Saigon, Vietnam: The Village of Cu Chi and its Tunnels
One of the biggest attractions in Ho Chi Minh City are the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, and I would say that it is one of those places that you really need to visit to learn more about the country and its people. The effects of the Vietnam/American War are still visible today; in and around Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it was once called) and other parts of Vietnam — and it is relived and retold again and again through the dark and narrow passageways of the Cu Chi Tunnels.
What is Actxplorer?
Actxplorer is a travel platform that provides unique travel experiences while creating a positive impact to the local communities — and they are the reason I was in Ho Chi Minh City. Traveling with me was fellow blogger Wilson; and all throughout our visit, we were accompanied by our host from Actxplorer, Jeremy.
The company works closely with locals and NGOs to offer experiences like workshops, farmstays, food tours and volunteer initiatives. Actxplorer aims to help the locals break free from the cycle of poverty by supplying them with knowledge and training to use their skills to benefit themselves and their families. This will create more job opportunities for them, and introduce them to the tourism industry — and that in turn, will bring us (the visitors) closer to better understanding the local culture through involvement and close interactions.
I appreciate what Actxplorer is trying to achieve, and I support their cause in trying to benefit some of the local communities. It somehow makes the tour and experience much more worthwhile. You can find out more about Actxplorer here, and scroll down to the bottom for a 10% discount code on any bookings.
The “Cycling Through History: A Cu Chi Experience” Tour
What makes the “Cycling Through History: A Cu Chi Experience” Tour on Actxplorer different from the many tours to the Cu Chi Tunnels is that they combine a visit to the tunnels with a bike ride through the Cu Chi Village. What better way to truly understand its turbulent history than by heading off the beaten path — getting a passing glimpse of the entire village and talking to a Vietnam/American war veteran over a glass of sugarcane juice.
The tour is led by Chau, an adventure guide who speaks English, and knows the Cu Chi area pretty well. There are 2 departure times daily, at 7am and 1pm, and they run for about 6 hours. The entire tour costs US$95, and this includes the guide, private transport from your hotel, bicycles, entrance tickets to the tunnels, a local lunch, and water.
The Cu Chi Village
The village of Cu Chi is situated about 40km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. The town and district was a significant site during the Vietnam/American War, as it not only served as a base for one of the battalions of the US Army from 1967, but the tunnels in the area was also the headquarters of the Viet Cong Army.
Now, almost 50 years after the war, the district of Cu Chi is filled with miles and miles of paddy fields, and small wooden houses and shops lining the dusty roads. I have always referred to Cu Chi as “choo-chee”, but during my visit, I was taught that the correct pronunciation is “ku-chee”.
A Local Vietnamese Lunch
After driving almost half an hour from the city, we arrived in Cu Chi and were taken to a local restaurant for lunch. Our guide, Chau, explained to us that we were to have Com Trua, a popular Vietnamese lunch/dinner staple that consists of rice, and a whole different array of home-style dishes. In Malaysia, this is either known as Mixed Rice in the Chinese style, or Nasi Kandar, in the mamak style.
The amount of dishes on display can be overwhelming — and it can get pretty difficult trying to decide what to eat! I just pointed to a couple dishes that caught my eye, and the lady at the counter placed it on top a plate of white rice. I had a delicious lunch of pork slices, pork ribs, prawns, and lots and lots of vegetables!
Cycling around Cu Chi Village
After lunch, it was time to explore Cu Chi Village! The journey started with a short ride through a dusty road with old brick houses and lush greenery. The scenery then slowly changed to miles and miles of rice fields, in a myriad of green and gold colors. We also passed by several animals farms — it was the first time I’ve ever stepped foot in a pig farm, and seen so many ducks crowded into a small pond. We also came across a nursery with cotton trees and fruit plants; and a village school.
The entire ride lasted almost 2 hours with lots of photo and farm stops. The afternoon trip was a little scorching due to the Asian sun, but I still had lots of fun with the breeze from the ride and exploring a little part of the country that is so rarely seen.
A Chat with Uncle Huang, a War Veteran
At the end of our bicycle ride through the countryside, we stopped by an open-aired cafe, Cafe Nuoc Mia Vong. The place belongs to the family of a man who spent his youth fighting the Vietnam/American war, Uncle Huang. He also happened to be our van driver! The entire conversation with Uncle Huang was translated by Chau (because Uncle Huang speaks no English); and over a couple of glasses of the most delicious sugar cane juice, we talked to him (and his wife) about his life during the war, his fight for freedom, and his hopes for today’s Vietnam.
At the end of our talk, he had this to say to the younger generation, “Love your country. That is the best way to protect the country.”
The Cu Chi Tunnels
After a short rest at the cafe, we got onto our transport van and made our way to the famed Cu Chi Tunnels. It was about 3.30pm when we arrived, and it was the perfect timing as there were hardly any other tourists around. Entrance costs VND90,000~US$4 per person, but our tickets were already covered in the tour rates.
A sizeable portion of the tunnel is preserved by the Vietnamese goverment, and two sites are now tourist attractions, the Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc tunnels. The Ben Dinh site is more commercialized, with widened tunnels to fit tourists; while the Ben Duoc tunnels are catered for the Vietnamese tourists with the original tunnels through thicker forests. For our tour, we visited the touristy Ben Dinh tunnels.
A Little History of the Tunnels
The tunnels of Cu Chi are no ordinary tunnels — it is a honeycomb-like network that runs underground for more than 200km. The network stretches from the city of Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border, and connects most parts of Vietnam. It is an entire city built below the surface of earth.
The Vietnam/American War lasted from 1955 to the fall of Saigon in 1975. The tunnels served as the operations base of the Viet Cong (communist party that supported the North government for the reunification of Vietnam), and was the perfect tool to move supplies and house troops, to hide during combats, and to ambush the unsuspecting American soldiers (who supported the South). The tunnels played a big role in the eventual withdrawal of the US army that brought about the end of the war.
Crawling Through the Tunnels
The tour starts with a short history video of the war and the tunnel system. I remember watching the video when I first visited the Cu Chi Tunnels more than 10 years ago. After that, we were brought around the entire site, and saw small hole in the grounds that could only fit one person, camouflaged entrances, underground rooms used for meetings, and booby trap demonstrations. They were also tankers and other weapons displayed around the area.
I also had the chance to experience one of the tunnels — the passageway runs a few meters through a narrow space that is lit with dim lights. Though the tunnel has been widened, it is still very tight and can get a little claustrophobic, so there are small exits along the tunnels for visitors who want to get out. I didn’t want to crawl on my knees, so I walked with my back bent; and when it got to tiring, I did the duck walk. I made it the entire way, but it wasn’t easy!
A Round at the Shooting Range
At the end of the tour, there is a shooting range where visitors can try their hand at shooting a gun. There are a few choices of guns to choose from — rifles like the AK-47, K63 and Garand M1, the Carbine, and even the M30 and M60 machine guns. It is not cheap to fire a round, prices range from VND40,000-50,000 (~USD$2) per bullet.
With Vietnam’s history of war and destruction, I don’t think having a shooting range on the tunnel grounds really suited the mood or character of the site. However, I have never fired such huge guns before so I thought I’d give it a try anyway. I fired 5 rounds from the AK-47.
My Cu Chi Experience
It was an eye-opening experience visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels — learning more about the history of Vietnam, and what the Vietnamese had to go through during the war. By visiting the tunnels, we can see some of the remnants of what happened during those dark times; but it is simply impossible to even imagine the life the people had to endure. Some of the stories we heard from Uncle Huang who fought and lived through the war was heartbreaking to listen to.
The bicycle ride through the countryside of Cu Chi offered a different view from the solemness of the tunnels. I’m glad we got to explore the village before visiting the tunnels, it showed us the true beauty of Vietnam and how the country has finally found peace.
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*She Walks the World went on the “Cycling Through History: A Cu Chi Experience” Tour in Ho Chi Minh City with Actxplorer as a guest. As always, all opinions stated here are my own.
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