Time Capsule: Back in Time

April 2015 marks my two year anniversary of being back in Korea. As I embark on my third and final year I find myself in a state of reflection more often than not. When good things happen, I worry I will miss all the little blessings I’ve been given here. When bad things happen, I shrug and think it won’t be long till those bad things are a fading memory.

My state of reflection while in Japan, 2013.

My state of reflection while in Japan, 2013.

During some recent reminiscing, I came across something I wrote in my note book while waiting to take off from Pearson Airport in Toronto. I must’ve been high on the adrenalin of this new journey because it’s just bursting with opportunity at every paragraph. It made me laugh to see myself put back in that place two yeas ago. Back in that seat, back on that plane, feeling thick with adventure. I thought I’d share this time capsule with you for your amusement.

*Ahem…*

April 1st, 2013

Things are looking up and I’m still on the ground at Pearson airport. After a tearful goodbye with my Pops, I collect myself and get sorted. I can do this. In fact, I already did this – 8 years ago, so get your shit together Vezina! This is old news. Ok I’m cool, let’s roll.

At the airport (not Pearson).

At the airport (not Pearson).

The good luck begins while checking in at the ticket counter.

“Are you traveling with someone?” The airline agent asks. “You booked yourself a middle seat.”

“No,” I reply. “It was given to me at random. May I have an isle seat?”

“Yes,” she says. Nice score. For a 13 hour flight straight from Toronto to Korea, this is invaluable good fortune. Check in: complete.

Next step: bathroom. I probably look like a psycho after that emotional farewell.

Need to put my game face on. I might meet the love of my life on this flight! Must be ready.

Update: I have entered the plane. I see my row, one cute Korean guy sitting at the one end of my row of three. I’m at the other end, just have to walk around to the back of the plane and come back down the isle. I don’t have the guts to clamber over this young man with all my stuff and straddle his kneecaps before even learning his name.

no

So around I go.

In my seat, I start unpacking my books and notice the soft music playing overhead. No joke, it’s “All By Myself” by a wailing Celine Dion. I almost snort with laughter but manage to control myself. Is this really my life right now? One of the saddest songs ever known to man is playing as we embark on an ungodly long flight, most of us landing indeed alone, halfway around the globe.

Excellent pre-flight playlist Korean Air. 

All irony aside, I’m wondering who will be the third person to complete our center row. I overhear the cute guy on the left end asking the attendant if the center seat is free and the attendant says yes. Another score!

good news

Cute Guy and I look at each other and smile. We both know the value of a spare seat for storage and personal space on such a long flight. He knows me so well already. This might be love. 

This is also love.

This is also love.

So there you have it folks. I’m not proud of that shameless optimism but it was all over me that day, like a film to be scraped off in the years to come. Seriously though, I have come a long way in my two years here in Korea and I’m happy to say I’m still enjoying myself as my third year begins. I’ve accomplished all the goals I’ve set out to make in my first two years so this year is like a victory lap. Now is the time to celebrate the present, let go of the past and plan for the future. Cheers to you Dear Readers for being with me on this journey!  Karli in Korea has banked over 75 posts since its inception and has helped to waste countless company hours around the world. Here’s to many more!

Yongma land with Bal in 2015.

Yongma land with Bal in 2015.

Exploring Gangwon-do: Destination Sokcho

2004 marked my first stay in Korea. During that time I made friends with a Korean co-worker, Judy, and that friendship has lasted to this day.

Reunited after years apart.

Reunited after years apart.

Soon after I left Korea, Judy moved to America for university and has lived there ever since. 10 years and 2 trips to the US to visit later, Judy was coming back to Korea! Not for good – just for her brother’s wedding but 2 weeks was better than nothing. We discussed our reunion for months, like school kids going to their first sleep over. After 6 years apart, Judy and I would be romping through Seoul and later, the neighbouring province of Gangwon (or Gangwon-do. “Do,” said like doh, means province).

I mentioned that I wanted to see Gangwon province, an eastern coastal region known for it’s beautiful mountains and fresh seafood. I was wondering if Judy had time to make a trip there with me. Little did I know, she already had a trip planned for Gangwon-do as her mother’s hometown is there, in the city of Sokcho. Judy has lots of family living in Sokcho and they were all eager to see her after a decade away. Judy’s mom was gracious enough to invite me along so off we went! ROAD TRIP!

No springtime trip is complete without cherry blossoms!

No springtime trip is complete without cherry blossoms!

One of the most famous attractions in Sokcho is Seoraksan (or Seorak Mountain,”san” means mountain). Seoraksan stands over 1,700 meters high and is the tallest in the Taebaek mountain region. Surrounding the base of the mountain is Seoraksan National Park and that’s where we spent our day.

The gang about to enter Seoraksan National Park. Two aunts, Judy's mom, Judy and myself.

The gang about to enter Seoraksan National Park. Two aunts, Judy’s mom, Judy and myself.

At the base of the mountain, Seoraksan National Park.

At the base of the mountain, Seoraksan National Park.

The park spreads across four cities: Sokcho, Yangyang, Inje and Goseong. At the base of the mountain you’ll see the huge Bronze Buddha that sits over 10 meters high and leads the way to multiple temples further up the mountain trail.

20150411_163419

Near the Bronze Buddha.

Near the Bronze Buddha.

Inside the base of the giant Buddha, a small temple adorned with prayer papers.

Inside the base of the giant Buddha, a small temple adorned with prayer papers.

Entrance to the park is free but a ride to the top of the mountain in a cable car will cost around $10 CAD.

Awaiting the cable car.

Awaiting the cable car.

The view from the top of Seorak Mountain.

The view from the top of Seorak Mountain.

The cable car takes trips up and down the mountainside every 15 minutes from 7am to 6pm but visitors are welcome to grab their gear and hike to the top for free. For those who want to spend more time on Seoraksan, overnight camping is available seasonally as well. It got pretty foggy as our elevation increased which made for haunting photos of nature at its finest.

20150411_180730IMG_20150421_120150411_181145

As our mountain trek continued closer to the water’s edge, the fog turned to drizzle, only adding to the mystic vibe of our journey.

On our way up to Hong Reanam temple, built into the rocks above the water on the mountain side.

On our way up to a Buddhist temple, built into the rocks above the water on the mountain side.

Jang-Mi's uncle, our gracious host and wonderful tour guide in Sokcho.

Judy’s uncle, our wonderful host and tour guide in Sokcho. Also my new best friend.

A peaceful pagoda sits on one of the many mountain ridges facing the Sea of Japan.

IMG_20150421_2

After visiting the temple built above the waves (people were praying so pictures seemed rude – sorry guys!) we headed further up Seoraksan to the next temple.

Entering the Botajeon Buddhist temple.

Entering the Botajeon Buddhist temple.

Temple bell tower at Botajeon.

Temple bell tower at Botajeon.

Another large Buddha at one of many peaks of Seoraksan.

Another large Buddha.

The foggy courtyard pond of Botajeon temple.

The foggy courtyard pond of Botajeon temple.

Temple statues inside Botajeon.

Temple statues inside Botajeon.

A look at the courtyard from the steps of Botajeon.

A look at the courtyard from the steps of Botajeon.

After our mountain temple tour, it was time to head back to even footing and have some dinner. Reservations were made at a top seafood joint on the strip known for amazingly fresh and delicious fare. We had a three-course meal fit for a king.

My first taste of Korean sushi, called "Hweh." On the right is seafood and vegetable tempura.

My first taste of Korean sushi, called “Hweh.” On the right is seafood and vegetable tempura.

20150411_195324

Second course: A ton of the freshest crab you’ve ever eaten. No big deal.

Fish soup with every part of the fish inside. EVERY.

Third course: Fish soup with every part of the fish inside. EVERY.

The next morning we woke up early to check out the Sokcho traditional fish market.

At the Sokcho traditional fish market.

Fish heads: For all your culinary needs.

20150412_102630 20150412_102254

After the market we went to a restaurant famous for its soft tofu soup. The entire region of Sokcho is actually well-known for premium tofu.The soup was so good that I barely got a picture before I inhaled it all.

20150412_112228

Soup in belly, it was time to leave. With my pocket full of memories and my stomach full of amazing food, it was truly a weekend I’ll not soon forget. Being away from own my family for over 2 years now, I can’t express how good it felt to be included with Judy’s gang for the weekend. Just sitting in her uncle’s living room, laughing over bowls of fresh fruit made me happy to be in the moment. Despite the language barriers (with everyone except Judy), her family welcomed me like one of their own and it was incredibly good medicine for the soul.

IMG_20150412_2

I’ll be exploring more of Gangwon province in May so stay tuned and be well!

Wandering in Asia: Interview with Ryan Cook

An East Coast legend in-the-making, Canadian singer/songwriter Ryan Cook has been making music since 2007, banking over 700 performances across Canada and Nashville since then. With his unique style of classic country blended with a bit of folk, a touch of jazz and hint of bluegrass, Ryan Cook has been dominating the East Coast and beyond. From his hometown of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, he grew up against the grain of country music that surrounded him. Over time he went from playing in punk rock and death metal bands to gradually falling for the nostalgia of country – then made it his own.

Photo courtesy of ryancook.ca.

Photo courtesy of ryancook.ca.

Ryan won the 2008 and 2011 Music Nova Scotia Country/Bluegrass Album of the Year award, garnering 12 nominations collectively since 2007 from both the East Coast Music Awards and Music Nova Scotia. I had the chance to catch up with him in South Korea as he wound down his three and a half month tour of Asia.

Photo courtesy of ryancook.ca.

Photo courtesy of ryancook.ca.

1. What inspired this trip to Asia?

My motivation was that it’s always been in my heart to see Asia but only now at age 33 was I able to get past my fear of flying to make it a reality. That coupled with my independence as a self-employed musician and just enough money to pull it off made it feasible for me to do this now. I also wanted to make connections with my music and perhaps open up some avenues for performing outside of North America. I only partially fulfilled this portion of intentions though as a few things happened along the way that forced me to consider spending my time learning and listening to the people and culture before sizing up what parts of it I could turn into profit.

2. You’re a musician. You must have some favourite travel albums. Care to share your top 5 with KIK readers?

Most defitntely! Here’s what I listened to on my recent trip:

1. The Four Freshmen Four complete albums Disc 1-2

2. The Beach Boys All Summer Long

3. Merle Travis Live in Boston 1959

4. Northern Thai Folks Songs (Unknown Artist, purchased at Night Bazzar in Chiang Mai)

5. Podcasts: Joe Rogan Experience, Bill Burr, Vice, This American Life, RadioLab and others.

merle travis beach boys

3. You spent a month in Nepal, 2 months in Thailand and a week in both Malaysia and South Korea. That’s a long way from home. Did you embark on this trip on your own?

My cousin Barry (60 years old) was with me throughout the first month in Nepal and I owe a great deal to him. Not only for his patience and guidance but for the inspiration to travel in the first place. If I had done the whole thing alone I would have made many mistakes and lost a bunch of money in the process. I’d highly recommend traveling for the first time with a seasoned vet but then again who wouldn’t?

Ryan in Kathmandu, Nepal at the Utse Hotel.

Koh Chang, Thailand.

The beach in Koh Chang, Thailand.

4. What surprised you most about a) Nepal b) Thailand c) Malaysia and d) South Korea?

Nepal: The pollution, I was simply not prepared for. The urine and sewage I was prepared for (I think) but the actual smog from vehicles and machinery was not something that was easy for me to transition to. I was also very surprised by how cold it could be in Nepal. I actually left Nepal two weeks earlier than planned because of the weather and pollution. I could feel subtle respiratory effects the whole time I was there and often felt sick just from walking the streets.

Pokhara, Nepal.

Pokhara, Nepal.

Pokhara, Nepal.

Pokhara, Nepal.

Pokhara Nepal fishing boats.

Pokhara Nepal fishing boats.

Thailand: I was surprised by how civil everything was in Thailand. Coming from Nepal (my first non-North American experience) Thailand seemed very civil and clean by comparison. I was also greatly surprised by how much I did not like the Thai food. I expected to love it but the way it’s prepared is too greasy for me. It was mostly street food – nothing fancy. I like to cook Thai food on my own but did not enjoy eating it while in Thailand.

Pad thai in Pai, Thailand.

Pad thai in Pai, Thailand.

Cooking class Chaing Mai, Thailand.

Cooking class Chaing Mai, Thailand.

Malaysia: Malaysia was the only place that was almost as I envisioned it. When I was 19 a friend and I hatched a plan to move to Malaysia so we did a lot of reading and research on it. As a result it was really quite like I expected and I absolutely loved it. I did not find it to be as expensive as other travellers had suggested. I was also overwhelmed by the food in Malaysia and I wanted it all. It was a completely different food experience from Thailand.

Little India Malaysia.

Little India in Malaysia.

Malaysia little india awesome.

Ryan devours a meal at Little India in Malaysia.

Royal India in Chiang Mai.

Royal India in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

South Korea: At first Korea seemed cold and dreary and my money didn’t seem to go very far. That being said, I had the most fun of my entire trip while in Korea. I think perhaps the company I kept had something to do with it. The rest of my trip was mostly a solo adventure. The surprises never ended while I was there. It was so dramatically different from the three other Asian countries I visited. Korea felt very prosperous and modern and outside of the February cold, the people were amazingly friendly and hip.

Ryan does a quick performance at an English academy in Hopyeong, South Korea.

Ryan performs at an English academy in Hopyeong, Gyeonggi-do South Korea.

Yongma Land in Seoul.

Yongma Land abandoned amusement park in Seoul.

5. Which country’s cuisine was your favourite?

Malaysia was my favourite because of the combination of equally available Indian, Malay, Chinese and middle-eastern food. You can have it all in Malaysia and it’s authentic which was refreshing.

Authentic Lebanese Bangkok, Thailand.

Authentic Lebanese food in Bangkok, Thailand.

6. From what you saw, what do you think is the biggest misconception about the countries you traveled through? 

Nepal: The biggest misconception that I had personally was that it would be warm because it’s in Asia. This is not the case in December. Nepal is mostly as affordable as it’s cited to be but I found every country to be a bit more expensive than research indicated. For example in Nepal there is as much as 24% added tax at select restaurants and hotels which really adds up. A good gauge when researching a travel destination is to add 15% to everything you see. That paints a more balanced picture.

Pokhara Nepal.

Pokhara Nepal.

Pokhara, Nepal.

Pokhara, Nepal.

Pokhara, Nepal.

Pokhara, Nepal.

Thailand: The sex tourism was more intense than I had considered in Thailand. I always thought of Thailand as being a “provocative” place but sex is almost literally the lubricant that runs that nation. Sex is very much a part of the culture in every way. I was most surprised by how unhealthy the available food was as well. So much refined sugar and processed food; I have no idea how they do it. It was very difficult to eat healthy in Thailand. I gained weight while I was there.

The Atlanta, Bangkok Thailand 1952 period hotel.

The Atlanta, Bangkok Thailand 1952 period hotel.

Malaysia: More affordable then the travel guides would lead you to believe. It may seem a bit expensive compared to Thailand but you also get more for your money in Malaysia. The motels/guesthouses are generally nicer and the food is far superior. For example I paid $55/night (CAD) for a really nice 4 star hotel with a patio in Pattaya, Thailand but only $40/night (CAD) for an equally impressive 4 star hotel in downtown Georgetown, Malaysia that included a free buffet breakfast. These prices are high but I was traveling with another Canadian at the time so all costs were split.

Koh Chang, Thailand.

Koh Chang, Thailand.

Ko Chang Thailand beach.

Beach cuisine in Ko Chang Thailand.

South Korea: I was surprised by how honest and safe Korea is. Unless of course you are at a live karaoke bar on the wrong side of Seoul and you decide to sing Stevie Wonder. (There was a bit a of bar brawl there that KIK was witness to. Apparently some people never learned how to share the mic.)

Live Cafe in Hopyong.

Ryan with the owner of the Live Cafe karaoke bar in Hopyeong. Sing at your own risk.

Seoul subway.

Fun with friends and strangers on the Seoul subway.

7. What would you advise a future traveler to Asia to pack in their suitcase?

If you work from a lap-top or use one in your daily life and are in any way relying on it, a tablet will not work as a replacement. I attempted (and failed) to transition to working primarily from an iPad/Bluetooh keyboard for this trip and it was highly regrettable. I was shooting high-definition footage and wanted to edit and post pictures and video which is doable on an iPad but the compression was maddening. Ultimately I had my computer shipped over to Asia. A tablet cannot replace a lap-top unless you have very minimal needs such as social networking and light e-mail.

Sunday night walking street market, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Sunday night walking street market in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

8. If you could tell a newly arriving traveler to Asia something you wish you were told, what would it be?

Listen as much as possible to who and what is around you. Spend more time listening than talking. You will learn to be patient. You will find that everyone has a story. You will also learn a great deal more about yourself then you would expect. Being in a foreign place does not change who you are or make your life more exciting. If you are an introverted person at home you will be an introvert in Thailand. There are ways around this and one suggestion is to stay in dorm room with multiple bunks. This may force you out of your comfort zone just enough to try something new.

Thamel, Khatmandu Nepal.

New friends in Thamel, Khatmandu Nepal.

Kim's Bar in Guri

New friends at Kim’s Bar in Guri, Gyeonggi-do South Korea.

Ryan Cook is currently residing in Ontario and eagerly awaiting spring while booking shows for 2015. His future travel plans include hopes of returning to Asia in 2016 but nothing is certain as of yet. If he does travel that far again, India and China are on the short list, as well as Cuba and Mexico. The western side of the United States is also on his radar, namely Arizona and California. To get in touch with Ryan, check out ryancook.ca as well as his Facebook and Twitter.

Check out Ryan’s performance of “Sun” with seven year-old senior kindergarteners the Purple Class, here:

Special shout-out to Sarah Collins for teaching “Sun” to the Purple Class!

Also check out his new video called “Merle Travis Medley” from Ryan Cook & The Valley Singers right here:

Sample his new album Wrestling with Demons here

Until next time Dear Readers, stay warm and be well.

*All photos courtesy of Ryan Cook.

Random Awesomeness

Last week’s post was heavy, looking back on the Cu Chi tunnels of the Vietnam War. To lighten things up, I’m proud to present a piece I’ve been working on for a while: The Awesomeness of Pencil Cases in Korea. I have long been an admirer of my students’ stationery supplies. Those who know me well know that I have a weakness and it goes by the name of Morning Glory stationary shops. I love pens, notebooks, sticky tabs and all things organizational.

mg mg2

After years of pencil case appreciation in the classroom, I’ve finally managed to compile some examples to show you here. Before I get started I’d like to remind everyone that of course there are “normal,” “plain” pencil cases that exist here too, but who cares? That doesn’t make for good writing. I’m about to show you the best of the best from my kids, grades 3 through 5. The grade 6 kids get too cool for funky pencil cases and start to feel the pressures of adolescence at which time, blending in is often easiest. Without further ado, let’s do this! (click on any photo to enlarge)

First and foremost, these are amazing. They are called “zip-it” brand pencil cases and they are sometimes in the shape of a monster (as shown) but sometimes just a rectangular pencil case made of one huge unzippable zipper.

20150318_102315 20150326_114844 20150326_120242

My student kindly does a demonstration.

My student kindly does a demonstration.

Next, I’d like to address the sometimes ludicrous English messages printed on pencil cases here. Often the messages are sweet and cheerful while others send chills down my spine.

This one reads, "The Anne Story: Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now." Deep stuff.

This one reads, “The Anne Story: Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.”

That’s pretty deep discussion. I just wanted to borrow an eraser. Let’s move on.

"When you want something, the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." Mmm....'k...

“When you want something, the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

Mmmm…’k…Not necessarily true but moving on…

I don't even know what to say. This makes no sense at all.

I don’t even know what to say. That one makes no sense at all, but the cartoon girl is cool.

"I can endure so my own despair, but not...another's hope."

“I can endure so my own despair, but not…another’s hope.”

Wow. That’s just dark. Definitely not borrowing an eraser from you. You just stay the hell away from me.

Let’s leave the dark side and enter the land of pretty vintage dolls printed on a lot of popular cases these days.

20150326_114911 20150325_112532 20150325_093424

Teddy bears are always a classic choice as well, although more popular with the younger kids.

20150326_143833 20150325_112605 20150325_102249

All right that’s enough cute. Now onto the weird and borderline gross. The “Larva” cartoon characters are really popular with kids these days. They are literally larva. In cartoon form. What the hell Korea? Seriously. The first pic shows the two main characters while one farts a cloud of faeces, much to his friend’s displeasure.

20150325_112506

The next one showcases Mr. Farty Pants eating a mini hot dog snack while his larva and bacterial/blueberry friend watch in horror. (This one actually folds out into a 2-tier case which is pretty cool.)

20150325_093559 20150325_093608

For the grand finale I’d like to show you some of my favourite pencil cases, for no reason other than I think they’re awesome.

20150326_114948

A milk jug-shaped pencil case! Genius.

20150326_101446 20150326_091943 20150325_112547

It's an otter! His back unzips and the zipper tag is his tail :)

It’s an otter! His back unzips and the zipper tag is his tail :)

Shiny. I love shiny.

Shiny. I love shiny.

This one is made with  traditional Korean design.

This one is made with traditional Korean designs.

That’s it for this week folks. Thanks for indulging me as I complete another life goal here in Korea. My kids had fun showing off their pencil cases and no larva were harmed in the making of this post. Next week I’ll be interviewing Canadian musician Ryan Cook. Stay tuned and be well!

Inside War History: The Cu Chi Tunnels of Saigon

Many people of my generation mostly know the Vietnam War as it was chronicled in the movies. We watched Robin Williams shout, “follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail!” as the upstart radio DJ for the armed forces in Saigon in Good Morning Vietnam. We watched Forrest, Bubba and Lieutenant Dan fight in the Vietnam war while Jenny protested against it in Forrest Gump. Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are among others that come to mind.

forrest apoc

For those born a decade (or more) after the war ended, we relied on history books and the memories from our elders when we got old enough to ask. That is why the opportunity to tour the Cu Chi tunnels and walk inside the walls of history meant so much.

Bal and I stand next to an abandoned tank. Painted on the side it reads, "American M41 tank destroyed by a delay mine in 1970."

Bal and I stand next to an abandoned tank. Painted on the side it reads, “American M41 tank destroyed by a delay mine in 1970.”

The Cu Chi district in Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon), held significance because it was a Viet Cong stronghold during the Vietnam War and was labeled a “free-fire zone” by the US military. A free-fire/free-strike or free-target zone is an area where everyone in the region is deemed hostile and all are seen as legitimate targets by opposing military forces.

The remains of a B52 bomb crater.

The remains of a B52 bomb crater.

During the Vietnam War (roughly 1960-1973 although many say the US was involved since 1955) South Vietnamese forces were backed by American troops and had better supplies and manpower as a result. The communist North Vietnamese known as the Viet Cong had to come up with other ways to survive the war and defend their land. This is where the intricate network of the Cu Chi tunnels comes into play.

Our first meeting place where we sit with other tour groups to watch a propaganda video about the horrors of the Vietnam War. To the left is a map of the tunnels and to the right is a replica model to show the layers of tunnels used for different purposes.

Our first meeting place where we sit with other tour groups to watch a propaganda video about the horrors of the Vietnam War. To the left is a map of the tunnels and to the right is a replica model to show the layers of tunnels.

The topmost layer was used for fighting and surveillance. The next layer down was sleeping quarters, makeshift hospitals and meeting rooms. The lowest levels were used for cooking and washing. The long sticks running up to the surface were ventilation infrastructures, made from bamboo branches.

The top layer was used for fighting and surveillance. The next layer down was sleeping quarters, makeshift hospitals and meeting rooms. The lowest levels were used for cooking and washing. The long sticks running up to the surface were ventilation infrastructures, made from bamboo.

A secret ventilation hole from inside the tunnels. Ventilation holes were covered by mounds of termite hives, providing cover from passing US military.

A secret ventilation hole from inside the tunnels. Ventilation holes were covered by mounds of clay that looked like termite hives, providing cover from passing US military men and their dogs.

Fa draws me a diagram with a rock to illustrate the path of the tunnels and the exit points along border countries.

Our tour guide, Fa, draws me a diagram with a rock to illustrate the path of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that runs the length of the main highway with multiple exit points along border countries.

Here's a better version of Fa's stonework. You can see how the trail runs along the HCM highway. Photo courtesy of activetravelvietnam.com

Here’s a better version of Fa’s stonework. You can see how the trail runs along the HCM highway. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo courtesy of activetravelvietnam.com

The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) actually began tunnel excavations under the town of Cu Chi from as far back as the 1940s, covering over 250km by the time the Vietnam War started. Tunnel construction is estimated to have begun when the French forces attacked the Viet Minh (ICP guerrilla forces) in 1946, igniting a push of resistance against colonial powers.

Considering the Vietnamese were colonized by the French for over 60 years starting from the late 1800s, then further invaded by Japan during World War II, it’s easy to see why they were fed up with invaders on their land.

A replica shows how the Vietnamese began making the tunnels decades before the Vietnam war in attempts to evade French occupiers.

A replica shows how the Vietnamese began making the tunnels decades before the Vietnam War in attempts to evade French occupiers.

Our trip to the Cu Chi tunnels took us about 60km outside of Ho Chi Minh City. There are two tunnel sections open for tourists: The Ben Din tunnel and the Ben Duoc Tunnel. We went to the Ben Dinh site.

Outside bunker/classroom number 2.

Outside bunker/classroom number 2.

Inside classroom number 2.

Inside classroom number 2. There were 5 classrooms in total.

The makeshift kitchen.

a bunker used as a kitchen.

An escape tunnel off of the kitchen in case of bombings in the middle of meal prep.

An escape tunnel off of the kitchen in case of bombings in the middle of meal prep.

One of the dining bunkers where soldiers ate.

One of the dining bunkers where soldiers ate.

The VC used the underground network to move war supplies, house soldiers, hold military meetings, survive US air raids and to implement surprise attacks of their own. The tunnels were infested with scorpions, snakes, ants and other creepy crawlers. Malaria was also rampant in the tunnels and was the second leading cause of death among the VC, next to war injuries.

Bombs and shells from the US Army.

Bombs and shells from the US Army.

Fa demonstrates how the Vietcong soldiers took apart dead bombs from the US Army to make land mines. The stick seen sticking out of the disc would be rolled over by army tanks, detonating the land mine.

Fa demonstrates how the Vietcong soldiers took apart dead bombs from the US Army to make their own weapons. The twig sticking out of the disc would be rolled over by army tanks, detonating the land mine.

A photo of the Vietcong bringing an undetonated bomb to their weapons bunker to make their own tools of defence.

A photo of the Vietcong bringing an undetonated bomb to their weapons bunker to make their own tools of defence.

Sandals made by the Vietnamese from scrap tire rubber.

Sandals made by the Vietnamese from scrap tire rubber.

US soldiers eventually found entrances into the tunnels and sent men in to defeat the enemy. American troops who went into the tunnels were mostly met with booby traps, dead-ends and hand-to-hand combat resulting in death. 

A replica bamboo spike trap to show visitors how the Viet Cong booby-trapped the jungle floor.

A replica bamboo spike trap shows visitors how the Viet Cong booby-trapped the jungle floor.

We have decided to go into the tunnels and are all a little nervous. Exits are set up every 10 meters in case visitors panic.

We have decided to go into the tunnels and are all a little nervous. Exits are set up every 10 meters in case visitors panic. This news is comforting.

Yours truly, about to descend into the Cu Chi tunnel. No big deal.

Yours truly, about to descend into the Cu Chi fighting tunnel. No big deal.

Down in the first phase of the tunnel, these stairs descend into the narrow part that goes on for miles.

Down in the first phase of the tunnel, these stairs descend into the narrow part that goes on for miles.

Inside the tunnel it was narrow, low and humid. It didn't take long to work up a sweat.

Inside the tunnel it was narrow, low and humid. It didn’t take long to work up a sweat.

After surviving the crawl through the tunnel. We're trying to be strong but are shaken nonetheless.

Bal and I after surviving the 10 meter crawl. We were trying to be cool but were shaken nonetheless. Days and months down there  seems unimaginable.

Fa demonstrates how the VC snipers would utilize their exit points while fighting. Shooters would fire at the US soldiers under the cover of leaves, then slide the door back over their head to hide.

Fa demonstrates how the VC snipers would utilize their exit points. Shooters would fire under the cover of leaves, then slide the panel back over their head to hide.

Fa explains how the Vietcong made ridges with the clay-like earth to prevent rain from flowing into the tunnels.

Fa explains how the VC made ridges with the clay-like earth to prevent rain from running into the mouths of the tunnels.

Another shooting point for snipers to pop in and out of between fighting.

Another shooting point for snipers to pop in and out of unseen.

The Vietnamese government have since sanctioned certain sections of the fighting tunnels as tourist destinations for visitors to get a glimpse of how the Viet Cong developed (and to many – perfected) underground guerrilla warfare. The areas of tunnel deemed safe enough for tourists have been enlarged to fit the body types of most tourists, yet still we felt suffocated after crawling for only 10 meters.

"Fish" spike trap, set in murky swamp water for someone to step into.

A “fish” spike trap, set in murky swamp water, waiting for someone to step into.

A rolling spike trap, meant to repeatedly puncture the victim as they fall down.

A rolling spike trap, meant to repeatedly puncture the victim as they fall down into the pit.

Assorted spike traps on display.

Assorted spike traps on display.

Another spike trap, this one set to unhinge and swing at he who opens the door to a house where he is unwelcome.

Another spike trap, this one set to unhinge and swing at he who opens the door to a house where he is unwelcome.

Upon arrival our guide told us not, under any circumstances, to veer off the walking path or into the jungle. One reason was that it was still a jungle (although a heavily-treaded one) and snakes and scorpions were lurking in the quiet corners. Another reason was that there were still VC land mines in the jungle that hadn’t been found yet. Most were detonated during the war and in the years of rebuilding the area, but not all were accounted for. What a way to make sure your guests stay in line! That kept things real for all of us.

Despite the huge sigh of relief when we made it safely back onto the bus, I was thrilled to have had the chance to walk through such an enormous landmark of our time. Next to visiting the demilitarized zone in North Korea, this adventure was one of the best trips through history I have ever taken.

P.S. Happiest of birthdays to my Pops! Next year I’ll be there to celebrate with you :)