Sunday, January 29, 2006

Swimming In The Mekong

The Mekong River is the economic heart of Vietnam. The river starts in the Himalayas and winds it way through all of south-east Asia before entering the South China Sea. Nine tributaries branch off the river and form the Mekong Delta. My Tho is the town on the river closest to Saigon.

Eco-tourism has become a huge component of the economy in the area. At least two enormous open-air restaurants cater to the tour bus industry. The multi-course meal here features as its center piece a locally farm raised fish that is grilled and served at the table “standing” upright.

Tour boats operate from the river front and take tourists to a variety of local native craft exhibits strung along the river. The river itself is a huge wide muddy super-highway with ferries, sand dredging barges, tour boats and fisherman all trying to run each other over. The boats come in all sizes and shapes. Most boats have some sort of stylized dragon on the bow to scare away the crocodiles that traditionally ply the river.

Much to our amazement, considering the ochre color of the water, small children swim and play right in the river. The level of biological contamination in this country with a still developing sanitary infrastructure would scare away most first world swimmers.

Still, children are children and there is nothing more refreshing than a dip into a dirty crocodile infested river to cool off on a hot day.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Making Rice Paper

Not all the exhibits at the Cu Chi tunnels deal with the war. One display shows the traditional method of making rice paper. Rice paper is used as the wrapper for the Vietnamese version of the egg roll, called cha gio. The rice past is put on a small crepe pan style burner and then set on a bamboo screen to cool. This way the rice paper can stay fresh for several days without spoiling.

The exhibit also included a still making rice wine. Wine is a misnomer since it is at least 80 proof.

Across the way from this exhibit is a firing range where visitors can shoot AK-47's. It is the only legal firing range in Vietnam.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Visit The Cu Chi Gift Shop

Scorpion and Cobra Liquor
Originally uploaded by yellojkt.
One aspect of modern capitalist society that the Vietnamese Army has successfully emulated is the tourist attraction gift shop. As the Cu Chi tour ends, there is a long row of open air stalls selling souvenirs. The items for sale include all sorts of gear with the yellow star and red background, just in case you forgot who won the war. The tire tread sandals were tempting, although I’m sure they are no longer getting the tires from destroyed US trucks.

A large number of items appealed to the sense of machismo, like the cobra and scorpion liquor. Our guide mentioned to drink it while still in Vietnam if we wanted some because the chance of getting it through customs might be slim. They did offer free samples and it made Italian grappa and Kentucky moonshine taste smooth in comparison.

There was also a large (12 foot or longer) stuffed crocodile that you could pose with. You could get your picture either with or without the company of the very attractive lady in native garb at the booth. I kept getting a mental image of large groups of Japanese or Chinese businessmen on vacation trying to pass off the croc as something they killed while on safari.

I think the Communists may have won the war, but good old fashion marketing is winning the hearts and minds.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Into The Tunnels

Crawling in the Cu Chi tunnels.
Originally uploaded by yellojkt.
The premiere attraction of the Cu Chi Tunnel area is of course to go into the tunnels. After touring all the dioramas and displays, visitors are given the opportunity to crawl through a 100 meter long segment of the actual tunnels. Ironically, these particular tunnels have been widened to accommodate the larger frames of western tourists, which was one of the virtues of the original small tunnels.

No one is obligated to go through the tunnels and my wife declined. My son and I were game. The particular stretch of tunnel used for tourists has exit points at the 10 meter and 25 meter marks for those that do get too claustrophobic. We made the whole distance. The tunnel is too tall to walk upright in leaving the options of either crawling on hands and knees or duckwalking through.

Duckwalking through the tunnels
Originally uploaded by yellojkt.
I crawled carrying my camcorder, giving me about 10 minutes of footage that consists of flashes from the Army guide up ahead taking our picture and the sounds of us huff and puffing our way through. The tunnel was very hot and just as humid as the outdoors, causing a lot of perspiration that turns the dry ground of the tunnel into mud when mixed. All in all, not an unpleasant experience, but not one I’m eager to repeat.

There is a convenient hand-washing station at the end of the tunnel for washing off the dust and mud.