that became the underground village for up to 16,000 local inhabitants, serving as communication and supply routes, hiding places, living quarters and hospital facilities. There are three different level of inter-linking tunnels – "a bit like a spider’s web" our guide explained. We were told that it had become necessary for all the people in this area to move underground because the Americans troops were unable to differentiate between the local farmers and the fighting forces of the Viet Cong. Of course that would be the case as "becoming" a local farmer would have been the perfect camouflage for a fighting group.Our young guide led us around the complex where we saw one of the many original tunnel entrances. They were no larger than a sheet of A4 paper and although the Vietnamese, with their smaller body frames, could manage to access it the entrance would be a tight fit for a westerner. A guide was showing visitors how the Viet Cong would hide the entrance when they returned underground, by placing leaves on the cover before disappearing below the jungle’s surface. Very impressive because we’d see where this entrance was and it was still difficult to focus on. We were also told that the disappearing guerrilla would often booby trap the cover if he thought he’d been spotted. The resulting explosion would clearly, at the very least seriously maim a pursuing soldier. We were invited to try the tunnel for size but none of us felt that we’d fit!Next we saw one of the many trenches that run through the battle area. Once again a small entrance through which the Viet Cong could crawl but it was hard to see that an American soldier would have managed the gap to have effectively pursued the opposition.I guess the most blood curdling aspect to this visit were the booby traps that were set around the complex. Of course we’ve seen them in films but here, in reality were the pits that were dug out to entrap unsuspecting American Soldiers. The large trap door that swung on a central axis sending the soldier onto sharpened bamboo canes. Often, the guide told us they would be smothered in faeces to ensure that the seriously wounded soldier would also be likely to die from infection. Of course the added "advantage" (if I can call it that) is that the entrapped soldier would be sure to be pulled out of the trap by his colleagues. This act would distract the troop allowing the Viet Cong to appear from the hidden tunnels, fire a few rounds into the Americans before disappearing back in to the tunnel system.There were various additional traps many of them "manufactured" by underground "factories" out of the debris of war (bombs dropped onto Vietnam). Trying to imagine the trap doors opening on unsuspecting troops and soldiers falling onto the viciously barbed spikes was chilling and the devices were built to pierce the opposition under the armpit, the soles of the feet, knee caps, hips and genitalia. Like the one mentioned earlier these purpose was to injure and slow down the troops so a more devastating attack could be laid on them by the ambushing Viet Cong. We walked past a number of termite mounds - not thinking too much about them until we stopped by one and our guide asked what we thought they were. At this point we spotted two large holes at the base and then realised that they were man-made mounds. The story goes that the clever Viet Cong constructed these as air shafts and because they were naturally in abundance the Americans would not be aware of their real function. As time progressed the Americans were aware of their functionality and tried to use them to their advantage. They used German Shepherd Dogs to sniff them out and to counteract the dog’s skills the Viet Cong used garlic and pepper to disguise the smell. The dogs would sneeze – another give away – so the Viet Cong stole American clothes and stuffed them near the top to disguise their smell and fool the dogs into thinking they were getting the scent of their handlers. Getting the clothes was easy – either from dead Americans or more often from the American base. You see the Viet Con had direct access to the American stores for clothing or munitions by way of a tunnel that came out in the American Base. You just wonder why that wasn’t discovered earlier!Of course the tunnel network was well known by the Americans after a time but despite having a volunteer force of "tunnel rats" they were never destroyed nor could the complicated system of tunnels ever lead these volunteers to the Viet Con who could easily hear the intruders and move on before they got close. A real live "game" of cat and mouse must have taken place for many, many years with devastating results for all those involved.
One of the things to do whilst at the tunnels, and included in the admission fee, is to crawl the tunnel. Clearly the original dimensions of the tunnels do not lend themselves to the "larger framed gentleman" so a length of tunnel has been widened and heightened to allow westerners to "enjoy the experience".Our guide was pretty heavy with his cautionary comments before we even got down to the tunnel entrance indicating that we should not try it if we suffered with high blood pressure, heart problems, bad backs, or claustrophobia. He talked about problems with malaria, cobra and other insects, but with hindsight I think that referred to the perils that the Viet Cong suffered whilst underground.I decided that despite a dodgy back I was going to give it a try and my friend who’s six foot plus also felt it was something he wanted to experience. Our two wives opted out and repeatedly asked if we thought we’d be OK. "How do I know?" I wondered, but I answered, confidently, "it can’t be any more difficult than descending down the pyramids in Egypt!" We climbed down three of four steep steps and we were then at the mouth of the tunnel. Our guide had suggested that we could walk in the stooped position but it was soon evident that we needed to be on hands and knees. Having said that our "resident" Cu Chi guide managed to walk in the crouched position, turning to take photographs of us with my camera whilst my friend and I crawled on our hands and knees. We seemed to reach the first exit fairly quickly and we were asked if we wanted to carry on or exit. We decided to progress a little further to try and imagine what it might have been like. By the time we left the tunnel I was dripping with sweat and my knees were a little sore. Or 5 minutes underground were hard work and I just couldn’t begin to comprehend what life must have been like if you were living underground for long periods of time.After exiting from our mole like crawl we were able to see other man made caves, but for the convenience of the visitor the top of the cave had been removed. Having crawled through the tunnel it wasn’t too hard to imagine what the conditions would have been like in the communal dining area, the hospital, the work spaces and the kitchen. Interestingly the smoke from the kitchen was passed into an internal storage container and released through pipes several metres away from the kitchen. So although cooking was done in the early hours of the morning, when often there was an early mist, if American troops saw smoke escaping from the ground they would be nowhere near the communal kitchen. We saw that the Viet Cong used to make "reversible" sandals out of old tyres and inner tubes. They were reversible so they could be worn back to front so confounding the troops if they came across footprints. Every so often we’d hear gunshot from the nearby range. I guess this added some authenticity to the walk through the undergrowth. For 350,000 dong you could buy a round of 10 bullets to fire off using weapons of the war. We decided to give that a miss as we’d shot before and weren’t really sure that it would add anything to the experience.
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