As a solo American traveler (and a former Marine at that) traveling to Vietnam, one of the only remaining communist countries in the world, it’s understandable to have a few…apprehensions. There aren’t many destinations that would prompt me to contemplate claiming to be Canadian in order to stay off the radar (nothing against Canada, I am simply being prideful), but this was one of them. The point being, nobody really plots to stab a Canadian in the back in a dark alley because of the atrocities, perceived or real, committed by Canada during a war that ended decades ago. So, it was under this pretense that I toured the Cu Chi Tunnels, just outside of Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City (depending on the origin, North or South, of the person you’re talking to in Vietnam).
These tunnels were part of a large complex of tunnels stretching all the way to Cambodia (far), dug and used for many years by the Viet Cong, during raids into the Saigon area during both the French and American Wars. They are open to the public for tours today and are a common agenda item for many travelers. I do recommend you add it to your to-do list for a day trip if you ever find yourself in Vietnam.
A tour bus will pick you up at your hotel, very early in the morning, between 6-7 ish. The bus will then head out of town, through the rice paddies and into the countryside, where you’ll make a stop or two at markets along the way. The goal of the market stop is to get you to spend your money on the many handicrafts and local goods there. If you’re looking anyway, it’s not a bad stop.
During the bus ride, you’ll likely have a guide, who will begin to provide you background information on the tunnels, and the manner with which the tunnels were used to drive out the invading evil capitalists from the country, and provide the great leader Ho Chi Minh a glorious victory. Now, this entertaining form of what I can only describe as propaganda would become the theme of our little tour of the tunnels. Being a somewhat self-educated person on things like history, I had a few conflicting opinions, which of course I kept to myself so not to take away from the fun.
Cu Chi Tunnels Tour
You’ll arrive at a small reception area in the jungle, and will be led to a large tent where you’ll be shown a screening of an educational film (or propaganda, whatever you’d like to call it) about the tunnels and their use in the war. After this, you’ll be able to loosely follow the guide through the area and view bomb craters, tanks that have been blown and left in place, fighting holes and booby traps remaining in the jungle. Many, many booby traps.
The Viet Cong were skilled in their ability to craft terribly deadly traps in the jungle, snaring and maiming many US servicemen. Modern-day replicas of these traps, many different types, are on display in the jungle as part of the tour. People are free to enter some of the fighting holes as well.
During the tour, the guide demonstrates how the traps work, and even get in some of the fighting holes to show how the most effective way to sneak up on and violently kill the evil capitalists. Entertaining stuff, really.
It was at this point that 4 things happened:
- I realized I was the only American in our group;
- The guide realized I was the only American in our group;
- I realized that he realized this; and
- I suddenly had a deep sense of regret for not having brought my hand grenade with me that morning.
Just joking, of course, I digress!
After this portion, you’ll be able to explore down into the tunnels themselves, which are about 24” wide by 36” tall, big enough to allow groups to comfortably move through at a crouched position. You’ll be able to see some of the encampments used, and even have a snack of tapioca and warm tea at the end, which was supposedly a staple diet of the North Vietnamese utilizing the tunnels.
Finally, the tour will head to Saigon and drop you off at your hotel.
In summary, this was a great experience. Even with, and in some regard because of, the over-the-top commentary from the guide, the experience contributed to my ability to see the Vietnam War (or as referred to in Vietnam, the American War) from the eyes of the Vietnamese people, and not from the eyes of an American who grew up with preconceived notions of what that war was about. Many of us are guilty of seeing the world as we want to, and as we believe it has been made, and not how it actually is. For a well-rounded worldview, you need to be able to occasionally take a peek at the world through the eyes of the other people living in it. A trip to Vietnam and seeing things like the Cu Chi Tunnels will surely contribute to your ability to do that.
Additionally, I highly recommend the War Remnants Museum, for these same reasons. The War Remnants Museum is located in Saigon, in the old French part of the city. You could visit this and other sites in the same area during the morning or afternoon. Other nearby sites include the former CIA station where the last US helicopter departed Vietnam.