“The more dangerous the snake, the better the whiskey.” That’s what a Vietnamese local tells me as she hands me the bottle, a cobra inside with a black scorpion tail in its jaws, as we sit on the banks of the Mekong Delta.

I take a sip of the potent golden liquid – banned in Australia – and I’m sure the months-long alcoholic fermentation in rice wine breaks down the snake’s poison and won’t leave me with a stinging hangover.

This poisonous wine certainly has bite and turbo-charges virility according to traditional Chinese medicine – the natural aphrodisiac has been used in Asia for centuries.

Perhaps the second emperor of the Vietnamese Nguyen dynasty, Minh Mang, who is said to have had hundreds of wives and 142 children, used him as his secret weapon.

It’s whiskey… but not as you know it.

This small village in Ben Tre province, southern Vietnam, is one of many that produce reptile-infused liquor, but traveling further north, I remember this country has a deadly history that doesn’t has nothing to do with snakes.

Still known as Saigon by locals, Ho Chi Minh City was once nicknamed the “Pearl of the Orient” by French settlers whose architecture adorns its tree-lined boulevards.

In addition to the French, the Vietnamese fought foreign invaders from China, Japan and the United States during their long and bloody struggle for independence, their last occupant leaving a grim and lasting legacy.

During the Vietnam War, US military planes sprayed around 75 million liters of chemical agents over the country to destroy vegetation and negate enemy Communist forest cover. The most commonly used defoliant was Agent Orange, and its devastating effects are still felt by generations of babies born with severe birth defects today.

The fallout can be seen in the homeless disabled children on the streets of Saigon, and in the heartbreaking footage from the War Remnants Museum that brought tears to me and some American veterans in their sixties, who had returned to Ground Zero some four times. decades later.

Nearby, I passed the roof of a craggy old building where a photojournalist captured the most iconic moment of the US withdrawal in 1975. A CIA helicopter rounded up desperate evacuees climbing a ladder the day before the fall from Saigon facing the North Vietnamese troops.

On the outskirts of this former American stronghold are the legendary Cu Chi Tunnels, a 250 km long underground labyrinth connecting several villages and thousands of Communist troops during the Vietnam War.

Viet Cong forces used this honeycomb network to shelter soldiers, treat the wounded, transport supplies, and protect villagers during American bombing raids. From there, the guerrillas would set traps and organize surprise attacks, after which they would merge into the jungle and disappear underground to find safety.

The staccato of gunfire startled me as we walked through the rainforest marred by real bomb craters – tourists can fire 10 bullets from a Soviet-designed AK-47 or an M16 from American made on a nearby shooting range for A $ 30.

VC soldiers had to crawl along the ground in the deepest of the three tunnel levels, breathing air through 10m long bamboo pipes connected to surface vents camouflaged as termite mounds.

Leaning in half, I made my way along the dark, hot, and narrow first level and was overwhelmed by the courage and ingenuity of the farmers, mostly peasants, who took up arms and braved. a miserable life of mud, malaria and snakes to defeat the mighty United States. army.

The decades-long war is etched in modern Vietnam’s memory, but on an afternoon bike ride in Ben Tre, we spotted a peaceful village where people come back to life.

Smiles don’t mean we forget, smiles mean we forgive

The lush countryside is now dense with bananas, okra, jackfruit, cucumber and cherries growing by the roadsides. We weren’t wearing helmets, but I was more concerned about the risk of spiky durian fruit falling from hitting my head from overhanging trees than going over the handlebars.

Roosters crow, motorbikes roar and karaoke from a local house echoes through the thick jungle. Shirtless men play cockfight in the streets while others take naps in hammocks.

Hammer and sickle flags dot the highways on the way back to Saigon, but this metropolis now has some nifty capitalist advertising that makes you wonder who won the war.

My new Vietnamese friend, who only wanted to be known as P, tells me she’s a proud communist but doesn’t want to talk about the government about our snake whiskey.

P’s mother was only 15 when she left her village on the south-central coast of Vietnam to join the VC resistance as a nurse. Her aunt joined her as well, but died and never came home.

The young woman now works in a thriving tourism industry, and says she welcomes Americans.

“Smiles don’t mean we forget, smiles mean we forgive,” she said.

Getting There : There are no direct flights between Adelaide and Ho Chi Minh City, but it takes nine hours to fly from Sydney or Melbourne and around 12 hours from Brisbane. Webjet Exclusives offers a nine-day tour of Vietnam with Air Asia flights priced at $ 999 per person from Sydney and Melbourne (additional charges apply from other states).

Stay there: Asian Ruby Select offers boutique accommodation in central Ho Chi Minh City, within a 20-minute walk of Ben Thanh Market and Tao Dan Park. Prices start at A $ 52 per night (including breakfast). To learn more, visit asianrubyselecthotel.com.

Play it: Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum offer insight into Vietnam’s violent history, or take a boat ride along the Mekong Delta to visit the CaiBe Floating Market and take a bike ride through neighboring villages.

The writer traveled as a guest of Webjet Exclusives.

-AAP

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