I signed up for a full-day tour during my last day in Vietnam. The van picked me up at my hotel at 7:45 am. It was similar to the VIP vans I had been on before and I was lucky enough to get one of the individual front seats that reclined. When the door opened, I saw Lenai there! I met her the night prior at the Heineken bar. I was excited to have a new friend there with me.
Our tour guide, Rich, appeared to be in his early to mid 20s and was really friendly. Our group was small – just a handful of people in the van. It would be almost two hours to our first destination, the underground tunnels. Rich turned around and spoke to us about Vietnam.
Rich said the reason Vietnamese will often ask how old you are is because they have different titles and treat you differently based on your age. The older person is always more respected. Rich then warned us about being safe in Vietnam and said it can be dangerous at times. I thought that was strange because I just spent almost a month there and felt pretty safe.
In Vietnam, women legally need to be 18 years old to get married and men have to be 20. However, in rural villages, child marriage is still happening. Rich told us that in the cities, the average age that people get married is 26, but it’s around 20 years old in the villages. Although traditional values discourage sex before marriage, the Vietnamese have been influenced by Europeans.
There are 97 million people in Vietnam and 54 million motorbikes. Starting in 1993, the government put a law in place requiring people to get permission to buy a car, along with a 150% tax. Rich explained that a Kia will cost about $25,000 USD. A motorbike will cost about $1,000-$2,000 USD and no permit is required. You can even buy a second-hand motorbike for $400.
There is no income tax in Vietnam. Rich said that people in the cities earn about $350 a month, but in the villages, it’s around $150-$200 a month. Farther north, I was told it was closer to $200 a month in cities. I asked Rich how they pay for their roads, hospitals, and schools if there is no income tax. He explained that companies that have less than 500 employees don’t pay tax, but companies that have more than 500 employees pay taxes. Most of the businesses that I saw in Vietnam were family-owned, which means they wouldn’t pay any taxes.
We still had about 45 minutes to drive, so Rich played a video about the war and the tunnels. A TV hung from the ceiling towards the front, so Lenai and I had a clear view. Rich warned us a couple of times, “Keep in mind that this video was made by our communist government.” The video was interesting at first, but it was like watching the old black and white videos in high school history class. Towards the end, my heavy eyelids won out and I fell asleep. I noticed that Lenai fell asleep too, so I felt a little better.
We arrived at the underground tunnels and there were a lot of large tourist groups. I was really happy that I had a small group. We entered the gift shop where they were selling souvenir bullet necklaces and old bombshells were on display.
The tunnels were dug by hand for 22 years until 1968. The Vietcong dug the tunnels and hid the dirt in rivers or covered areas where grenades went off. They also put landmines in the dirt they replaced from grenades. There were whole communities living in the tunnels. The tunnels connected to larger rooms where they’d cook food. They had small vents to release the air. When I say larger rooms, they were still so small I would not be able to stand upright. When two people would run into each other, one would lay down while the other crawled over them.
The U.S. used dogs to sniff and find the tunnels, and then would put gas into the hole once it was found. In response to that, the Vietcong would put spices in the air holes, which would hurt the dogs. Then the Vietcong got U.S. uniforms, which confused the dogs. They would kill and eat the dogs. The U.S. then tried to flush them out with water, but the Vietcong would release the water into the river because they usually had it connected to the river at one end, which is also where they’d use the toilet.
The tunnels were extremely small. Once they opened them up to tourists, they dug some of the tunnels out so people could walk or crawl into them. There was one hole that was probably 12” by 18”. Tourists could try to fit, lower themselves into the hole, and then put a wooden cover on top of them that had leaves and dirt on it to blend in. A woman tried it and then a young guy. They and everyone watching was laughing as they tried to lower themselves into the tiny hole. They were taking fun photos.
This really bothered me. As we continued to walk around, we also saw the traps that the Vietcong built. They were animal-like traps that would kill or dismember Americans. Being American, I couldn’t help but think about my fellow Americans who died such horrific deaths, like animals. I also thought about the Vietnamese who had to live in those tunnels for years. Some of them were so used to living inside of them, they stayed for ten years after the war was over. They went blind because of it.
I remember seeing an article about the holocaust memorial site asking people to stop taking fun pictures at the site. They tweeted, “When you come to @auschwitzMuseum remember you are at the site where over 1 million people were killed. Respect their memory. There are better places to learn how to walk on the balance beam than the site which symbolizes deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths.” There is even an artist who was shaming tourists for taking inappropriate selfies at the holocaust memorial site.
Seeing people smile, laugh, and take “fun” pictures at a place where people were killed, often in horrible ways, made me angry. Not just for my fellow Americans, but for the Vietnamese who also lived in those terrible conditions. It wasn’t humorous to me. It was part of history and something I wanted to know more about. I didn’t find it cute or funny. Please, when you’re visiting these sites, don’t take a disrespectful selfie.
Rich showed us around the tunnels and explained the way of life, like how they create sandals from used tires. We had the chance to crawl through one of the tunnels where the opening had been widened. Rich told us that he’d meet us at the other end. I had to duck down and then I had to crawl on my hands and knees. The tunnel was so hot that it was like a sauna and sweat was dripping off my face. It was also dirty and scary. I elected to exit at the first opportunity. Because I was sweating so much, I know had dirt caked on my legs. I walked to a water spigot and washed off the best I could.
We came to an area that allowed you the option to shoot a giant gun into a field at a target. It cost $27 USD for ten bullets. Everyone in my group decided to pass on shooting. For lunch, we all gathered for a family-style meal. There was just seven of us and we got to know each other. Afterwards, we walked over to watch the muddy river that had large pods of ivy floating on its surface. It was moving so fast and the ivy didn’t seem to stop flowing.
Next, we drove to the Mekong Delta. It’s a vast maze of rivers, swamps, and islands. We got onto a boat that was just for our group and stopped at our first destination: a beekeeper. We walked on the small island and were greeted by beautiful gardens and brightly colored flowers. I was nervous when the beekeeper pulled out trays of bees in their hive, but thankfully, nobody was stung. We had the option to buy some of the honey and wax, and then we were on our way.
The boat ride continued and Rich told us about Vietnam’s main exports: rice, coffee, and cashews. He also told us that people used to have 11-12 children and would call them “number 1,” “number 2,” and so on.
Our next stop was to get on a platform in the water so we could board an even smaller boat. We would be guided in smaller groups through the waterways by a local driver. I was terrified that the boat would tip over, so I was as still as possible. Lenai, a guy from the U.S., and I shared a boat. The boat driver slowly guided us through the narrow passageways in water that looked like chocolate milk.
Once that was complete, we stopped for some fruit and drinks. There were men and women playing music and singing, but they’d take turns doing a quick solo. Then we realized the fake roses that were on our table were for putting money inside and giving the rose to your favorite singer or musician. Next up was an opportunity to put a giant snake on your shoulders. Most people in the group were brave enough and let the snake slither around them, but I am not into snakes and wasn’t about to have a giant one wrap itself around me.
We got back into the boat and made one last stop on another island. Small horses pulled carts, and the trucks were miniature in size. We walked through the island until we arrived at an indoor/outdoor candy shop. We watched an old woman tear open a coconut and put the juice into a bowl. Then we watched how that’s turned into candy like taffy. Children wrapped the candies into individual papers once it was cut. We tried samples and wandered around the shop.
It was time to go back to Ho Chi Minh City, so we enjoyed the boat ride as the sun started to set. When we arrived, it was dark outside. Lenai and I decided to go to a food market near our hotels. It was my last dinner in Vietnam, so I wanted to make sure I ate all the foods that I loved. The food market had aisles of food shops and I found one that offered a combination platter. I also got an egg coffee and my favorite dessert, sticky rice with bananas, nuts, and coconut milk.
We were stuffed and it was time to say goodbye. It was great getting to know Lenai and I hoped to meet up with her one day on my travels. I walked to Hard Rock Cafe to collect my shot glass and it was a pleasant evening. People gathered on the streets and in front of the historic buildings. They set out blankets on the sidewalk and enjoyed food and friendship.
I took a Grab motorbike back to my hotel and noticed that next door was a nail salon. I wanted to take advantage of inexpensive services, so I popped in to get my nails done. Once back at my hotel, it was time to pack. I shipped a lot of stuff back to the U.S. and had to repack. I had a 24-hour layover in Singapore, so I had to bring what I needed for the stay in my carry-on backpack. I was excited for the next chapter, but I was a little sad to be leaving Vietnam. I had a great time in Southeast Asia and going to Australia would definitely be a huge change of pace.
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Post Edited By: Mandy Strider