Exploring Vietnam’s Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels definitely tops the list of things for tourists to do when visiting Saigon.
Brief History: A lot of the war was fought at the Cu Chi tunnels. It was one of South Vietnam’s last standing defenses against the North. Cu Chi is roughly 1.5 hours from Saigon city center, where the south army had their government. Viet Cong (people who lived in the South, but fought for the North) built the impressive network of tunnels over 20 years! Six villages lived under ground in the tunnels. The tunnels are so extensive and detailed, it is shocking that the Vietnamese were able to build such a vast network of tunnels. There were places to watch movies, bedrooms, kitchens with smoke holes dug 100 feet away to avoid bombs being dropped on the kitchen, exit slides into streams for bathing, and hundreds of miles of tunnels to crawl through from room to room. Soldiers would fire their guns out of fake ant hills that had tiny openings at the base for the barrel of their guns.
There are two different sets of tunnels that most travelers don’t realize when booking a trip to visit them. We have gone to the tunnels twice by motorbike, and at the end of the winding roads you drive down there is a T junction with a sign that points to the left and right for the tunnels. Tour groups will always take you to the right, the tunnels to the left see a lot less visitors.
We had no idea if we should go right or left and were stopped at the junction looking in both directions when a Vietnamese man pointed us onwards to the left, we didn’t know that the right side is where tourists typically visited. The left side is as authentic as you can get. There are very few people that visit that set of tunnels and they haven’t been enlarged as much as the other set of tunnels. You are underground for roughly 10-15 minutes crawling from one meeting room to the general’s bedroom and onto the hospital. Bats live in the tunnels and adjoining rooms and as your creep down on your hands and knees to crawl from one room to the next you have bats whizzing by your head! Talk about intense! The entire time you spend in the tunnels is underground, it’s an unbelievable experience. You have a guide with you the entire time, so as you sit their wincing about the bats and claustrophobia (which by the way I am extremely claustrophobic, I can’t even do elevators!) it really is alright. At times crawling from one room to the next I’d let out a random scream as a bat whizzed by or I’d sing a happy song in my head to forget about the tunnel squeezing me– but it’s the real deal! You get an extremely realistic look at what the Vietnamese who lived in the tunnels felt like.
The tunnels on the right are happy days for claustrophobic people and those looking to shoot a gun. The tunnels are slightly larger (although still small) but you spend a very brief time underground. You still go to all of the same rooms (meeting room, bedroom, and hospital) but the ground has been removed from the top of all the rooms, so even though you are standing below ground you are still outside in the shining sun. You crawl from room to room, but can see the light at the end of every tunnel and don’t really need a flashlight. No bats either, since you aren’t underground. The whole time you are there you’ll probably here the “pow, pow, pow” of guns being fired in the distance. Visitors have their pick from an AK-47, machine gun, and I even think I saw a bazooka on display for people to shoot. It’s not very expensive to do, but it is incredibly loud! I never got used to bang of the guns and jumped like a little kid every time a shot was fired. Not for me! Rhys and our friend jumped at the chance to fire an AK-47, but I found it slightly wrong. A war was fought there, thousands died, and now it’s like “Come on down, shoot a gun just like the GI’s did here 50 years ago!” Pretty insensitive, but then I guess having thousands of visitors flocking to crawl through the tunnels every year could be seen as the same.
As you walk around you will witness huge craters in the ground from American bombs being dropped. It is unreal to stand down in one of the bomb craters, and get the rare chance to realize just how deep it is, and imagine the damage it was able to cause.
I was amazed when thinking about our guide leading us through the tunnels. Most of them are from the Cu Chi area and their family was most likely severely affected by the war. The tunnels their families fought in and dug are now their source of income. The first time we went our guide told us he had fought in the tunnels and our second guide told us his father and uncle both fought in the tunnels and his uncle was killed during battle. Forty years later, the tunnels are now a source of income for his family.
To get to the tunnels on the right go into any tourist office in Pham Ngu Lao and they will book you on the next bus to Cu Chi with 20 other travelers. You will probably be shuffled around from room to room like cattle (I warned you!). If you’re up for an adventure definitely check out the tunnels on the left. Either hire a motorbike (once you’re out of Saigon it’s one road for about 1.5 hours, signs are posted to tell you where to turn off), hire a car if you can afford it, or ask your hotel reception about what local bus to hop on. We’ve had 2 groups of friends stay with us and opted for a local bus to Cu Chi and both highly recommend it and had no problems with the buses. Plus the local bus ride there will cost $2-3. They both said it was really easy, and had a great time exploring the tunnels.
If you’re headed to Saigon, the Cu Chi tunnels are a must-see!