Ho Chi Minh 2015 || Cu Chi Tunnels (and my lack of upper body strength)

The resolve to get all these posts out of my Drafts has strengthened over the weekend so I finally only have this and one more left for Vietnam. After that I can finally move on to writing about the days I spent in Cambodia! The past four months flew by, and the need to keep my mind away from being idle has helped me keep my sanity. Nothing else can drive an over thinker up the walls best than having the time to get the wheels inside your head rolling. Trying to write every day has helped me with that, though. The time I spend writing oils up my rusty machine that produces creativity, and I feel energized to do a lot more (I update my Instagram (@teeshue) more often though so feel free to follow me there!). It also helps reduce this massive backlog – yay for that!

I have read so many articles about the difference between being a traveler and a tourist. I can’t really say I fall into one category because I do like to check out all the tourist spots and eat all the touristy food. I can sleep in a hostel with strangers or stay somewhere with very basic amenities (using ‘very basic’ loosely here), but I’m also willing to shell out extra money for nice hotels. I do book tours but I don’t like the package tours because I like to be in charge of my schedule and itinerary. I want to see everything and I happen to enjoy sitting down in a local cafe to read. So, yeah. I did book a half day tour to Cu Chi Tunnels and had my breakfast while walking on the way there. One of the constants on what to eat in Vietnam lists, banh mi which I bought from a random stall (I just had the guy manning the stall to put in everything lol) for VND 12,000.

I passed by this woman selling tau hu fa (which is reminiscent of the local taho and with a similar name as well) for VND 7,000. It is soybean pudding with coconut milk and ginger. I was a bit flabbergasted when I tasted the ginger because I grew up buying this from street peddlers with caramel and sago.

I also bought iced coffee with LOTS of condensed milk for VND 20,000 after checking in and getting my boarding ticket. Even with that much sweet milk, the coffee was still too strong and did a great job of jolting me awake. I saw another tourist pour half the contents of her water bottle in her cup to tone down the taste.

To be completely honest, as much as I support helping a community’s livelihood, I got seriously bored with having to stay at the stopover for Handicapped Handicrafts for a while. My expectation was we will be going straight to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

They do show you how they make the portraits. They make an outline, and fill it in using egg shells. Yes, egg shells! It undergoes a long process after that and you can see the output in the next photo. 🙂

They encourage you to buy something.. by staying in the shop for a long time (it may have only been 30 minutes but it felt like a while).

The tour itself only cost VND 59,000 but you have to pay the entrance fee to the tunnels which cost VND 100,000. The guide collects it before you arrive, or you can pay for it yourself at the ticket booth if you happen not to trust the tour guide. Of course, I went the lazy route and just handed my money over.

This is one of the many camouflaged entrances to the underground tunnel maze. It is smaller when it was still in use during the war and they enlarged it to accommodate visitors. When the guide asked for volunteers to try it out, I immediately raised my hand and…. oh fudge what the hell did I sign up for? The initial drop was okay until I had to get out and my weak core needed the assistance of an American guy to pull me up and out. Damn. (A Filipina who was on tour with her niece volunteered to hold my bag as you can see in upper right of the photo).

Since this is during war time, the Vietnamese set up so many traps integrated with nature.

Here are the air ducts that provide oxygen inside the tunnels. The invading party used dogs to sniff this ducts out so they can barricade it while the Vietnamese put pepper to avoid canine detection.

Rice paper near the shooting range. I didn’t try the shooting range because the queue was super long!

The guide asked the entire tour group which of us wanted to crawl 150 meters and again, I raised my hand along with three other tourists and another guide. The rest of them were going together and crawl 20/40/60/80 meters and exit at different stages while the four of us entered a different tunnel. Fortunately for me, I was second to the last and the same American guy (who pulled me up) was behind me. There was a point in the tunnel where you had to raise yourself using your elbows and I had a really hard time climbing up, it was getting dark while the guide and couple before us are far ahead already. The guy asked me if I would mind if he touched me and of course, I said I wouldn’t, so he placed his hands on my bum to push me up. I cannot imagine how it would feel like if I had to crawl in that small tunnel while bombs are hitting the ground above – especially with my barely existent arm strength. I was sweating like a pig once we got out and it felt like I crawled for hours. How fun and exciting!

So that was the only fun part of the tour.. And the tour + entrance fee cost more than My Tho and Ben Tre. Honestly, though, I had much more fun with the Mekong Delta tour (crawling aside). During this tour, there were so many people so the waiting time sucked. I do hate waiting. I hope you guys don’t hate waiting as much as I do.. or else I’d lose blog followers. Hahaha!

Ho Chi Minh 2015 || The Foodie

In one of the classes I attended recently, a girl voiced out how much she hated the word “foodie”. She asked how anyone could claim to actually be a foodie since everyone needs food anyway. That admittedly made me think and from then on, never referred to myself as a foodie. However, tours revolving around food genuinely excite me and I couldn’t care less whatever they decide to name it. This was the case when I was looking for motorcycle tours in Ho Chi Minh. Almost all my friends who went to Ho Chi Minh told me to never leave the city unless I have ridden a motorcycle. XO Tours is the number one bike tour in the city (as of writing, it’s actually #1 on the Tours and Activities list in TripAdvisor), and so even though it’s a bit on the expensive side, I went for it (for reference, I paid $72 for this 5-hour tour, and the next most expensive is the tuktuk I rented in Siem Reap for $25 for the whole day).

Again, I gave them the address to the Airbnb apartment and was instructed to be at the door 15 minutes before I was supposed to be picked up. Only approach the female drivers in traditional blue and white ao dais, as it’s their uniform. I went out the apartment at 5:15 PM, and there was Huong. I was lucky that time since she already toured someone who stayed in the same apartment I did. After a mandatory safety precaution lecture, we left and were the first to arrive at a noodle place, where I met Tai who chatted me up while I sip from a glass of iced tea.

Surprise, surprise. The first meal we had is a bowl of Bun Bo Hue, with the same bowl of special chili sauce. Tai and the other tour manager (I think her name may be Fu because I remember a joke where she says it’s like Kung Fu but I am not sure) explained about the difference of bun and pho. The premise of this tour is to not just eat the usual things you’d come for in Vietnam (pho, spring rolls, banh mi, etc), but eat like the locals do and learn about the city as well.

There were 8 of us in this batch, 2 couples and a group of friends and they were a mix of Aussies and Kiwis. One of the men was a skeptic about the power of the chili, and piled on a spoonful on his noodles.. and let’s just say he got a little bit emotional over his noodles.

We drove to a few districts and visited some of the sights that tourists who don’t venture outside District 1 rarely go to. Some of these districts are even rumored to be dangerous for tourists and locals alike (I told a Filipino I met in Ho Chi Minh which districts I went to and she proceeded to tell me about unfortunate incidents that occurred there). I felt safe during the tour, probably because aside from the female riders, there were a number of male guys in black XO Tours shirts acting as bodyguards.

During the ride, Huong and I talked about our goals, what she plans to do next after she retires from XO Tours (the age limit for her job is 28, by the way), what I do for a living and what I actually want to spend my time doing, where to go shopping in Ho Chi Minh (not the Ben Thanh market), and basically, just life in general.

Our next stop is a BBQ type of place. I’m not even going to attempt to explain what goes into the sauce or the mixes for the dip, but essentially, the XO girls you’re with will mix it for you and teach you what to pair with your meat.

HUONG AND I WON THE CHOPSTICK GAME. /Asian-ed

By the way, you can order as much beer (or any drink of your preference) as you want. If you get drunk, they will tie you to their bikes with a rope until you get back to your hotel. 😛

Prawns on a stick – also, the sunburn I got from Hue is very much visible in flash photos. Eek!

Goat meat and okra slathered with sauce before grilling. I am not a huge fan of okra but this was so yummy! There were three kinds of leaves you can wrap the meat with, and of course, I tried everything.

There was beef as well, but I enjoyed goat meat more. There are some Filipino delicacies that use goat meat as well, so I wasn’t as bothered by it as the Aussie/Kiwi woman I was seating next to (she took care of a goat when she was a kid, treated it like a pet, ended up with goat meat for dinner which is honestly traumatizing for a kid).

I ate frog meat for the first time as well! I can now tell everyone who swears that it taste just like chicken that they are liars!!! It does not taste like chicken.. but if you eat the meat with its’ grilled skin, it tastes similar to grilled fish.

Probably what made me fall in love with Vietnam.. fruit with salt!

What I liked best about this tour is that I got lucky and was assigned the fastest driver that night (we were always the first ones, after the tour managers that is, to arrive no matter how late we leave the location), and that Huong liked to point out interesting places while driving – such as the local MOMOL place which was in the bushes near a gas station, the basket full of live frogs and cow’s testicles in the market, and a lot of other things. It really was an experience.

I swear, there are so many salt dip combinations in Vietnam. It’s crazy! I love each one!

You can actually order more food if you’d like. They have an eat all you can until you are full policy, and I did eat as much as I can. I think we also ate a duck?

Seafood galore! We had crabs (they take out the meat for you.. it’s awkward and awesome at the same time) and clams.

I still drool over the memory of this dish. Everyone should try this! The content of this plate was gone in a flash.

The Vietnamese had their own version of balut (trứng vịt lộn or hột vịt lộn), and because it’s known for Pinoys to eat this, Huong and I shared one (much to the disgust of my seat mate haha).

Huong got me a few bottles of juice that I can take back to the apartment. As well as a ton of Drive Vietnam discount coupons that I happily gave away to all the other tourists I met in Ho Chi Minh so they can use it since I have pretty much booked tours for the rest of the days that I was in the city.

Tai cracked some buko (it’s a Filipino term for young coconut), but instead of juice, it was filled with coconut flavored jelly for dessert.

And here’s some custard with caramel and sago pearls (think leche flan with sago pearls).

I got back at the apartment a few minutes before 11 PM. I’m super lucky that all the tours I booked for this trip are very memorable and fun.

I highly recommend XO Tours’ The Foodie (along with a tour from Saigon Hotpot) to everyone who has asked me about city tours in Ho Chi Minh (they usually think I’d suggest for them to walk haha). It’s a fantastic way to see the city at night, and literally get a taste of Vietnam. I admittedly did not write about the entire tour, even though it is a vivid memory, in order to not spoil the experience. If you ever try it out (and is lucky enough to have Huong as a driver), let me know how much fun you have! 🙂

Ho Chi Minh 2015 || Saigon Hotpot and getting lost with strangers

I jumped out of the bed as I scrolled through my mail and got one from a Saigon Hotpot volunteer regarding the free tour I booked for that morning. I came across Saigon Hotpot when I was looking for things to do in Ho Chi Minh. They are a group of university student volunteers who offer free tours – by free, meaning you just pay for their transportation and entrance fees. 😛 Van had a bit of a hard time looking for the apartment as well and it was a fortunate coincidence that we bumped into each other while she was asking the neighbors for directions (I went outside so I can look for her hehe).

We took the bus to our first stop! It was like a tour bus as well since the bus we rode took the scenic route and Van pointed out all the interesting sites such as Jollibee and popular coffee shops.

We got off around the corner from the Post Office. Again, the architecture is heavily inspired by the French and as most government buildings in Vietnam, it is in the same shade of yellow and green. What’s notable though is the number of prenuptial photo shoots happening when we were there. In the photo below, you can see a traditionally dressed couple and a modern wedding couple.

The Saigon Central Post Office is still functioning and very well maintained.

Different clocks for different time zones, and phone booths (EDIT: phone booths not photo booths what was I thinking haha) for international calls.

The man in white that you can see in this photo lives 2 kilometers away from the post office. Aside from Vietnamese, he is fluent in French and English and has helped so many people with their letters while he was working there. He has retired but still spends every day in the post office, and usually, helps parents with letters/application forms/etc who has sent their children to study abroad.

Across the post office is Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral. All the materials used to build this church came from France. I actually even searched for a photo of the one in Paris to compare lol.

So many wedding photos going on (and Van’s hand).

Next up is the Reunification Palace. It is where previous presidents lived, but it is only used today as a tourist spot or for official conferences. It has been renovated a few times prior to this day due to the conflict with the Viet Cong. During that time, Vietnam is not yet unified and the war between North and South is ongoing.

The conference hall.

According to Van, this painting is of the emperor with the Vietnamese on one side and the Mandarins on the other.

The Green Room – where yes, everything is green, and all items were imported from France.

The President’s table. Behind him is a painting of his hometown where he had a bridge constructed since he used to swim to go to school when he was a kid. 🙂 Also, one of the doors nearby leads directly to the safe room where all the control panels, radios and a bunk for the President.

The ivory horns are made out of elephant tusks which came from two different elephants. There is a village that owned the elephants, but the villagers wouldn’t give them away, so they killed the entire village for it. Damn. So much bloodshed for elephants.

They actually killed two elephants (and a lot of people) for their tusks.. which is unfortunate and I kind of see the point why vegans hate meat (still won’t turn vegan but killing animals for decoration??)..

The place is aptly called a ‘palace’ and it suits the name, as every room is opulent. The living quarters much so, especially if you take into consideration the era it was built in.

The bamboo design plays a significant role in this building, especially in the Vietnamese culture where bamboo trees represent resilience and bravery. It is also present in their daily life and culture as bamboo trees can be found almost everywhere, and it is used for instruments, furniture, and so much more. This design along with the high ceiling creates a nice flow of light and lets the air in during hot days.

Looking out the balcony, you see an unusual sight in an otherwise urban city – so many trees (and of course tourist buses, such as in the photo below haha). The symmetry of parks and lack of concrete establishments along the length of this street is as designed to maintain this view.

Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, elected president in 1967, likes to hunt and has accumulated body parts from the animals he has managed to kill. It really bothers me (I’m the type of person who cried when they killed the horse in the pilot episode of Walking Dead).

An elephant family died for this. 😦

And of course, can’t miss out on an indoor garden for some zen.

To further complete the luxurious presidential lifestyle, the palace had a velvet lined cinema, a library, a game room (photo below), a dancing room (complete with a grand piano and bar) and even a helipad on the rooftop.

After touring, Van and I headed to the park outside the cathedral and hanged out like the locals do. We sat on the pavement, bought mango and passion fruit juice from the street peddlers, who in turn handed as a couple of old newspaper we can sit on and place the salt in. Have I mentioned how much I love the salt here? I even asked Van where I could buy the salt to bring home (and her mom gave me a whole tub – I still have some as of writing). She told me about working with tourists and about her internship (which she was running late for because I only scheduled a half day morning tour), I told her about my life in Manila and about getting scammed by a taxi driver, she taught me how to politely decline when someone approaches you and how to cross the street like a Vietnamese.

Afterward, Van brought me back to the apartment (and broke her sandals on the way) and we have stayed in touch ever since I even talked to her while I was writing this. I had such an informative tour that I wish I could remember everything (I didn’t write anything down until now boo) so I can pass it on. So for anyone planning to tour Ho Chi Minh, I highly suggest Saigon Hotpot. 🙂 After the tour, I napped for an hour before heading out again to walk around. I have no photos from that walk though because I went window shopping (it would have been actual shopping if the dresses I wanted to buy fit me, damn petite Asian sized clothes) and bought tickets for day tours for the following days. I did meet two guys, both solo backpackers (one was Finnish, and the other, Thai) who decided to hang out. I had the address for the tour agency and two maps with conflicting information. Hence, the confused look on my face beckoned them so the three of us ended up searching for it, and they went on their way after dropping me off at the door. We bumped into each other again that same day and exchanged our plans for the rest of our stay in Ho Chi Minh. That was the last time I saw them, though. 😛