10. ‘Nam

19 January 2019, 08:50

This entry is for yesterday because I was exhausted. I left Portland at 06:00 on Wednesday and arrived in Ho Chi Minh at 06:00 on Friday. The latter city is 15 hours ahead of the former, which means I traveled for 33 hours. Slept in pieces on airport chairs and airplane seats. No more than 3 hours at a time. Let’s do the math: 2-hour flight to San Francisco, 7-hour layover, 11-hour flight to Tokyo, 6-hour layover, 6-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh. Or thereabouts. Exhausted for the low price of $405.

I took a car from the airport to Long Hostel. Met another traveler named Marcus, who rode in an overnight train on a bunk with two feet of clearance to the ceiling. Squished. Crammed, you might say. He was sick and didn’t sleep much. I silently breakfasted next to a Russian man and a girl from the UK. The girl, I later found out, was named Kate. More on her in the next paragraph. After breakfast, I changed into shorts and secured my belongings in an unlocked cage in a back room. Check-in was at 14:00; I was too early to be shown a room.

Kate quit her job as a physical therapist to travel Asia. (She can’t have been much older than me.) I have no day-to-day plans, so when Kate said she was taking a bus to the Cu Chi Tunnels north of town, I asked if I could tag along. Walking to the station, we boarded the bumpy, noisy number 13 bus for 10.000 Viet Dong (approx. 0.43 USD). One and a half hours later, we transferred to the number 79, which took us to the tunnels. We bought our tickets and wandered towards the entrance. Finding seats in straight-backed wooden chairs, we watched an old bit of black and white propaganda about the Vietnam War. “Kill Americans,” “American enemies,” and “Medal of Honor for Killing Americans” were the phrases that stood out to me.

A guide spoke to us in English about the tunnels: “250 km long,” “layers deep,” “escape route to the Saigon River,” “vents made with bamboo for oxygen down below,” “twenty years to build,” and “booby traps.” He took us through some of the tunnels, the final one being the most difficult. “If you have asthma or are claustrophobic or do not like tight space, meet us at the tunnel exit.” I followed him 50 meters through the tunnel on hands and knees, going up and down below the earth. Saw spiders and bats. Was bitten by mosquitos in the jungle. Ate steamed cassava root dipped in crushed peanuts and sugar. Tasted like sweet potatoes and tapioca. Bussed back to the city, had pho with beef balls, showered at the hotel, and slept for 12 hours.

“You look tough.”

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