Last Thursday, we took a few days off from ministry and caught a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I’ve always wanted to go to Vietnam and learn more about the history there. Somewhere in the midst of switching between my grade school to my high school, I missed the Vietnam section in history class. I was terribly uneducated on the subject, and never took the time to learn about it independently. I am ashamed to say that I barely even knew that it was about Communism. (I’m not sure why I feel the need to confess that to the world.)
After the 6-hour bus ride, we were dropped off in the Pham Ngu Lao district of the city—a popular destination for backpackers. We had purchased a fairly extensive guidebook on the country, and it told us this was a suggested area for “budget travelers,” which we most certainly were. It’s interesting to see how differently I travel now. Before the Race, I would have made sure that I had secured reservations at a hotel, only after having thoroughly researched many options on the internet. I would have also called to verify the reservation several days in advance to make sure that everything would run smoothly (Thanks for the training, Mom). But here I was, headed to a different country, leading a group of 16 other people, with absolutely no plans of where to stay or what we were going to do, and I loved the idea of the uncertainty involved. As soon as I hopped off the bus, Danny, Brady, and I set off with our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook to scout out a place to crash for a couple nights, while the others waited patiently in a local café for our return. After about an hour of searching, we were blessed to find not only a brand-new guesthouse that could house all 17 of us (a rare find in a land of mini-hotels and hostels), but that had amazing amenities for us to enjoy.
We all checked in and immediately headed out to see the city; we only had about 36 hours in the city, so there was no time to waste. Danny acted as our tour guide—he was the only one that could read from the Lonely Planet book and relay the information to us while walking backwards so he could be heard—and navigated us through the moto-infested streets with ease, pointing out interesting landmarks and buildings of interest. Near the center of the city, we found a large statue celebrating Tran Nguyen Han, the first man to use carrier pigeons in Vietnam. His legend will surely live on throughout humanity. Across the street was Pho 2000, a restaurant that serves the classic Vietnamese-style noodle soup (called pho). When Bill Clinton visited Vietnam in 2000, he ate here; his visit is very evident from the multiple posed photographs with the staff that hang from every free inch of space. Even if you don’t like his politics, the man has good taste; the pho was delicious.
We trekked on through the city, determined to squeeze in everything that we possibly could that evening. Unfortunately, when we got to the museum district, we were disappointed to learn that they all closed at 5 o’clock. We were several minutes too late. Knowing that we were going to get a fair-share of history in the next day, we weren’t too disappointed, and decided to focus our energy on finding a place to eat dinner. We wanted to find a place good enough to write home about. We decided on The Black Cat, what CNN billed as one of the top-10 restaurants in the world that you must visit. CNN has never let me down before, so we crammed 9 people into a single taxi (an impressive sight, if I do say so myself) with great anticipation of our meal. The Black Cat is best known for a burger called The Big Cheese, a 500 gram (a little more than 1 lb.) beef patty topped with 6 pieces of bacon, 6 slices of cheese, a whole head of lettuce, 3 tomatoes and onions, and 1 pickle (let’s not get too outrageous, 1 pickle is plenty). Had we ordered only one of The Big Cheese for the whole table it would have surely satisfied us all, but Silas and Danny each decided to tackle one on their own.
When the burgers arrived, my stomach began to sympathetically churn, knowing that it was going to be a long night for the two of them. Each burger was about 1 foot in diameter and about half a foot high; it took up the whole platter. In total, it weighed in at over 3 pounds. The small Vietnamese man whole delivered them to our table had trouble carrying the two burgers at the same time. We blessed the food—the guys were going to need it—and everyone dug in. We watched in amazement as the burgers the size of a newborn baby began to disappear. Each had different strategies for finishing their meal: Silas took his time and ate at a steady pace, while Danny plowed in and ate without even setting the burger down. In his eyes, I saw determination that I’ve only ever seen in the eyes of champions of international hotdog eating competitions. After about 20 minutes, Danny successfully downed the 3-pound monster. Silas quickly realized his tactical mistake: he wasted too much time between bites, allowing his stomach to realize that it was, in fact, about to rupture. Rookie.
The group parted ways—some went home, while a few others, including myself, stayed out to soak in a bit more of Ho Chi Minh, completely ignoring the fact that we would have to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning the next day to begin a busy day of tours. We ran across a large Gloria Jean’s Coffee, which caused great excitement for me since I used to work at one in St. Louis while I was in high school. It was nice to be able to relax in a familiar atmosphere and have deep, coffee-shop appropriate conversation about life with good friends.
The next morning, we woke up bright and early, ready to explore even more of Ho Chi Minh and the history of the area. We booked a tour that would take us to the Cu Chi Tunnels just outside of Ho Chi Minh. This network of tiny tunnels, stretching more than 250 km, were used by the Vietnamese guerrilla soldiers to hide from the American forces in daylight during the War. Before seeing the tunnels, the visitor center shows an antiquated documentary of the war, clearly published by the Communist government, in which it refers to Americans as the “rebel forces” and “the enemy.” It was all very surreal for me, knowing that they were referring to my father, who had fought in the War.
We walked for a short distance, and came upon one of the openings of the tunnel system. It was ridiculously tiny, and only someone with a waist size smaller than 34 inches would successfully make it through the opening. A few meters away was an enlarged-version of the tunnel entrance so that fat American tourists could avoid the inevitable embarrassment caused by becoming lodged in the original entryway.
After a series of exhibits on booby-traps, fighting techniques, and life in the tunnels, it was time for us to crawl through them. The ones that were open to the public were, of-course, enlarged versions of the original, but they were still plenty small for my liking. The enlarged version is about 80 cm wide and 1 meter tall, just barely tall enough for me to walk completely hunched over. There were several options. I could crawl in the tunnels for 90 meters total, but was able to exit every 30 meters. Always up for a challenge, I was determined to go the whole 90 meters, but the second I crawled the 3 meters below the surface, my senses reminded me how ridiculous this proposition was, and they began every technique available to them to get me to exit at the first chance. My heart began to pound, I began to sweat profusely, and I began to hallucinate tourist-hungry bats hanging from the top of the tunnel, ready to jump on my back at any second. In fact, I couldn’t see anything because of the lack of lighting, except when the camera was flashed in my face to capture the look of terror that had become a seemingly permanent expression. I scrambled up to the exit after the first 30 meters, but felt no remorse that I did not complete my goal. It was horrific being under there for even a few minutes. I simply cannot imagine what it was like for men to live down there in 12-hour shifts.
The bus took us back to Ho Chi Minh and dropped us off in front of the Museum of American and Chinese War Atrocities, now renamed as the War Remnants Museum to be more American-tourist friendly (are you seeing a pattern?). The outside yard displayed many American armaments that had been captured or destroyed in the war. Inside were countless photographs from the war recounting the destruction. Having never been exposed to this side of the coin, it was all very difficult for me to take in. I sat outside on the steps and waited for the others to finish looking around.
We walked several blocks to the Reunification Palace, where the South surrendered to the Communist North in the spring of 1975. When I heard that we were going to a palace, I expected something along the lines of the Biltmore Mansion in America, but I was quickly faced with the reality that it was built in the 1960’s, and thus “an excellent example of 1960’s architecture,” at least that’s what our Lonely Planet guidebook told us. We arrived just before closing time, so we had the entire building practically to ourselves. Honestly, it was pretty ugly. But I guess you might like it if you enjoy Indochinese design from the mid-century. Regardless, it was historical and a good experience.
We called it quits for our self-taught history lessons for the day and headed home to relax for a while before heading out for dinner and more evening sightseeing. I flipped on the TV and was delighted to find that we had American cable channels. Having no access to TV on the Race (other than a few downloaded episodes of The Office), my life has been TV-free since June. It was nice to indulge for a while, even if I was watching a horribly made documentary on lavish 16-year-olds’ birthday parties on MTV.
We ate dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Pham Ngu Lao district near where we were staying. Afterward, Colleen and I walked around the area and did a little shopping. I found a whole store dedicated to purses, one of my weaknesses. There were so many stacks that my little heart couldn’t take it. I was able to restrain myself from buying several dozen only because I couldn’t muster up the energy to shift through the hundreds of disordered piles. We walked into another store and Colleen noticed The Purpose Driven Life sitting on a side table. Intrigued, she asked the man working there if he had read it. It’s not often that you find Christian books in South East Asia. He said that he had read it and really enjoyed it. We talked with him for a while and found out that he has been a Christian for 2 years now, but only has one other Christian friend, which is very difficult for him. We were able to encourage him in the Lord, and we prayed with him that God would continue to send Christians into his life.
After a few more shops, we headed home and immediately crashed in bed, hoping to get as much sleep as possible so our bus ride early the next morning wouldn’t be entirely miserable.