Bent double, we’re groping our way blindly through the winding maze’s inky gloom in a single file, when suddenly a deafening volley of gunfire rents the humid silence. The staccato rat-a-tat of whizzing bullets overhead startle me upright from my half-walk – nay, crawl – and I knock my head against the low-slung ceiling. Realisation hits me: I was in a very, very tight spot – four feet high and two feet wide – in the dank underground tunnels of Cu Chi, deep in the bowels of South Vietnam.
The labyrinthine underground passages built during the war are a testament to the ingenuity and industriousness of the Vietnamese people.
Glimpsing the light at the end of the muddy tunnel, I squeeze towards it, frantically scrabbling my way up the steep clay stairs on all fours. Our guide, Dong, who’s waiting outside, looks in and laughs, sensing my panic. His laughter echoes off the rocky walls. ‘Already exhausted? You’ve been in there exactly five minutes! Think of the 30,000 Viet Congs who hid here for 10 years during the American war!’
Emerging grubby, streaked with mud and weak-kneed (albeit proud I’d survived those suffocating five minutes) from the tunnel’s heart of darkness into blinding sunshine, a disconcerting sense of déjà vu engulfs me. We’re at the Ben Duoc War Memorial Park, in the Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh, but I could have easily been on the sets of the epic Seventies war movie Apocalypse Now.
We’re smack in the middle of South Vietnam’s tropical leafy undergrowth that’s booby-trapped with pits of razor-sharp bamboo spikes and planks tacked with nails. Sterile moon-sized craters pockmark the red earth, while empty warheads and bomb casings are stacked casually under thatched sheds. Some of them also house colossal American tanks, so enormous even the cannon barrels are a feet above our eye level.
All the while, the ominous percussion of gunshots from the on-site firing range for tourists interjects the air. I expect Captain Willard dressed in military gear to come screaming from behind a shrub at any minute.
He doesn’t. Here at this war park, the only Americans are hordes of harmless tourists.
Francis Ford Coppola himself couldn’t have envisioned a more realistic reconstruction of the Vietnam War, but then the Ben Duoc War Memorial Park is no ordinary theme park. This is ground zero, the erstwhile stronghold of the Viet Cong, the epicentre of guerrilla warfare riddled with a clandestine subterranean tunnel network that was strategic to the communist-led peasant army’s win. When the Americans carpet-bombed and napalmed Cu Chi’s overground villages, razing them to ashes and smithereens, the Vietnamese burrowed into this honeycomb of passages spanning 250km, extending at some places to neighbouring Cambodian border. They surfaced only to sneak attack baffled American bases. This covert labyrinth made up underground villages, roads, hideouts, storage units, hospitals and homes.
Dong leads us – a group of journalists hosted by the Royal Brunei Airlines – through the park’s sun-baked trail, stopping at reconstructed kitchens exhibiting the clever ventilation system that disguised smoke as mist. Along the way, cobblers dextrously make de lop sandals (Ho Chi Minh shoes) from recycled tyres of destroyed American military jeeps, and a sweet old lady rolls out rice papers (war-time staple diet as it was light, nutritious and had long shelf life) by the stack in seconds. Finally, we watch a short screening of a black-and-white propaganda film explaining the history, geography and ingenuity of the Cu Chi tunnels and, most importantly, the industriousness of the Vietnamese. If I had a hat (it will serve you well to carry one in tropical Vietnam’s sizzling summers), I’d tip it to their resourcefulness.
I learn quickly during our two-day trip to Vietnam that the past is never quite dead and is economic fodder for the present. While Cu Chi provides an optimistic overview of the disastrous Vietnam War that defines this south-east Asian nation, in Ho Chi Minh City – formerly Saigon and Vietnam’s largest metropolis – the War Remnants Museum is a grim reminder of how the ultimate victims of any battle are innocent people. Chamber after chamber holds graphic photographs, humbling exhibits and glass-fronted displays of the declaration of independence, military regalia, etc. The gargantuan vestiges of the war – Chinook helicopters, self-propelling guns and fighter jets – find a home in the courtyard. My second stab at war tourism that day leaves me feeling sad for what the people had undergone.
While Vietnam does wear its battle scars from the past like badges of honour, its history as a colony of 19th-century French Indochina has bequeathed it architectural jewels such as the Notre Dame Basilica and the Central post office. Both located a stone’s throw from each other in the well-planned District 1 – the financial, shopping and cultural capital of Ho Chi Minh – and largely constructed by the French, it has a distinct European charm and vintage vibe. The basilica, with its twin bell towers, stoic Romanesque façade and brightly coloured mullioned windows (every single tile was imported from France), radiates calm and serenity that many come seeking.
The Central Post Office in buzzing Ho Chi Minh is a spectacular Renaissance structure designed by Gustave Eiffel.
The post office, meanwhile, is a handsome Gothic Renaissance structure; a joyous splash of sunshine yellow and green on the manicured landscape. It’s perhaps one of the few postcard-perfect post offices in the world, but then you wouldn’t expect any less of a design dreamed by Gustave Eiffel, the man who gave us the Eiffel.
It’s the equally quaint Viet Village restaurant that we head to for lunch, although I would have loved to hit up Nhà hàng Ngon – a Saigon favourite. But the ambience, chequered floors and bright green French windows along with the delicious set menu of hearty yam soup, shrimp in rice paper rolls and steamed seabass turns us into an upbeat bunch again.
My sweet-and-sour orange grilled chicken tastes nothing like what I’m used to eating and for a few moments, I chew uncertainly on it. The difference is, one of my companions points out, that my palate, lifeless from frozen poultry meals, is probably being jolted back to life by Vietnamese cuisine’s farm-to-table produce. I polish off my meal without a second thought.
Ho Chi Minh City is a gastronomic powerhouse where world-class restaurants blend local cuisine and European charm with aplomb.
Vietnam clearly takes pride in its food. It not just tastes scrumptious but looks gorgeous too. It’s a trend I notice the previous night – our first here – when straight from Tan Son Nhat International Airport, past waves of two-wheelers and swathes of spacious green gardens, we arrive at Nghi Xuan. The boutique restaurant located at the end of a non-descript alley, appears to be hole in the wall, but it is a bewitching, glamorous eatery that’s much like a posh Vietnamese home. As my eyes take in the tastefully done carved wooden screens, gilded upholstery and bright ochre-and-red walls capped by oriental paintings, the hands dive right into traditional platters of tuong pha (rice paper-rolled shrimp), crispy lotus salad, stir-fried morning glory and soothing winter melon soup with mussels smacking of brine. That we all devoured every last morsel was a testament to the quality of the grub.
Mind it, only three hours earlier we’d gorged on the most delicious three-course in-flight meal (avocado-stuffed smoked salmon, vegetable stroganoff and pudding) on our connecting Royal Brunei flight from Brunei to Vietnam (we flew 8 hours from Dubai to Brunei earlier that morning) in luxe business-class cabins.
While we’re on the topic of food, let me fast-forward to the spectacular show of a lunch we’re served at the Mekong Rest Stop restaurant the next day. Featuring a cluster of open gazebos, meandering paths and picturesque wooden bridges overhung by knots of magenta bougainvillea across ornamental ponds, this gorgeous garden restaurant’s mouth-watering menu picked the best of the delta’s produce and live-cooked it for us with aplomb. Shrimps are flambéed in coconut water as the kernel is set on fire at the table. Bubble-like fired sticky rice balls are punctured to crumple into the glutinous wraps. But the pièce de résistance is a Mekong River delicacy – fried elephant ear fish crusted crispy with salt, picked off the bone by our server in seconds and stuffed into rice paper rolls.
Good food finds us at the glamorous Hotel Equatorial in District 4 too. Here, the breakfast counters at Chit Chat Café are laden with a flavourful symphony of western fare and traditional Vietnamese chicken wrapped with steamed bean curd skin, nori floss loaf and prawn and mushroom rice flour rolls.
We set up shop for the next two days in the French-edged contemporary Equator Club rooms. Apart from being wildly comfortable with Wi-Fi, the sunken baths and modcons are a big difference from the hotels glowing anthurium installations outside and glimmering crystal strings in the lobby. All of the city’s star attractions are a mere 10-15 minutes’ drive away.
One such drive deposits us straight on the banks of the sinuous Saigon River for a dinner cruise. Coursing through the city, as old as time itself, the arterial waterway pumps commerce into the city. Its port is the gateway to metric tonnes of cargo shipment, while the main river snakes through the city floating pleasure cruises throughout its length before pouring out into the East Sea.
The beauty from King Yacht Cruise – a dignified, wood-panelled craft – that we’re bobbing along on has all sorts of entertainment on board that makes me forget the mesmerising sights outside. Lithe Vietnamese women, dressed in colourful, traditional ao dai (silk tunics and pants), silky black hair pulled back into sleek buns, flit on to the stage like butterflies. As a traditional three-piece band of a sao (flute), da tu (stringer square lute) and woodblock (song loan) break into jaunty song in rhythm with the gentle bob of the cruise, three dancers whip out gigantic fans and twirl them around gracefully, performing the imperial fan dance and flower dance.
While we’re not being charmed by dancers or another delicious meal, we take a seat on the fairylight-streamed open deck to gaze at Vietnam’s brilliant city lights reflected in the water below. A magician drifts around working the crowd, spell-binding us with his dexterous moves.
Before our cruise ends, I slip upstairs to the deck to catch a last glimpse of Vietnam’s glittering skyline, much of which is situated along the west bank. The vertical growth of majestic glass-and-chrome structures is reflective of rapid development, a drop in poverty and a swift-growing GDP (5.5 per cent annually) the government’s liberal economic policies and trade agreements have fuelled. When the 68-storey iconic Bitexco Financial Tower (listed as one of the top 50 architectural masterpieces of the world) floats by, I have my second déjà vu of the day – this city has the ambition and potential of Dubai.
If the cruise pitted us face-to-face with Vietnam’s future hurtling at break-neck speed, an excursion to the Mekong Delta – Vietnam’s rice bowl – reels us back into slo-mo village life. A two-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh later, we’re picked up by a wooden motor boat at the bank and the driver I’m chuffed to notice is a woman.
‘You’ll see that women run most things around My Tho province’s four islands,’ Dong grins. The quaint villages we visit in parts on foot and in parts on miniature horse carts are inhabited by families who market their produce to curious tourists. The saccharine loot from a coconut candy factory leaves me a few thousand Vietnamese dong poorer, but richer with souvenirs. Unicorn Island’s beautiful fruit orchards bedecked with lotus ponds and bee farms are as enchanting as the island’s name, as are the nectarine honey tea and ambrosia-like fruit platters of plump kumquats, mangoes, papayas and pineapples we sup on.
My favourite part of the entire trip is this last leg, when wearing conical hats we step into low wooden canoes as smiling women row us to shore. It’s a Willie Wonka river, so saturated with silt that its chocolate brown colour and mid-morning sunlight reflecting off it create an ethereal sepia image. The mineral-rich sediments washing across the river basin over millennia have made the Mekong islands some of the most fecund lands on earth, accounting for over 20 per cent of Vietnam’s agriculture. The canal is fanned by waving palm fronds on either side and although clogged with a floating traffic of canoes manoeuvring the narrow waterway – some laden with goods for sale (vegetables, groceries, handicrafts), others passengers – the only sound we here is the gentle lap of paddles against water. It finally feels like a good morning in Vietnam.
It’s an eight-hour long journey back home to Dubai and before I jump into the thick of routine, I’m glad for the relaxing two-day layover in Brunei. It’s a respite if you’re travelling with kids; with a population of just 400,000 residents, prosperous Brunei is a treasure-trove of calm and luxury.
The Empire Hotel and Country Club in Brunei is a lavish seven-star property that oozes style, elegance and life on the swanky lane.
Our first taste of this affluent nation’s wealth is at the swanky seven-star Empire Hotel and Country Club in Jerudong (Brunei’s Beverly Hills) – a 15-minute drive from the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. Featuring cavernous marble rooms and bathrooms the size of playgrounds, and spanning thousands of acres, the resort also boasts a championship-level golf course, its own theatre, and indoor basketball and squash courts. If that doesn’t spin your head, then the main lobby gilded in gold-plated fixtures definitely will.
While the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque is a sight to behold in urban Brunei, the Ulu Temburong National Park is a natural haven.
It’s easy to hole up in my room, but we head out to explore delicious local delicacies at the Gadong Night Market, and the gold-domed Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. A boat ride across the stilted Kampong Ayer water village – Asia’s largest water settlement – later, we pop by the Royal Regalia Museum. I didn’t regret not taking advantage of the king beds at the hotel!
Returning home in Royal Brunei Airline’s Dreamliner business-class seats that reclined to a flat 180 degrees, I slept like a baby for the first time during a long-haul flight. One of many firsts during this trip.