Cu Chi tunnels
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background information:
The tunnels were an integral part of the Vietcong
's guerrilla tactics against the USA
in the Vietnam War
, their main base at the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
, from where the Vietcong operated within South Vietnam
. They allowed the fighters to literally disappear from the surface of the earth after conducting nightly attacks.
The entrances to the underground network of tunnels were so small and well camouflaged that the Americans sweeping the area during the day often walked overhead with no idea of what was beneath.
Of course, it wasn't always easy to conceal the existence of humans in these tunnels, but the ingenious guerrillas found clever ways of hiding evidence of their presence. Smoke from fires for cooking food was led through long vents to emerge a hundred yards away under a pile of old leaves, just billowing close to the ground like morning mist. There were underground wells to provide drinking water. The guerrillas used ash to cover excrement (they had to "shit without stink", as one guide put it), and with the sandals they made from old rubber tyres the guerrillas could leave footprints (if they left any at all) that pointed in the "other" direction, so as to confuse the Americans.
Ingenious improvisation also went into weaponry. They manipulated American anti-tank mines so that they could be triggered simply by a twig poking out at the top. They used the metal from artillery shells to make metal spikes for booby traps … and the booby traps themselves displayed a dazzling amount of ingenuity – as well as cruelty. Several reconstructions can be seen at Cu Chi. Here, the tunnels were primarily for fighting (unlike the Vinh Moc tunnels
), but they also contained meeting rooms for planning, an underground hospital, storage rooms, wells, kitchens, etc. They really were quite a feat.
Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese are still quite proud of these tunnels that played such a crucial role in their war effort against the technologically so much more advanced enemy. After the war, the Vietnamese government preserved parts of the tunnels as a national monument. This has been increasingly developed for tourism, esp. since the opening up of the country to foreign tourists in the 1990s. Today, the Cu Chi tunnels form an almost obligatory stop in most tour itineraries for tourists visiting Vietnam
What there is to see:
Quite a lot, of varying value. The site has many sections connected by paths above ground. There's a kind of theatre, where an intro film
is usually shown at the start of the tour. It's in black and white and less about the tunnels today, but more an endearingly dated old propaganda flick, starring a female Vietcong
, of unlikely prettiness and cleanliness, fighting the heroic war against the American aggressors virtually single-handedly. It's symbolic rather than documentary really, and the period propagandistic language is today more entertaining than anything. Though I wonder what American visitors make of it … Allegedly, the film was shot during the war, but that's highly unlikely, it was probably made in the late 1970s after the war.
There's also a model of the tunnels showing a cross section that explains the inner workings of the tunnel system, airing vents, meeting rooms, hospital, storage, kitchen, secret underwater entrances, booby traps, etc. It actually gives a better impression of how the system operated than the real-life-size elements of this national monument site can today.
Dotted around the area are hollows in the ground covered by wood-and-bamboo roofs, rather than actual tunnels. Some contain workshops (e.g. making these sandals out of tyre rubber), some souvenir stalls, others (slightly cheesy) displays of tunnel life using dummies dressed in Vietcong colours … sometimes a dummy suddenly comes to life and you realize that the local guides at the site, who are quite alive, are dressed the same way.
The reconstructions of the various booby traps are a big draw with tourists, and are most definitely one of the darkest elements here as they are quite gruesome displays of the cruel inventiveness that went into the design of these simple but effective devices. There are rotating trapdoors with bamboo spikes at the bottom of the hollow beneath, "folding chair" designs that would snap an intruder’s leg, balls with metal spikes on that could swing from trees piercing any unwary enemy. The guides demonstrate these contraptions with barely concealed glee.
There's also a rusting old M41 US tank, which was allegedly wrecked by a landmine. Tourists clamber about on it and pose for snaps.
A well-known feature of Cu Chi is the demonstration of the descent into the tunnels through one of those tiny camouflaged entrance holes. A local guide in Vietcong combat uniform will step in and crouch down holding the little trapdoor over his head until he disappears. With the trapdoor closed you can hardly see the entrance. He then emerges and select visitors are encouraged to have a try themselves. Don't try this if you're not adequately skinny yourselves, or you might get stuck …
These entrances are only for demonstration purposes, though. They do not lead into the actual tunnels these days...
Of the actual tunnels, originally a network of some 150 miles (250 km), only a small section is accessible for tourists today. And for many it's too claustrophobic an affair anyway. But I have to admit I found it the most exhilarating part of the Cu Chi tour. I also had a guide who sussed me out right, and thus actively encouraged me to do the entire length. Be warned though: it really is a claustrophobic experience – and a dirty and sweaty one at that.
The initial bit is still relatively harmless. You go down a few steps and then have to crouch down to walk inside the actual tunnels. Apparently, this stretch has been widened a bit for Westerners. The typically tiny Vietnamese must have found it in their hearts to have mercy on chunkier foreign visitors! Really big people will still struggle or may even have to give it a miss altogether.
I wasn't deterred. But as I'm fairly tall, I soon had to get down on my hands and knees in order to be able to move forward at all. The local Vietnamese tunnel guide remained on his feet, only crouching down a bit but still walking … ahead, with speed, thus frequently disappearing out of sight … together with his torchlight. There are some lights set into the tunnel walls, but they are few and far between, so you can actually end up in pitch-black darkness at times. I had to use the focus aid lamp on my camera as a kind of makeshift torch on occasions to get at least some idea (amazingly, in total darkness even the weak green glow of the focus lamp helped).
For those who just want a quick impression, there are exit points where you could cut the tunnel experience short. Apparently most people do use the very first one (after 25 metres or so). But I carried on for the entire 100 metres plus another even narrower (but thankfully shorter) section after that.
And I'm glad I did, especially because down there I had an amazing encounter: while on all fours edging on deeper into the tunnels I suddenly saw a bat in front of me – in fact, after flapping about a bit, it started flying directly at me. I was sure it would fly straight into my forehead, but inches before it did, it zipped just over my head. There can't have been more than a couple of inches headroom and I felt the swoosh of the air from the slipstream and the flapping. Amazing! I also saw tiny frogs on the tunnel floor in the narrower (and less frequented) part – you had to be careful not to accidentally crush one.
Be warned, then, that it's not only claustrophobic, but you can also have animal encounters that may not be a nice experience for everyone (perhaps not surprisingly, I happen to like bats – I think they are exceptionally fascinating creatures – and I don't mind frogs either … I'm not sure how I would have liked encountering some creepy-crawly monster insects though …).
And it is dirty and sweaty. This is no exaggeration. It's hot and damp down in the tunnels and doing some 150 yards or so on your hands and knees in those narrow twisting tunnels is a bit of a workout. I came out dripping with sweat, my clothes totally grimy and my hands and arms caked with brown sand. Fortunately I was going on to the airport from Cu Chi so I could get a change of clothes out of my luggage. When doing this as a return excursion from Ho Chi Minh City, it's probably a good idea to take something to change into (and extra water!)
One infamous extra feature at the Cu Chi site is the firing range. Here, tourists can shoot genuine assault rifles, and even an AK-47 machine gun. You pay per bullet, so the latter can quickly become seriously expensive (my guide said you get some wealthy Russians shooting entire magazines empty and paying thousands of dollars for it). Not being into such weapon worship at all, I gave it a miss. But what the firing range so close to the tunnels site does provide for everyone is its soundscape. Indeed, the sound of gunfire in the distance significantly adds to the whole atmosphere of the place!
Organized tours to this site often include "lunch
" – at Ch Chi itself that'll be in real Vietcong
style: i.e. consisting of pieces of boiled manioc with a peanut, salt and sugar dip, and some jungle "tea". Exactly the very plain kind of food that the Vietcong in the tunnels would have lived off for years! Not exactly the haute cuisine level of Vietnamese cooking, but actually quite tasty.
Overall, the tunnels themselves are really something special, but the rest of the site is just a little too touristy. The latter is particularly obvious at the row upon row of souvenir stalls. To alleviate the mass tourism effect a little, it’s better to come on a private tour, rather than as part of a whole coach-load of tourists – esp. if you want to go down the tunnels. Having somebody's arse in front of you and people shoving you on from behind would certainly detract from the experience – and make it even more claustrophobic.
north-west of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
's largest city, in the south of the country – figures given by different sources vary between 25 and 70 miles (40 and 110 km). Reality is probably somewhere in between. But it's certainly quite a drive out.
Access and costs: easy on a tour, but can be costly; cheaper but more complicated independently.
Details: you can theoretically get a local bus to Ch Chi town and then a taxi to the actual tunnels site, but I'd rather recommend an organized tour. You really need (English-speaking) guidance at the tunnels. These tours, offered by virtually any operator in Ho Chi Minh City, can cost between something like 25 to 150 USD, depending on group size and time, and on the operator, of course. Some tours include admission to the tunnels site, others don't.
Separately, admission is 65,000 Dong (ca. 4 USD).
Opening times of the site: daily from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
My recommendation for Cu Chi would be: don't skimp on it. OK, you can go there inexpensively and still in relative comfort on a coach tour, but then you'll be in a large group, which is not necessarily conducive to the experience (and definitely not in the tunnels). Doing it on an individual tour pays off, as you can avoid the crowds and get a more personalized tour. You can save money by giving the shooting range a miss.
Time required: Most tours are half-day excursions from Ho Chi Minh City, including transport. This gives you enough time at the site, approximately 2 hours, depending a bit on whether or not you go down crawling in the narrow stretch of tunnels (and whether you do just a small section or the entire length available). Making use of the firing range would add extra time too, of course. To see everything the site has to offer, and at leisure, do a whole day tour.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Since a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels is typically done as an excursion from Ho Chi Minh City, this city's attractions naturally make a good combination – see combinability under War Remnants Museum
- Cu Chi 1 - going down
- Cu Chi 2 - disappearing into the ground
- Cu Chi 3 - assorted traps
- Cu Chi 4 - nasty trap
- Cu Chi 5 - dummy Vietcong
- Cu Chi 6 - B52 bomb crater
- Cu Chi 7 - dummy in a tunnel
- Cu Chi 8 - crawling inside the tunnels
- Cu Chi 9 - various ordnance on display
- Cu Chi