The Cu Chi tunnels are one of the best known “tourist attractions” in South Vietnam. And I put quotation marks because the tunnels are much more than a museum for the enjoyment of national and foreign visitors; they are raw history of Vietnam’s war times. The local people of Cu Chi started digging this 250km network of connecting underground tunnels during the French occupation in the 40s and continued in the 60s, when they were used by the North Vietnamese to fight the American/South Vietnamese army. The tunnel system comprised not only corridors, but also all sorts of rooms (sleeping, dining, hospital, storage), booby traps, air filtration systems, etc., and was estimated to have hosted 16,000 people. The history of the tunnels is fascinating, a classic example of a guerilla resisting against a military superpower. The US launched massive bombing campaigns against the tunnels and sent several infantry divisions to try to find the entrances and force the Viet Cong out, but failed repeatedly. Being a history enthusiast, I definitely wanted to see this site during our trip to Vietnam, even more so after our day getting educated about the war in Saigon.
The Cu Chi tunnels can easily be visited from Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) as a half-day trip. Most people join one of the thousands of organized tours being sold on Pham Ngu Lao street. They sell for VND 100,000 (~$5, excluding entrance tickets), or ~$8 if they also take you to the bizarre Cao Dai temple. The more authentic and cheaper alternative that we chose was to visit the temples on our own. It’s important to note that public transportation takes you to the Ben Duoc section of the tunnels, whereas 90% of the tours take you to the Ben Dinh section, which apart from being more crowded, was never part of the actual tunnels, was created for tourists, wider than the real thing. We followed these simple directions:
- Take bus 13 from Ho Chi Minh center (Nguyen Thi Nghia with Le Lai, across from KFC) to last stop, bus station, 1 hour, VND 7,000 (~$0.3)
- Take bus 79 from Cu Chi bus station to Ben Duoc, 40 min, VND 6,000 (~$0.25), nice rural scenery, ask the driver where to get off
- Walk through the gates on your left, up the trail for about 5 min to reach the ticket office
The ticket to the tunnels was VND 70,000 (~$3), plus VND 20,000 (~$1) for the so-called recreation village, which at the time we didn’t understand but decided to buy anyway, and I’m glad we did. We walked a bit further to the actual tunnel and were asked to wait there. Once we had two more people, a guide dressed up in a funny uniform showed up and asked us to follow him into the jungle. It was lush and somewhat asphyxiating, and there were mosquitoes everywhere (bring repellant!)… It reminded me of so many Vietnam war movies. We sat down in a shack and watched an old video about the tunnels and their people, pure propaganda, but interesting nevertheless. Then our guide used a model to explain several features of the tunnels, like the river exits, or the conduits to evacuate smoke from cooking without giving away the hidden entrances. From there, we walked a bit further, and spotted the first tunnel entrances, disguised under mud and leaves, or under termite nests.
It was time to get in and walk, or rather crawl, through a few meters of the tunnel. They say that these sections have been enlarged, but man, it felt narrow :S I’m rather small and agile, and I could barely move, so avoid bringing a big backpack (my mistake), and if you’re big, think about it twice. The tunnel was lightly lit and every once in a while, we could see or hear bats. We were in for literally 5 min, but I was happy to get out, and absolutely cannot imagine how people could live like this. Our guide then showed us some bunkers that were part of the network, a hospital and a cooking and dining area, and that are now open and easily accessible. They contain mannequins reproducing scenes from everyday life in the tunnels, and although it might sound lame, it’s kind of cool. We were offered some tea and tapioca at one of the improvised restaurants they’ve built inside the complex, and then headed out. By the exit, there were some remarkable booby traps, various designs used to protect the tunnels. There was an option to shoot some weapons, like AK-470s, which we had no interest in doing.
The visit felt a bit short, so I was glad that we could still check out the memorial temple nearby, wander around the trails filled with displays of ordinance and surprisingly nice, and tour the recreation village. Here we got a good guide, who walked us around for about 30 min and told us lots of interesting stories. This site is as simple as it sounds: a reproduction with more mannequins of the life in a Cu Chi village during wartimes. There is a mix of everyday and war-related scenes, from people taking care of their orchards to excavating the tunnels to enlisting in the Viet Cong. Towards the exit, there are several damaged combat vehicles and bomb craters, to remind you that this place is no Disneyland. Overall, the visit to the Cu Chi tunnels of Ben Duoc was instructive and well worth the time.
We got back to Saigon early afternoon, taking the same buses as on the way in. We needed to spend some time in the hotel, organizing the next few days, our last in Vietnam, which we wanted to devote to the Mekong delta. At night, we went for our last walk in Saigon, enjoyed the liveliness around the Tran Nguyen Hai roundabout, and devoured a New Zealand burger… we needed a change from all this Asian food 😉