Another early departure beckoned for our final day in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) which, for me, promised to be one of the highlights of the trip. In fact, the day wasn’t as much in HCMC as in the surrounding environment as we left at 0700 for the historically significant site known as the Cu Chi tunnels.
During the French and American Wars of the mid-20th Century, the Cu Chi region had developed into a stronghold of the Viet Cong owing to the strong presence of their enemy (France and USA) and their inferior fighting strength (due to the differences in technological development). To mitigate that advantage, the Viet Cong moved themselves into tunnels underground, in effect fortresses hidden beneath the dense undergrowth that served as fighting bases, command centres, living spaces and civilian shelters from enemy forces. This was one of two regions (the other being at the border region between North & South about the 17th Parallel) that such tunnel systems developed, given that the ground was predominantly clay and therefore easy to be dug out.
Watching an introductory video upon arrival, we began to gain an appreciation of the motivation of the Viet Cong for moving underground and establishing their network of some 250km of tunnels. Dat then took us out into the woods of Cu Chi, stopping amongst the trees to explain how the jungle was used to camouflage the entrances to the tunnels which were buried underground. He reinforced this by sweeping aside some leaves to reveal a trapdoor hidden in the ground, smaller than an A3 sheet of paper which he promptly opened, dropped down into the hole below and sealed up behind him!
Having demonstrated the technique, we all then had the chance to drop down through the door and have our first glimpse inside what was a living artifact of one of the defining conflicts of the mid-20th Century. Claire and I both had a go, finding our figures, despite being Western and therefore much bigger than the average Vietnamese then or now, were slim enough to fit through and enter.
After our photo posing opportunities, we then moved on to explore the remainder of the site, seeing examples of some of the traps that were built by the Viet Cong to slow the US troops down and the techniques employed to keep themselves hidden from the US forces hunting them. Claire and I took every opportunity to crawl in trench shelters and similar places, gaining a feel for the environment and imagining how these were used in anger some 40 years ago. To emphasize this point, bomb craters littered the site from the numerous B-52 raids that Cu Chi had been subject to.
As we proceeded to see examples of the tunnel infrastructure and the uses of them, we learnt about the tactics of the Viet Cong and US to counter each other – for example, the escape tunnels linked to the Saigon river built into the tunnel network along with booby traps for any enemy that penetrated the network; the use of flame-throwers and poison gas by the Americans to flush the enemy out of the tunnel network and the narrow pinch points built into the tunnels by the Vietnamese to allow sections dangerous to enter to be blocked off quickly and effectively.
The network was built on three levels, each of which had different functions such as living spaces, workshops and kitchens with underground wells. Essentially, the only thing that was missing was a method of growing crops with everything else catered for within the tunnel complex. As we proceeded to explore the grounds, Dat explained how the network was built by local people and that guides amongst the local supporters were used by Viet Cong to navigate safely around the booby traps in the woods and tunnels themselves. We also saw how the Viet Cong would use unexploded US ordnance to make their own weapons to use against the US again: I don’t think I’ll forget the image of the troops underground sawing through a bomb that didn’t explode for a while!
Mid-way around, a rest stop was available alongside a firing range equipped with weapons of the era available for you to try. Given that this was a holiday of new experiences, Claire and I opted to try out the infamous AK-47, a new and different experience for Claire and I alike!
Back on our wander again, we were shown the uniforms worn by Viet Cong troops and the famous Ho Chi Minh sandals – designed by the Viet Cong President namesake himself – manufactured from former vehicle tyres. Dat also demonstrated how they could be worn easily and comfortably the wrong way around so that footprints left behind indicated that their starting point was actually their destination! This was just one of many examples of ingenious adaptations and inventions that helped the Viet Cong to resist the US, in spite of their technological disadvantage.
At this time, we reached what for me was the highlight of the visit: an opportunity to go down and travel through a section of the tunnel network! One of the tunnel’s guides led the way as we descended into an underground chamber before clambering down into the tunnel. Now, the part of the network we were entering had some modifications from its wartime-era appearance: it had been widened to allow for the larger Western frame, electrical lighting had been installed along the way to provide some illumination (previously from candlelight or torch), no one was smoking, cooking or going to the toilet in there and the booby traps had obviously been removed! Despite these changes, it was still a cramped, dark, hot and at times claustrophobic experience – at times it was very difficult to move around and both of us had sporadic moments of trepidation. This gave us pause to think about what it would have been like for those using the tunnels for real (about 12-18,000 it is believed!) whilst the ground above was pummelled by American bombs.
After about 60m of traversing the underground labyrinth, we re-emerged back to the surface and moved across to a kitchen area and sampled some of the foods and tea that would have been consumed by soldiers at the time. A quick stop at the gift shop followed before we were on our coach, back to HCMC and an afternoon free to explore before our departure towards the Mekong Delta tomorrow morning.
After a quick rest stop in our hotel room, our first destination in HCMC was a lunch venue. Today’s choice was the New York Dessert Company outlet in the HSBC Tower (HCMC is the financial hub of Vietnam) where Claire and I shared a plate of mini-beef burgers and filled potato skins.
Fully charged again, we popped into Notre Dame cathedral (which was open for one hour just whilst we were there) before heading around to the HCMC Museum, detailing the development of the city from Bronze Age village into French sea port and on to the capital of South Vietnam before becoming reunified Vietnam’s second city.
Before we knew it, we were approaching evening so we returned to the hotel to freshen up, shower and change. Tonight, we were going with Dat and some of our group members to the night market for dinner; a barbecue Vietnamese-style!
Walking to outside the day market we had visited previously, we wandered through the market stalls, avoiding the forward approaches of the vendors trying to persuade us to purchase. We arrived at a stall set up amongst the vendors, set up as an alfresco cafe with traditional barbecue blazing. Taking Dat’s advice, we opted for barbecue pork with Morning Glory (spinach with green beans and garlic) and rice: this was sound advice as the food was delicious with Claire and I devouring our plate of pork quickly as it was so moreish!!!
Our hunger satisfied, we then went for a wander amongst the stalls, haggling our way to a couple of gifts for those at home (which did involve a young female vendor begging Claire to buy from her with a strong grasp on her wrist as she tried to walk away!) before heading back to the hotel to pack in preparation for our final stage in the Vietnam leg of our grand tour.