My first day in Vietnam I visited the CU CHI TUNNELS. The Tunnels are an extensive underground community, built by hand in the 1940s–1960s as a means of providing shelter and offering an advantage over the American soldiers during the Vietnam war.
The Cu Chi people lived underground where they slept, ate, planned attacks, attended school, and even gave birth to children. It is said that 20,000 people lived underground. The tunnel entryways are closed and camouflaged and certainly go unnoticed.
Another advantage the Vietnamese had over Americans was their relatively small size. The tunnel entryways were so petite that even if American soldiers detected the tunnels, the majority of men would not be able to enter due to their larger size.
The tunnels served as a large source of frustration for the Americans. The VIET CONG were so embedded in the area that they were essentially able to control where and when battles would take place, resulting in a high number of casualties for Americans.
The tour included examples of traps used against the Americans during the war, a 30 meter section of a tunnel in which students were allowed to crawl into, remnants from bomb craters, as well as fire weapons for those who wished to participate. I shot an AK-47 and it was very exciting!
Vietnam has an excellent night life. Every night there are night markets in the downtown area of HO CHI MINH CITY. Vendors set up their stands and are selling knockoff handbags and clothing, food, trinkets, Vietnam t-shirts, pirated DVDs, etc. The weather is very warm and muggy so walking the streets at night is nice.
The main form of transportation is the motorbike. Large cities, such as Ho Chi Minh City, are flooded with motorbikes. It is very common to see families of four riding along on a single motorbike, often without helmets!
Riding a motorbike in a large city such as Ho Chi Minh City is very difficult and not recommended unless you are a very skilled driver, seeing as traffic can be intense and unsystematic. “Right of way” is an unknown concept to the Vietnamese and their traffic rules are uncommon to any other country.
Motorbike aside, it is not difficult to navigate through Vietnam given that most directional signs are bilingual and offer street names in both Vietnamese and English. One thing to be aware of with motorbikes is the snatching of bags, cell phones, cameras, etc. Local thieves on motorbikes will drive by and snatch pedestrians' belongings.
The largest concern for students’ safety took place when crossing the street. The majority of traffic lights are ignored and law enforcement does not regulate traffic. Cars, motorbikes, trucks, cycles: none of the above stop for pedestrians! It is the pedestrian’s duty to get out of the way.
The form of currency for Vietnam is the Dong. 18,000 Dong is equivalent to $1 USD. It typically takes students a day of shopping and bartering before becoming comfortable with the currency and exchange rates. We have now found ourselves using the U.S. Dollar, Yen, Yuan, Hong Kong Dollar, and now the Dong.
Can we remember the exchange rates? Probably not! Vietnam has been the first country where the dollar is widely accepted and in many situations preferred. US $2 bills is valued at more than $2, are seen as good luck to the Vietnamese, and are often kept in their wallet or store.
While in Vietnam I visited the MUSEUM OF WAR REMNANTS in Saigon. As I toured around the museum I was taken aback by the gruesome photographs which adorned every wall. Pictures included many decapitated bodies, severely deformed figures, and American soldiers holding corpses or skulls.
The museum was very graphic and Americans felt a lot of guilt visiting the museum; however, I am grateful that prior to the visit I was given a first-hand experience on what it was like to be a GI fighting this war.
During a global studies lecture (a core course required for all students on board) we had two guest speakers who spoke of their experience during the Vietnam War. They were 20 and 22 years old when they were drafted into the war. One of the men was a newlywed, who had just purchased a house with his wife, and was celebrating the New Year when he received his draft notice.
A major difference between the Vietnam War and the war we are fighting today is the way in which soldiers were treated by civilians. Soldiers returning from Vietnam did not vocalize their status as veterans because they were looked down upon and treated poorly. Returning soldiers were labeled as “baby killers,” and war protesters would spit on or even splash urine on veterans.
These acts are disgraceful. The veterans spoke of the pride and cheerfulness they feel when they are in an airport and hear the people clap for a platoon, or when they see a stranger go up to a soldier to shake their hand and give them thanks for their efforts.
These are acts of kindness and appreciation which were not expressed during the Vietnam War. Needless to say, the museum was biased and did not portray American soldiers in the best light. Nevertheless, war is war and a soldier is taught to kill the enemy and to do what is necessary to survive.
I also visited the MEKONG DELTA which is the region in southwestern Vietnam where the Mekong River empties into the ocean. The delta yields enough rice to feed the country. Life in the Mekong Delta revolves around the river and most villages are accessible via boat. I tried many new fruits on the delta such as: dragon fruit, leeches, and jackfruit.
All in all I truly enjoyed Vietnam and do plan on returning some day.