Monday 27 August 2012

A Tale of Two Tours: Part 1 - The Cu Chi Tunnels

13th August 2012

Just 30 miles north-west of Saigon lie the (in)famous Cu Chi tunnels. According to our guide, pronounce Cu Chi with the wrong inflection and it sounds like ‘penis’ (or one of its cruder cousins.) Writing it is fine though.

The tunnels were the one of the distributed strongholds of the Vietcong resistance in South Vietnam during the war. They are spread out over dozens of square miles and stretch to over 250km in length. Vietnamese people literally spent years living underground in places like these.

We booked a cheapo half-day tour through our guesthouse. Saving money comes at a cost though – it took almost 90 minutes from when we got on the bus to actually get going, mainly because of the number of pickups the bus had to complete in the city. Not to worry, by midday we were there.

The tour started off with a short presentation on some of the history plus a bit on how the tunnels worked in practice – ventilation, number of levels, booby traps etc.

Cu Chi tunnels presentation
This was lent an air of authority as it was presented by a Vietnamese veteran, although slightly strangely, he was working on the American side so, as he ran patrols up the Mekong, the Vietcong in the tunnels were enemies.

Lecture over, time for the tour. How did the Vietcong get in and out?

Nothing to see here...
What the...?
That hole is barely wider than my hips (no comment on whether my stomach fits.) A bit further on, a quick reminder to watch where you step.

Nothing to see here, either...
And then a few more innovative ways to ruin an American soldier’s day.

Goodbye knees
Goodbye torso
Goodby world
Finally it was time for the highlight, a trip down the tunnels themselves.

This isn't the entrance
This is the entrance
This stretch of tunnel is 100m long with exits every 20m should it all get too much. It gets progressively narrower as you go along until there’s only space to crawl. It’s hot, humid, cramped and dirty – not recommended if you are in any way claustrophobic. I’m not particularly, but 20m was plenty for me. I emerged drenched in sweat with grazed knuckles and bruised knees. A few of the younger, skinnier members of our group made it all the way, emerging from the other end looking extremely bedraggled.

This was only a tiny taster of what it must have been like. This tunnel has been specially rebuilt to make it easier for tourists. As such it’s better ventilated, well sealed, illuminated in places and also it’s only a level 1 tunnel or about 3 metres underground. The real tunnels are way longer (remember 250km+ total length), often deeper (8-10m for level 2 tunnels) and sometimes as deep as 20m (for the level 3 hideouts.) The deeper they get, the more cramped and humid it gets. I managed about two minutes before I’d had enough. Actually living down there doesn’t bear thinking about, but I suppose, at the time they had little choice.

But this is a tourist spot, so they don’t let you get too thoughtful. Time for some fun. Want to sit on a rusty old tank? Alrighty, then.

I'm 5 years old again
And just to press the point that war can be fun, there was also a firing range where you can let loose with anything from an AK-47 to a machine gun. The pacifist in me said, “No!” The adolescent in me shouted, “YES!” The miser in me won the argument – at a dollar a bullet, the adolescent would have forced an early trip home with the budget in tatters.

I had a corn-on-the-cob instead.

That was it, back on the bus and back to the hotel 7.5 hours from when we left. Not bad for a half-day tour. The Cu Chi tunnels: a must see if you’re ever in Saigon.

Next up, the Mekong Delta tour.

Current location: Siem Reap until 30th August
Next stop: Bangkok

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