Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Today is Vietnam's 60th National Day commemorating its independence from French colonial rule.

As I walk to the meeting point of our Cu Chi Tunnels tour, I saw wreaths being offered at the bust of Ho Chi Minh in a city park ceremony a few blocks from my hotel. Vietnam's national flag along with the communist party's familiar hammer and sickle flag were fluttering in the early morning sun, the city streets awash in red and yellow and thankfully at this hour, less motorbikes to contend with.

I opted for the Cu Chi Tunnels tour as J.P. recommended - even Joe, Bethan, Alison, Jane and Tanya are joining in. I'm flying back to Manila tomorrow so it's best to do a half day visit to the tunnels so I can still hit some of the must-sees in Ho Chi Minh city in the afternoon.

Canh was our tour guide today, a sixty-something thin man coughing every now and then and apologizing constantly for it. We found out later that he used to be a Viet Cong guerrilla during the war. Coincidentally, an American war veteran was with us in the touring group. He said that he's here in Vietnam to purge himself of all the negative thoughts and nightmares haunting him since the war ended. It was interesting to see both Canh and this middle-aged American, formerly mortal enemies during the war, exchanging pleasantries and not bullets this time.

Canh showed us a scale model of the tunnel system to give us an idea of its immensity. It is so extensive underneath as the tunnels are ingeniously connected to various points - even to Saigon river as a means of escape. The American forces during the war got so frustrated trying to flush out the so-called "tunnel rats". Not even all that defoliation of the forest canopy and the succeeding carpet bombing raids brought out the cleverly hidden Viet Cong guerrillas.Any attempt to enter the tunnels were also thwarted by strategically concealed traps meant to kill or inflict horrible wounds to any intruder, even those riding in armored tanks.

Getting into the tunnel entrance is a challenge - any waistline above 32 inches is bound to get stuck. Being lean and mean therefore is an advantage which most hamburger-fed American soldiers don't have. As I still belong to the less-than-32-inch club, I managed to wiggle my body effortlessly into the tiny chasm.

As we moved deeper into the tunnel, I could see that this is definitely not for the claustrophobic. We couldn't stand up - we either bend forwards or do a squat-like walking. Thankfully, there's ventilation from the air shafts built by the Viet Cong to ensure no one among their comrades get roasted or choked from oxygen-deprivation.

At the end of our tour, Jane, Tanya, Alison and I decided to drop by the War Remnants Museum. All that photographic evidence showing civilian victims will make you an instant anti-American as you leave the building with so many "whys" plaguing your head. More so now with the American invasion of Iraq!

Finally, it was time to say goodbye to my remaining traveling companions. I'm lucky that they were fun to be with during the days we were together. We started all as strangers but clicked well like old friends down the road. Jane has invited me to visit her in Sydney should I go to Australia one day. We'll see.

What better way of ending my Indochina adventure than watching the fireworks display at the viewing deck of my hotel. As part of Vietnam's National Day celebrations, pyrotechnics lit the evening sky as thousands of Vietnamese, most of them astride their motorbikes, clogged the riverbank and the streets leading to it.Vietnam had seen enough wars that left scars in its history, but undoubtedly, the Vietnamese withstood. This evening, as thousands of them gathered below where I stood, I could feel the patriotic fervor drifting in the air. Indeed, they're happy as they move on with their lives under one national flag - a symbol of their unity as one country.

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