What’s this whole business about a ‘coffee buzz’ I hear? Can’t get to sleep, makes me shaky, I’m buzzing; all common catch cries for the caffeine light weight. I want a buzz too, where’s my buzz? Maybe we’re a just tougher or possibly we’re simply pre-enlightened addicts, but for whatever reason coffee remains for us little more than a delicious drink posing as an excuse to relax, catch up with friends or indulge in some good old fashioned snobbery. It seems only typical that Vietnam has its own coffee, an invention that’s purely Viet; it’s coffee, but not as we know it. With a dash of condensed milk at the bottom of the cup, topped with the dense nutty, almost chocolatey coffee a quick stir delivers a hot liquid mix somewhere between a chocolate fondue, meringue pie, peanuts and silken coffee to shame a Roman barista.
It’s a weird tasty punch in the face on flavour alone until we get to the special ingredient, the punch in the face leaves me a little dazed and confused. Is this the holy grail coffee buzz thing that I hear so much about? Coffee buzz or a buzz of some sort at least, possibly I’ve had some street hustler slip something into the cup leaving me wondering if I’m taking party drugs at the wrong time and about to get a free ride in the shame-bulance or just finally joining the masses. I’m genuinely feeling a little woozy, my belly is roiling and I’m drawing deliberate long breaths like the pre-vomit wave of motion sickness on a bus with no toilet. I need a little lie down.After the universal panacea of a nap it’s time to get back into the day, navigating the narrow alleyways feels more like we’re half intruding onto peoples lives and half just getting around. The world cooks, eats, socialises and plays in these tight channels making for very blurred lines between public and private space. And we think having a living area that opens onto an outdoor space is a modern design triumph invented by flighty men in fashionable clothing on reality TV shows. Surrounded by food we realise it’s been minutes without it; time for baguettes in preparation for the two hour food fasting trip to Cu Chi. Nearby to Ho Chi Minh, Cu Chi has one of the more extensive networks of the famous Viet Cong tunnels, a key reason that the outnumbered and outgunned Vietnamese were able to fight off such a formidable foe.
Dug by hand over decades, the tunnel network of Vietnam is a labyrinth extending for 250km allowing for military manoeuvring, weapons workshops, sniper attacks and evacuations all so close but yet so far from the US army. The Vietnamese harried and pestered the US into defeat and these tunnels were a large part of the success. It’s so odd to hear about Vietnamese heroes, but heroes they are when seen through the eyes of jaded war-time perspective. This war education will no doubt continue but at this point in time it’s hard to spin a story other than we invaded illegally and brutally and the Vietnamese simply defended their nation, and won. For us America has always been an ally, to hear proclamations of heroism noting tallies of American deaths is a little jarring. Jarring because they’re our ally, jarring also because we find ourselves cheering for their success.Too low to stand, to narrow to turn, the tunnels are our world now as we descend into darkness; for a moment we’re two of the famous Cu Chi tunnel rats scurrying beneath the feet of the American soldiers. We shuffle slowly as sweat immediately pours from us in this claustrophobic world just a few metres underground, we have about fifty painstaking metres to go. Napalm craters dot the landscape but this small piece of history survives, the first few metres are fun before long breath gets harder to draw, suffocating every awkward shuffle. Down another small hole deeper into the earth and further away from light, breath and the ability to move. We’re not claustrophobic at all but there’s no mistaking it, this place is not comfortable.
Somewhere in the small space offered to us deep in the earth it becomes easier to feel for a fleeting second a shade of what life was like down here. Running from and fighting the enemy at the same time, for most Viet Cong that same enemy had invariably killed friends, family, colleagues and children. The earth would have shaken, the clatter of gunfire would have echoed through this maze and trapped in this tiny space with only a few exits out it must have felt hopeless, desperate. How the Viet Cong not only survived using these tunnels but utilised them to great effect is beyond me; with surrender not an option the pressure on human resolve is more than I can fathom as I, in perfect safety, just want to get out.In a quirk of history, after the better part of two decades the US reportedly had the Viet Cong close to breaking, the famous resolve was nearly spent. Then the juggernaut fell, America withdrew marking one of histories greatest impossible victories. The Vietnamese were the boxer with no strength left throwing one last punch to send their enemy to the canvas. Emerging from the tunnels we’re overheating, sweating, a little shaken and ebullient; oddly I feel like the coffee buzz has returned. No great statues, no commemorative plaques and little propagandist pageantry adorn Cu Chi. Fittingly, just like the nation that would not be beaten it’s simple, rudimentary and nothing more than what’s needed to get the job done. Heroes of unfathomable bravery are now set to tasks other than killing and surviving, possibly making coffee.