by Ven AP / 23 November 2016
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon would be our first stop following the banana pancake trail, a tongue in cheek term coined for western tourist using Lonely Planet travel guides.
For this trip, my backpacking group is doing the Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand; mostly travelling by land to cross borders and is one of the famous routes in touring Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, the route is Boracay, Banaue, Sagada, El Nido, Siargao but of course not necessarily in that order.
FOOD and SPICES
I’d come back to this place JUST because of the food! Really, no kidding there. Fresh fruits? Check. Fresh veggies? Big check. Fresh fish? Big big check. Rice? Triple whammy check!
Oh, they too are fond of fermented fish that results to a variety of sauce you’d fall in love with.
As a fan of noodles, Vietnam is heavily influenced by the Chinese with their stir fries and noodle-based soups. I love their noodle-based soups and as a country that was once under the French, the lasting influence of French living can also be found in their food.
They use lots of fresh herbs, spices and fish sauce to create the Vietnamese food and as an Asian who grew up with garlic, ginger, pepper, onions and other spices, I totally fell in love with it.
Food is so cheap that I used only less than php 500 for 2 days – lunch and dinner. If you have eaten at any Vietnamese restaurant in the Philippines, one bowl of soup-based noodle that cost php 210 or more is equivalent to a bowl that cost php 70 in Vietnam with unlimited soup and spices.
TEMPLES and PAGODAS
As a part of the itinerary, we visited Cao Dai Temple. Just 60 miles from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and near the Cu Chi Tunnels and found it crowded with devotees. The pillars were adorned with dragons, women devotees were dressed in flowing white Ao Dai and occupies the left side while the men occupied the right. No shoes allowed inside.
Cao Dai is just one of those temples that dots Vietnam. One of the most visited temples includes Vinh Trang where one can find the giant laughing Buddha, the sleeping Buddha and the Vihn Trang Pagoda.
Vietnam or officially known as Socialist Republic of Vietnam is one of the least religious countries in the world and is an atheist state as declared by its communist government. However, the temples which varies from Buddist, Taoist, Confusian etc. around and outside of Ho Chi Minh City are worth a visit.
I instantly fell in love with the giant laughing Buddha in Vinh Trang! With his chubby cheeks, dimples and mouth wide open ushering a huge smile.
You would too, who wouldn’t?
CU CHI TUNNELS
The Cu Chi Tunnels got me literally, the ingenuity amazed me. You need to see it in person to really appreciate it. I’ve read about it on Lonely Planet and other blogs and said, “Okay, so they are tunnels so what?” Being a fan of Tom Clancy, experiencing the tunnels changed my mind.
Because US modern warfare was brought down to its knees – literally.
This is part of the offensive of the Vietnamese Communist or Việt Nam Cộng-sản which blindsided the US army during the American War or widely known as Vietnam War. Imagine how formidable it was that the US needed to train an elite unit called “Tunnel Rats” which composed mostly of Special Forces. The specialists were only armed with a flashlight, gun, knife and a string. I guess the string would be used to mapped the tunnels or maybe to strangle any Viet Cong?
So how did the Viet Cong navigated the tunnels without getting lost? How did they know the person approaching at the other end is one of them and not a tunnel rat? How did they breathe? How did they poop?
The tunnel can only fit a typical Asian so imagine a huge American trying to squeeze his way into the tunnels, that would look funny. Inside, one can hardly breathe, turning around is not an option, humidity is high so it is hot and the acrid smell of earth can get into your head but before I can feel claustrophobic, we came into a huge chamber that served as the meeting room for top officials of the National Liberation Front.
Although the tunnels became famous during the Vietnam War, it was started during the Indochina War connecting communities to evade the French and grew into a 250km system with many levels up to 10 meters below ground.
I did not have much interaction with the general populace but my initial impression of its people is that they are just like Filipinos. Their people have gone through war; they lost sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, lovers. To me, they are tired of killing each other; they just want to live a peaceful life.
Our guide was a hardworking one, a young man who once dreamt of joining the army following in the footsteps of his uncle who died fighting during the Vietnam War but thankfully the war ended and he became what he is now. He reminded me of one of Napoleon Hill’s teachings,
“Render more service than that which you are paid and you will soon be paid for more than you render”
AFP reported back in 2006 that Vietnam is 12th happiest country on earth. They joked about receiving stitches due to motorbike accidents, how they prefer riding motorbikes than any other mode of transportation, how they can have a girlfriend if they own a motorbike, how motorbike owners don’t follow the traffic lights, how motorbikes can drive side by side with a bus with its driver seemingly defying death and their women’s fascination to white skin. It seems that their life revolves around motorbikes.
Vietnamese people are friendly and hardworking.