Even if I was alive, I felt as if rigor mortis had begun to set in; my legs were stiff, my knees were burning, and my hands had become hardened fists. I tried shifting my weight around, but even my butt had had enough.
This was not how I imagined the day would be ending.
Early that morning, our tour guides picked us up from our AirBnB to bring us to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels were an underground network the North Vietnamese Army used to get around during the war.
We were told that it was about a half-hour drive out of the city via the highway, but since we were taking the scenic route, it was going to take us about two extra hours.
They explained that we were going to be joined by one more tourist, and that we were getting to our destination on motorcycles.
The two-wheeled vehicle is what majority of Saigon’s citizens get around on, and this has inadvertently created one of, if not the most, frightening pedestrian systems.
On this day, we were going to be part of the mayhem, and so our guides made sure to hand us helmets and protective gear. The Boyfriend got assigned the smiley guide who owned the motorcycle with back support, and I was assigned the shy guide with a motorcycle not nearly long enough to accommodate both of us.
I swung my leg over the thing anyway, and felt the rumble of the tiny engine. Again, there was no back support, and there was virtually nothing for me to hold onto, so I promptly dug my nails into the underside of the seat.
Our first stop was at a noodle “factory”, the word being loosely used to describe where we were. The guides parked the bikes in the shade and walked us through the different processes involved in noodle making.
Save for two machines – one that mixed water with ground rice, and another that made the resulting paste into flimsy sheets – the noodle production in Vietnamese cuisine was largely done by hand
First they laid out the sheets onto woven straw mats, carried them out to dry in the sun, collected them and cut them into noodles, and then brought them out again for a second round of drying.
You’d think that the tedious process ended once the noodles were out in the sun again, but we found out that even that step needed a lot of human monitoring.
While we were there, an old man was carefully spreading the thin hu tieu (pronounced “HUH-tew”) noodles out on plastic mats. Every now and then, he’d get a handful out from the pile and place it on top. He went up and down the length of the plastic mats doing the same thing, and he still wasn’t done by the time we left.
I would have liked to know more about him and how he learned when to pull out a handful and when not to, but I had little time to give him more thought.
We were already off to our next destination, and it seemed to involve less pavement and more dirt roads. The climate changed drastically the further away we got from the highway, and dense foliage began flanking us on both sides. We stopped when we came to a clearing that bisected a large group of trees.
This, they said, was a rubber tree plantation; another source of livelihood among the Vietnamese. During harvest season, the farmers came and made lacerations in the bark of the trees. They collected what oozed out, and then covered the cut with a layer of blue or purple rubber. This helped the tree heal, so it could be farmed from again in the future.
The guides let us walk through the striped trees on our own. There wasn’t really much for us to see, but the mosquitos eagerly gathered around to gawk at the foreigners and to feast on our blood.
No, I’m kidding.
They only feasted on The Other Tourist who had forgotten to apply insect repellent.
While he furiously smacked the red welts on his skin, I felt my shirt beginning to stick to the skin of my back. It was hot and humid, and I realised I was parched.
As if on cue, the guides waved us over. “We will go to our last stop before the tunnels. There is sugar cane juice where we will be going.”
I eagerly climbed back onto our motorcycle, and my nails found their place under the seat. I gave myself a pat on the back; I was still in one piece and not yet dead.
We wove our way back to the highway and passed by a number of sheds that had rows and rows of hammocks. Most of them were empty, but the few that were occupied swung back and forth gently.
I had just figured out that these hammocks were for rent to travellers when we pulled into one of the sheds. It was one of the sturdier ones with a bathroom and a friendly white dog. They served banh mi (pronounced “BUHN-Muhy”) and fresh cane juice, which came in plastic cups with bendy straws.
We sat in a circle, the tourists and the guides, like a group of friends on a road trip. They talked a bit about their hometowns, but they talked more about how they loved their jobs and how they hated the test.
“What test?” I asked them.
There was a rigorous test that all aspiring tour guides had to get through to be licensed. It involved a question and answer portion between themselves and someone from the tourism department. They were asked a series of questions arbitrarily set by the person they sat in front of, and each set could include literally anything under the umbrella of Vietnamese history and geography.
Their extensive knowledge of their country served us well, because they could tell you back stories of different landmarks and talk about tiny details. They pointed out stuff like how the trees in the Cu Chi area were all young, and that when entering the tunnel, we didn’t have to “worry, because if a 220-pound Australian can fit, you can also!”
We spent about a maximum of an hour slithering through the tunnels, but it was a major struggle. At 5’6″, I had to shuffle my way through most of the passages, half squatted. The Boyfriend and The Other Tourist had it harder because they were both taller than me.
The air down there was thick and there was a distinct smell that seeped into our clothes and stuck to our hair. They told us that a lot of people had died where we were now, and I wondered if that had anything to do with the smell.
When we re-emerged into the sunlight, muddy, bat-hit (we were literally hit by bats), and soaked in sweat, we had to admire the people who had lived down there for years. But that was the point of making the tunnels a tourist destination: to impress visitors with the way the NVA lived.
But living a life in the NVA’s shoes was over now, and we had one item on our itinerary: lunch.
We walked back to the bikes and my nails found their place under the seat. My legs were a bit shaky, but I told myself there was just a little more to go.
They brought us to this little roadside joint that foreign visitors, like ourselves, would probably miss. It was run by a family, who had already set several traditional Vietnamese dishes on the table.
Oddly enough, several of the dishes looked and tasted just like traditional Philippine food. The only difference between this meal and meals back home was that they ate with chopsticks, and the names they’d given the food were impossible to pronounce.
Full and satisfied, the tour guides all hopped into available hammocks for a quick cat nap.
While we waited for them to wake up, I drank copious amounts of sugar cane juice with freshly squeezed lime.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how much Saigon’s tourism industry revolved around the Vietnam War. True, it happened just a few decades ago and many who lived through it are still alive today.
But with most of the major tourist attractions focusing on that dark part of their history, and the storefronts of most of the souvenir shops selling war-related stuff (Viet Cong uniforms, anyone?), it was easy to think that there was nothing more to to Saigon than its war torn past.
But because of this scenic route we had just taken, we got a glimpse into the lives of regular Vietnamese folk. The lives away from the war, and away from what had filled our heads in the last few days of touring.
And now that leads us back to where I started this blog post: me on the back of a motorcycle, sore and stiff. We were on our way back to the city centre when we hit the most horrific traffic jam.
Being stuck in a car in the middle of traffic is frustrating, but at least in a car there’s usually air-conditioning and legroom. When you’re in a motorcycle jam, you don’t have either luxury and the exhaust makes you feel like your skin is melting.
This experience, of course, isn’t something the tourism industry focuses on either.