Saigon (part two) – through the tunnels of Viet Cong

TWO DIFFERENT CU CHI TUNNELS

Cu Chi tunnels- an extensive systems of multi-layered tunnels used during the Vietnam War by Viet Cong (great communist guerillas) are the greatest attraction of Ho Chi Minh City.  As we learned from our invaluable host, there were in fact two different Cu Chi tunnels sites:

Ben Dinh tunnels are far more popular among tourists (hence overcrowded) and located closer to the city. They are in fact only the reconstruction, not part of the original network.

Ben Duoc tunnels are less known and located slightly further away. They are the genuine Viet Cong constructions, some of which were widened for the convenience of tourists.

We were happy to hear that out of the two, it was easier to get to Ben Duoc tunnels by public transport.

GETTING TO BEN DUOC

On the second day in Saigon, we left early for a one day trip to Ben Duoc. The nearest bus stop of the route 13 (terminating at Cu Chi station), was on Cach Mang Thang Tam road, a few blocks away from the War Remnants Museum. As walking all that distance would be a waste of time we ordered a Grab (popular South East Asian cab app) to the bus stop.

The taxi arrived and we went downstairs. We saw a green taxi waiting and Sayak confidently entered the car. To my surprise, the driver had no idea where were we going and he didn’t even use his phone for directions. I don’t know why I simply didn’t get off straightaway. Basically, we took a normal taxi, idiotically mistaking it for a Grab just because it was green. To prevent overpaying (normal taxi would always be more expensive than Grab), we got off at the museum and walked the remaining few blocks to the bus stop.

Once at the bus stop, we found the bus number 13 without any trouble. We crossed the entire city and got to the last stop- Cu Chi bus station. After a quick search, we boarded bus 79 which took us directly to Ben Duoc. Following Google maps, we got off  at a small village road, crossed the street and reached the gate to the Ben Duoc complex.

It took us surprisingly long time to enter the tunnels. Walking straight ahead, we first saw a river and some restaurants, then, to the left of it, a park and a temple under construction. We took a shortcut through the park and headed more or less in the direction the bus came from. Finally, we saw the entrance to the tunnels but the ticket booth was nowhere to be seen. As we later understood, we by-passed the first ticket booth by taking the shortcut.

We wandered around the large compound for a longer while, trying to find the place where we could buy the tickets from. The logical, but incorrect choice was going inside the largest building of the complex. In fact, the tickets were sold at a small booth opposite to that large building. To spare you the hassle, use Maps.me app which shows both ticket booth clearly.

EXPLORING THE TUNNELS

By the time we entered the grounds of Ben Duoc Tunnels, it started pouring with rain. A few organised tours of local tourists passed us by and I was surprised we were not ascribed any guide. Instead, we were ushered to a roofed shack fitted with a screen and a diorama.

We were lucky to arrive there simultaneously with a group who had their own guide. Thankfully, that guide was very knowledgeable and spoke fluent English. We watched an old, black-and-white propaganda movie and listened to the guide’s fascinating description of how efficient and comprehensive the entire system was. The group left shortly while we were finally given a local guide wearing a black Viet Cong uniform.

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Wax figures in Viet Cong uniforms

We walked through the muddy paths across the humid jungle. It made me think of all the Vietnam war movies I had ever seen. The current setting was deceptive, though as actually during the war the whole place was totally stripped of vegetation due to the extensive use of Agent Orange.

After a short walk, the guide showed us the entrance to the first of the original tunnels- a really tiny square, cut in the ground- and invited us to get in.

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Inside the claustrophobic, original Viet Cong tunnel

At first I thought he was joking as it didn’t seem possible to fit in. When I realised he really meant it, I was the first one to get inside. I managed to squeeze through only after raising my arms above the head. Within seconds, I ended up inside a corridor so low that I could move forward just in a squatting position. It was thankfully lit which allowed me to notice a small bat at the end of the corridor. It was a bit tricky to pass by it as the frightened creature kept on flying straight in my direction. I knew it wouldn’t harm me but I was also aware that bats could carry many diseases, including rabies. Thankfully, the tunnel was very short so I was able to reemerge through an equally narrow exit soon.

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Communist guerillas built an impressive, multi-level underground city

Some of the tunnels were widened for the purpose of tourism which allowed us to walk comfortably through the reconstructions of various underground buildings, such as the hospital and Viet Cong HQ. The interiors were decorated with the wax figures of the fighters. There were a couple more original tunnels at Ben Duoc, the largest one 20 meters long. I ventured inside that one, too and again it was not only claustrophobic but also full of bats.

One of the highlights was visiting a reconstruction of the open-air Viet Cong kitchen where we were very grateful to receive free boiled cassava with crushed peanuts and salt. We ate the whole plateful. It came just on time as we were practically starving by then.

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Rubber sole shoes workshop

The rain intensified while we were eating. Our guide must have had enough of walking in the downpour so he showed us the path towards the exit and disappeared. It was very disappointing as it soon turned out there were two or three more interesting stops before the exit.

One of them was the workshop producing simple shoes made of car tyres. Only by eavesdropping on another guide did I understand what was so special about those shoes. The soles were made in such a way that the footprints showed as if the person walked in the opposite direction than in reality.  Smart!

Right at the end of the route there was also a very interesting display of human traps which again wouldn’t make much sense without explanation which we overheard from another guide.

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Reconstruction of a trap used by Viet Cong to capture American soldiers

The rain didn’t show any sign of subsiding when we started walking back to the bus stop. Our host Thao warned us that the earlier we would catch the bus the better, since we were likely to get stuck in the traffic for hours. Leaving Ben Duoc at 3 pm, we were optimistic about getting on time for Thao’s English class.

The change of the buses was smooth and the journey back wasn’t much longer than in the morning. We got off at the last stop, 23rd September Park (Cong Vieng 23 Thang 9), and stuffed ourselves with sticky rice from vendors at the station. I even found a vegan bahn mi (baguette) with soya ‘chicken floss’ nearby.

Thus refreshed, we decided to walk all the way to Thao’s home. It wasn’t the best idea: it took us two hours and we walked in the dark through some really dodgy, deserted areas at times. We were slightly late for the class but after quickly refreshing, we eagerly joined in.

ANOTHER AUTHENTIC CULINARY EXPERIENCE

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Ingredients for creating DYI fresh spring rolls

That evening, the entire group went again by scooters to a local restaurant. It was a really cool place where one could roll his own fresh spring rolls. As I was vegan, one of the students drove somewhere just to get takeaway food for me. Nevertheless, I also tried rolling the spring rolls with pickles and a huge variety of different tasting green leaves. DIY style restaurants are lots of fun and this one was no exception (see my video).

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Cu Chi tunnels by public transport?

1. Take a bus no 13 starting from 23/9 Park (Cong Vien 23/9). You can also catch it on any bus stop on Cach Mang Thang Tam road.
It takes around 1.5 hours and costs 7000 VND*

2. Get off at the last stop (ben xe Cu Chi) and change for the bus no 79 leaving from the bus station
It takes less than 1 hour and costs 6 000 VND*

3. Follow maps.me application to find the Ben Duoc bus stop (or ask the ticket seller on the bus). Both the bus stop and ticket booths are clearly marked on maps.me.
Ben Duoc ticket price is 90 000 VND*
*all prices as of July 2018

Tips

1. Try to leave and return early to avoid peak time traffic jam in HCMC and to be sure you catch the last bus from Cu Chi (we heard they stop running at 4 pm)
2. Reserve at least 3 hours for seeing the tunnels.
3. Wear clothes which you don’t mind getting dirty if you’re planning to get inside the narrow tunnels.

 

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