The Best Day Trip from Saigon: the Cu Chi Tunnels
Considering Trip Advisor rates the Củ Chi tunnels the number 2 thing to do when visiting Ho Chi Minh City, it’s ridiculous that we waited this long to see them. The 121 km tunnel system was preserved after the Vietnam War. They are one of the best ways to experience the Vietnamese side of the war, and to understand how they were able to beat one of the most powerful countries in the world.
There are many ways to get to the tunnels from Saigon. Most people take a tour that includes the ride there and back, a tour guide, and entrance fees. Since we only live about an hour away, we drove our scooter there. It was a nice ride that had us crossing a river by ferry, driving past rubber tree forests, and seeing some of the country-side.
There are actually two Cu Chi Tunnel attractions. Ben Duoc is further away from Ho Chi Minh. It’s a lot less busy, and is somewhat difficult to get to unless you hire a private car. Bus 13 from the 23/9 park bus station (where all the buses are in the long park that’s north of the backpacker district) will get you to Cu Chi bus station where you can get a xe om to the Ben Duoc entrance (bargaining hard will get you a $5 round-trip ride), or catch bus 79 to the park entrance (mention your stop to the driver or ticket person and they should tell you when to get off). Ben Duoc is more for Vietnamese people. The tunnels aren’t widened, so you may not be able to fit in them, and there are more dangers — bats, scorpions, stuff like that. Also, you’ll find a few more dress-me-up-like-something-and-take-my-photo opportunities. We didn’t go there, so for more information you can read this post about it.
The easier option is the Ben Dinh tunnels. Almost any tourist office in the backpacker district will have buses going there at around 8AM for about $5. The ride usually takes an hour and a half. Alternatively, catch bus 13 to Cu Chi bus station, then take bus 79 to the T-juntion (see map below) and walk for 20 minutes. Public transit will take twice as long but you’ll save about $3.
We arrived at Ben Dinh at 11AM. The admission is 90,000 dong (about $4.20). After going through a long tunnel (that has nothing to do with the war), you’ll arrive in a hut-filled area. You’ll want to find the hut for English speaking people. Grab a seat to get some information about the tunnels and watch a video that calls Americans things like “baby-killers”. After that, the tour starts. You’ll see variety of booby-traps, hidden entrances, an old tank that the Viet soldiers took down, bomb craters, and various “rooms” where weapons were made, food was cooked, injured soldiers were mended. The guide was very informative and there were plenty of lessons and tricks learned along the way. My favourite was the backwards sandals. They’re like a normal sandal but the tread faces the opposite direction, so when the enemy sees your footprints they think you are going the opposite way. So simple, kind of silly, but I’m sure it worked.
About halfway through the tour, you stop at the shooting range. There are a few things to buy there, but loud blasts of gunfire are hard to ignore. I shot an AK-47. I’m not a gun-guy, but the historical value of the experience intrigued me. For 60 years, the AK-47 was the most popular assault rifle. It’s likely that it has killed more people than any other gun in the world. For 400,000 dong (about $19) you get 10 shots (40,000 dong per bullet, you have to buy at least 10, which can be split between people). There are other options including an M16, M60, M1 carbine, M1 Garand, Russian SKS, and a .30 Caliber Machine Gun that’s mounted to an army jeep.
The actual crawling though the tunnel (which has been widened and reinforced) happens close to the end of the tour. I must say, I was a bit rattled by the thought of it. The tunnel is about 100 meters and can be walked in a bent state for most people. I’m 6’2″ and I needed to squat-walk or crawl. I started with the squat-walk. It was hot out. The ventilation in the tunnels isn’t great. I started breathing heavy. I switched to the crawl. I wanted out. Sara’s butt was the only thing I could see in front of me. The whole thing only took about 2 minutes, but that was plenty of time for me. Needless to say, I would have made a bad Vietnamese soldier.
Overall, the Cu Chi tunnels were a great way to spend a day. I was impressed with the tour, and all that I learned. It’s also interesting to see how the Vietnamese deal with something that happened not that long ago and was so tragic. In the western world, a war museum or memorial wouldn’t be nearly as cheerful. The guide made jokes, and never did the mood become somber. The past is in the past, I guess.