Semester at Sea 2016
On February 9th, 2016 the MV World Odyssey arrived in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam. We arrived a day later than scheduled due to extreme weather conditions on the Saigon River. Vietnam was a fantastic country. The weather was hot. When we arrived it was 91 degrees Fahrenheit. This was so comfortable after the two weeks of winter we experienced in Japan and China.
As we sailed up the Saigon River to get to the Ho Chi Minh City port we saw brown, murky water under us and on either side of the river lots of palms and other native greenery. A beautiful lush and full tropical forest on both sides of the river with the occasional house on stilts built right into the river. We passed several other freight vessels docked on the sides of the river. When we arrived in Ho Chi Minh, I got off the ship and boarded the local shuttle to the center of town, this is what the port authority requires of any passenger vessel docked in the industrial port. I set out with two friends and we went on a mission to explore the city of Ho Chi Minh. When we arrived in Ho Chi Minh it was the second day of Tet. This is their celebration of the lunar New Year. This is a time full of red and gold colors all over the city and most of the shops had closed as they spent the holiday with their families.
On the first day, we explored the touristy strip of the city looking at all of the souvenir shops. The first few shops were all so impressive with the wood carvings, the elaborate designs of figurines, the bright colors of shirts, and the different raw materials that had been carved into anything you can imagine. However, after the first few shops all of the souvenirs become the same. It just becomes a game of where can I go to get the best price. There was not much else to do on the first day, except go to these touristy destinations, as most of the shop stalls were closed. As the Tet holiday began to wind down, more of the shops opened and then the famous markets opened up.
The Ben Than (said like Tohn) market was an experience. Aisles that were wide enough for a person to walk, and that was it. However, it was uncommon to be the only one trying to occupy the space you were in. The shop venders had further cut down on the aisle space by overcrowding their stalls with all of the same touristy trinkets and the locally made Nike, Under Armor, Adidas, and other clothing brands of shirts, pants, and hats. Their stalls cut the already narrow aisles in half. Not to mention the building it was in. It was a large, metal, garage like structure with no air conditioning or fans, except the ones any vendor would wave in your face to try and lure you to their stall. So, the second you walked into the building your body began to pour with sweat. However, if you could handle the heat and the pressure of the locals, you could find the best deals around in this market.
On the last day in Vietnam, I did a Semester at Sea field program to the Cu Chi tunnels and a cooking class in the morning. The cooking class took place at a local organic farm. This farm was full of different herbs and greens. A huge variety of mint and basil grown alongside tapioca, guava, and lemon grass. They also grew oyster mushrooms, straight out of the bottle. The farm owners had developed a unique system of growing the mushrooms out of two liter bottles. These bottles hung in stacks 15 high in a dark, hot and humid shed to get the mushrooms to grow big and lush. When it finally came time to cook, we made ourselves a four course meal. The first dish was fresh spring rolls. We rolled the herb leaves into a fresh, rice paper with rice noodles for a light and delicious appetizer. The next dish was a salad. This was the most labor intensive dish of the day. We had to cut up a part of a papaya, cucumber, and carrot with a “fancy knife”, it made the vegetables look like crinkle cut French Fries. We then dressed this with a traditional dipping sauce. Then the protein of the dish was made. You had to cut up ginger and lemon grass to marinade the pork of tofu in. This was a spicy salad that was fresh and delicious. We then made the entrée. It was called Chicken or tofu in clay pot. The name was very creative. It combined few ingredients, but got the most flavor possible out of those few ingredients. Finally dessert was deep fried banana spring rolls with coconut ice cream. These were the highlight of the meal. They were so tasty and the coconut ice cream that went with it made the flavors of the banana shine. It was also nice to have the cold ice cream on a hot day.
After the cooking class we moved on to take a tour of the Cu Chi tunnel system. This tunnel system stretches for thousands of miles underneath the country side of Vietnam all the way to Cambodia. These tunnels were used by the Viet Kong during the Vietnam War. The tunnels were an incredibly humbling experience. The tunnels that we went through had been widened to over double the original size to allow tourist to crawl through them. You were still hunched over at a 90 degree angle and squatting a little bit to be able to move through them at all. In several places you had to slide to make it through even at its widened state.
This made you think how small these people were and how determined to win they were that they would use these tunnels with no light and small cramped and crowded conditions. Trying to pass someone in the widened parts was nearly impossible and people passed each other daily during life in the tunnels. The tunnel entrances were unbelievably well hidden too. The large openings were disguised as water wells and the smaller entrances were covered with leaves. Our guide when trying to find the tunnel entrance began banging her foot on the ground trying to find it until the exhibit soldier came over found it after a few tries and showed us the proper way of getting into the tunnel system. Vietnam was an unbelievably beautiful country and one that I am looking forward to getting the opportunity to explore again.