Monday 25th December
It was already very warm and very sunny by 07:10. By 07:30 my phone was ringing (ten minutes ahead of the allocated pickup time), and our guide for the day, "T. Y." was ushering me to the bus. There were already two families on board, each made up of two parents and two "children" (most of them young adults), and we had one further stop to pick up the last family of three, making 12 of us in total.
The irony of now spending hours in an airconditioned bus, whilst the sun blazed outside on my first full day of warmth, was not lost on me.
Our first stop en route to the tunnels was at an art studio. We were shown how the stunningly beautiful lacquered pictures were created from scratch, by hand. Egg shells were used to create a textured profile, along with mother of pearl from shells. The work was all done by craftsmen and women who were surviving victims (or second-generation victims of victims) of the "agent orange" dropped during the war. The stop was hugely interesting, seeing the skill of the workers - but it was a huge tourist trap, and the prices were ridiculous.
The Chu Chi tunnels (Củ Chi in Vietnamese) tunnel visiting area was packed with tourists. Maybe, like me, everyone else had thought that Christmas day would be a good, quiet day to go. My neighbour at home told me she visited this area very soon after the country opened up to allow tourists (following sanctions by the Americans), and at that time it bore only the most basic of facilities. Now, it was a fully-fledged, commercialised business, with row upon row of coaches and minibuses parked alongside two huge restaurants.
T. Y. began to navigate us around the grounds that comprised the tunnel area, regaling us with an astonishing amount of facts. For example: The Viet Cong create literally hundreds of various traps around the area. Each soldier was responsible for remembering hundreds of these that s/he had set. But often those soldiers were killed or captured, which obviously created problems for the survivors. One solution to this was the spring-release bamboo trap. Because the Viet Cong tended to be very small and slight, due mainly to the hugely limited diet. So they set the bamboo traps to only spring for weights over 70kg. As the Viet Cong tended be lighter than this, and as most of the (primarily, but not exclusively American) enemy exceeded this weight, it was a practical solution.
T.Y. employed a trick I often use in my own classes: He picked up on one easy-to-remember name, and used that unfortunate victim for all of his jokes or tricky questions. His victim was me. He asked me to climb aboard an old, captured U.S. army tanks. "Lean forward to hold on. I don't want you falling off." I fell for it. (See image below).
At the end of the tour was a large gift shop, adjacent to which (far, far too close, due to the noise) were firing ranges. I'd made friends with an Australian family. I found a spend bullet shell on the ground and gave it to the young boy - he was absolutely over the moon. "That is *exactly* what he wanted," his dad, Bobby, told me. I told him not to flash it around, and he dug it into his pocket to take home.
The noise at the range was incredible. There was a host of weapons to fire, from M16s to AK47s. It had been many years since I'd spent a day at the ranges, and then we'd always worn ear defenders. Without them, it was uncomfortable, even walking around the gift shop. The Aussie family and I moved away another 50 meters to await the others.
After a quite unpalatable (and only lukewarm) lunch at the restaurant, it was back onto the minibuses for a two hour trip to the Mekong Delta. Along the way we passed large rubber tree plantations (large plantations, not large trees), as well as banana plantations.
The trip, though long, was worth it. We all jumped on a boat and headed across to a small island, T. Y. telling us facts about the incredible length of the Mekong river which is comprised of literally thousands of tributaries. He claimed it was possible to get to Holland via the river - if you had several months. The locals drank from the river, bathed in it, and fed themselves from it. He also told us that crocodiles could be found in the waters.
One of the first things we did on the island was see how the coconuts were crushed and ground to create coconut milk. This was then used to create absolutely gorgeous sweets, which were (strangely enough) best eaten when combined with some plain biscuits/crackers. The combination was great.
Next, we were all encouraged to sample some "snake whiskey". All of the adults were handed a glass, but some blanched at the prospect... resulting in me having a few.