My last day in Ho Chi Minh City was the first day of the tour that I joined for 12 days while here in Vietnam. We had met the night before for introductions and a group dinner at an entirely unappealing restaurant in the backpacker district of Saigon. The streets were busy, thronging with life and music, and while the chosen restaurant was completely devoid of personality, the food was good, though overpriced in relation to the endless delicious street food. I tried Bun Thit Nuong, which was a delicious mix of a noodles, grilled pork, spring roll and fish sauce. Luckily, the people that I’m travelling with are wonderful.
At 8 am we all piled on our bus with The Law, our funny, well-spoken guide for our half day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Though Cu Chi lies only 40 km outside HCMC, it took us a solid 90 minutes to get there. On the way, Law gave us a great, and remarkably unbiased story of the war.
The first tunnel was actually constructed in the Indochina War, as a way for the South Vietnamese to hide from the French. Once the Vietnam War started in earnest, the crafty farmers of Cu Chi realized that the tunnels could be their salvation as well as a great guerrilla tactic against the American forces, and they expanded the tunnel system to include over 200 km of tunnels that contained bunkers, kitchens, toilets, wells, medical rooms as well as dead-end traps. The tunnels of Cu Chi are built into a slight hill in the landscape, and so there are multiple outlets into the Saigon river, handy for flushing out waste and sneaking away.
During the war, many farmers of Cu Chi lived double lives, digging the tunnels or fighting at night, and harmlessly farming during the day. Everyone was expected to help dig the tunnels out of the clay-rich soil, and the networks were diverse and complicated intentionally so that any American ‘tunnel rats’, even if they were small enough to fit in the tunnels if they found an entrance, would get hopelessly lost. The amount of ways that were invented to torture the invading Americans were endless and varied, usually involving spikes hidden by trap doors in the dense jungle. The amount of things people think of to torture each other always surprises me.
Although it was interesting to see Cu Chi; to see just how small the original openings actually are, how tight the tunnels were, to learn about the way life was lived in the earth, I have to admit that it all felt a bit theme park-ish. I know that there are other tunnel systems to visit, and that Cu Chi is often chosen for its proximity to Saigon; I would recommend travelling further afield if you have the time.
After our half day tour, there was time for a quick trip to the market for a late lunch and a last minute shop before the train. I had some sort of pork deliciousness with an avocado smoothie. If you’ve been reading for a while, you will remember my love of these from Bali. They are still amazing in Vietnam, even sans chocolate sauce. (Sadly, no picture, I just downed the thing)
Finally it was time for the night train. If you didn’t know, I love trains, so was quite excited that my itinerary would include five of them in total. Our little cabin was cozy but functional, and four of us settled in for a rickety and supremely air-conditioned ride to Nha Trang.