One little jump and pouff! I disappeared. Only some leaves moved above my head before settling down to the ground, but someone walking over me would have never been able to see me .
Inside the tiny cubicle was hot and dark, and so tight that even I (a small Italian) could hardly fit in it, bent on my knees and trying to breath calmly. But this tunnel would have saved my life during the Vietnam war, and luckily today is only a tourist attraction – one can see a big smile on anybody trying it, since its optical effect is fun and does look magical indeed.
Cu Chi Tunnels
We are in the Cu Chi Tunnels, about half an hour away from Ho Chi Minh City (that used to be called Saigon).
It took 25k people to build 200 km of tunnels in the course of 20 years. At the beginning everyone built a tunnel in their garden, and then they started to join them. While visiting, you can see for example how the Viet Cong managed to cook underground without helicopters spotting the smoke, thanks to a clever system of secondary tunnels where the smoke was directed, and then made heavier with water so it would stay on the floor.
Another safety trick was to scatter sweets around the tunnel entrances so the insects would form a colony and therefore confuse the dogs that Americans were using to find the enemy.
Go With the Flow
So why was I visiting this special place? The reason is a trip that we (my husband and I) initially planned as a sabbatical. Our intention was to drive from Zurich to Singapore while taking time off from work. But the political situation, as we all know, became quite difficult, so we decided to simply spend some holidays in three countries: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. We then had some problems with the Visa and had to cut our trip even shorter. It was still totally worth and gave us a taste of this completely different region of the world. My overall impression? A lot of young people with a gentle attitude to go with the flow.
Culture Shock: Traffic
A guide told me that in 2018 it was calculated there there were almost 100 million scooters, in Vietnam.
Forget what crossing a road, riding a bike or drive means for you at home. When you arrive in Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos), it will be a completely different story. The first day it will take you a while to dare going in the middle of the mess, where everyone is coming from everywhere. Red doesn’t mean you can’t go, and anyway often there is no red light at all. So what do you do? You kind of “push”, meaning you start walking (or going) to signal others that they have to let you pass. Incredibly, it works without any honking or discussions – nobody speeds up and everybody seems to be interested in the traffic itself to flow. You survived it.
And how not to notice some of the Asian fashion styles we would never think of?
The hundreds of thousands motorbike drivers you see every day in the streets are fully covered up to protect their skin from the sun. When it’s hot and humid and we westerners would be wearing shorts and tank top, Asian riders wear jackets with long sleeves, gloves, long trousers, a mask and a hoodie under the helmet. It looks like they might go skiing after all – at 30 degrees.
Indeed, after being in the city and going to Cambodia and Laos to the countryside, I start to notice that city people are much whiter than those in the country and that, when I see someone with a darker skin, I assume he or she works outdoor in a simpler job. Because that’s the signal they are trying to give: delicately pale skin means rich city people, and tanned skin is avoided like the plague. The opposite of what we are doing, coming back from holidays with a tan to show how wealthy we are.
Another big trend in fashion is wearing huge logos everywhere. If you like them, go to Vietnam and you’ll never crave for them again. People wear “Dior” pajamas to sell fruit, “Chanel” t-shirts to swipe the road and “Balenciaga” jackets to fix a motorbike while getting dirty and greasy from the engine. A terrible looking mix of fast fashion, sparkly accessories, hair ribbons, manga telephone covers and tulle skirts we wouldn’t wear in a million years. But it does work here, so be it.
Sport and Power Naps
Another big difference I think all Europeans notice when traveling to Asia is how easily people workout outside (especially in groups) in parks and public spaces, especially early in the morning, in the dark (so it’s not so hot) and at any age. But let me tell you again: this population is on average very young, and I imagine that when they come to us for a trip they must think we are all old! Later, during the day, when the temperature is raising, they go to gyms that have no air conditioning, but obviously offer some shade and some machines.
During the trip, my husband and I often had to go out before sunrise in order to make it early enough to different sites. We always found the streets busy with people working at any time, preparing things in their shops while it was still pitch black and, conversely, sometimes peacefully sleeping during the day, in full light and in the middle of activities.
The biggest take away I get from Asia, which I found even more impressive than the beauty of its nature and the business of its cities, is people kindness and their gentle attitude.
Smiling and bowing while saying thank you is perhaps the most beautiful Asian feature, that reminds you many times a day that there’s no need to be aggressive or try to prove something. People respect you, wait a moment for you, stay in their rhythm and constantly watch others in an active daily dance that they also stop regularly to take breaks.
This can be seen, above all, in Laos.
For example, a young waiter in Luang Prabang, while he was serving me a drink and flashing me his white teeth and shiny black eyes, asked me:
“Did you give the sticky rice to the monks, this morning at sunrise? I was late and hat to run after the last monk!”
I answered that yes, we did go, but we were also a bit afraid of disturbing, as tourists.
“Not at all, it’s a beautiful sacred ritual you should see. But we don’t want only you foreigners to feed them, it has to come from us locals too. I once spent a month with the monks, when my grandfather passed away. It helped me to mourn. They are good people”.
My 3 Vietnam highlights
So here are my three favorite things I would suggest, to do when visiting.
1- Cu Chi Tunnels
A piece of history you can interact and test your fitness with. But don’t forget: the average Vietcong was 45 kg and 1.50 tall, so you might choose to stay outside and only watch traps and tunnels from a little distance.
2- Train Street in Hanoi
The craziest street in the world will make your hair raise – literally.
Cafes and people and flags and low chairs and anything you can imagine are basically almost touching the trains that pass twice a day in the middle of it all, without any protection whatsoever. The most unimaginable train ride is really fun: don’t move, have your coffee and go home – quick!
3- Hoi Han, or a Cruise to Halong Bay
Forgive me for not being more informative about this because I haven’t been there. However, I love speaking to locals, in addition to reading guides, and these two destinations came up again and again as fabulous trip ideas full of beauty, calmness and atmosphere. So you might want to research this and include it in your travel plan.
Hoi Han is a traditional, ancient village full of atmoshpere.
Halong Bay a scenic bay that looks like a Capri view or the Amalfi coast in Italy, the Vietnamese version.
My 3 Cambodia highlights
1- Angkor Wat
The 8th wonder of the World is also a UNESCO world heritage site. Impressive for its sheer size, it features very dark stones that are quite surprising for a Western tourist, and perhaps not as pretty, I must admit. Still, a landmark not to miss. The morning tour leaving at 5 am – did I mention that these guys are always working in the dark? – brings you there before the heat and the mass of people arrives.
2- Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm Temple
Feel like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider and visit the Temple of the Smiling Buddha (Bayon Temple) where the film was shot.
One side of the bridge is full of angry faces (representing the Devil), and the other is full of happy Buddhas.
A famous scene of the film was shot in Ta Prohm, the temple that is famous fo its huge tree roots that look line octopus.
We also managed to run there because we happened to be there the day of the half marathon ! An amazing experience we didn’t expect, running through history and enjoying the happy mess, where runners could arrive 15 minutes late and they were still cheered like champions from the speaker.
2- Massage and spa
Ok, maybe I’m being unfair in mentioning massage for Cambodia only, because this is done everywhere I. Asia, at an exceptional level and incredibly low prices (6 to 10 CHF/Euro for an hour).
But don’t miss it and do ask your hotel if they have a package: you might end up having massage every day and relax in a way you hadn’t done for a long time.
3- Rent a motorbike
How many people can you fit on a bike? “5, plus a dog”
Is the answer I got from our guide.
So try this experience and rent a bike, maybe to go to the country and see the rice fields or simply enjoy nature – after the initial shock of learning the different rules, it’s going to be fun!
My 3 highlights for Laos
And now my overall favorite: beautiful, gentle, silent Laos.
1- Sai Bat (morning alms) takes place between the hours of 5-6am each day and involves people placing food and personal care items into the alms bowls of passing monks. It’s a silent and sacred ceremony – one that is steeped in tradition. Among the monks are many child novices, also dressed in orange robes.
Simply follow the voices and walk in the dark, early in the morning, to the center of Luang Prabang. You will be offered a low stool, a scarf and the sticky rice (and chocolate bars) to give the the passing months, at sunrise.
2- Kuang Si waterfalls.
I had to pinch myself when I first saw these famous waterfalls, because they do look as turquoise as in the photos, and incredibly similar to Saturnia thermal waters, in Tuscany. I thought I had done all that trip to be back home!
But yes, these waterfalls are simply very similar, if not more powerful and majestic. The park around them is also worth to spend some time at, with its thick and luxurious vegetation, some bears (yes, bears), a butterfly park and an elephant area at a short distance too.
Enjoy the Mekong from high with a short hike to the … temple, have breakfast in one of the many cafes overlooking the river, go for a trip on a little rowing boat.
Even though the muddy waters are brown, the vegetation often reflects on them and make the atmosphere magical.
Bonus tip: I suffer from backache and foot pain from my arthritis and scoliosis. This disappeared one week through the trip. I guess it was a combination of massage (which I normally don’t do because in Switzerland it’s too expensive), stretching and an almost vegan diet. While I’m not advocating for any specific food regimen, it’s a fact that eating a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits was paired with less pain, and it was quite easy to do in this region.