Wednesday, August 29, 2012

[HO CHI MINH] Cu Chi Tunnels

And so, the question: Why should you go to Cu Chi Tunnels? The answer is simple: because there's nothing left to do in Saigon. There will come a time when you'd just have to look for alternatives outside the city, and what better day to do it than on my day of departure. Having a flight bound to Hanoi at 9 PM, I needed a day trip that'd bring me back to HCMC to prepare for my departure early that afternoon. After choosing one of many travel agents in Pham Ngu Lao, I decided to just do the half day tour of Cu Chi Tunnels for around USD 6. Apparently, my guest house was also offering the same tour for USD 5. And all I had to do was ask. Oh well...

On the day of the tour, you either wait at your guest house or go to the travel agency where the bus is waiting. Either way, the bus makes its rounds around Saigon to pick up passengers from various ho(s)tels. It's some sort of carpooling thingy. At around 8:30 AM you'll be off to Cu Chi, still technically a district of HCMC, but far away from the motorbike invasion happening at the city center. The trip takes around two hours but for some reason our stopover at the handicrafts store, where Agent Orange victims work, took almost an hour.

That souvenir shop is huge and has a wide array of pasalubongs ranging from Vietnamese ceramic dolls all the way to giant plates that cost millions of dong. You can't really complain about the quality because the people who make them are really good at what they do. You can see them in action on the left side of the building. Watching them at work leaves you in awe: one, because of their awesome skills; and two, because of their determination in life despite their handicap.

Come to think of it, they're just unwilling victims of the Vietnam War. They hardly had any choice being born like that. Some people just shout ‘unfair’ and probably end up with drastic measures to cope. However, these people are given a livelihood by the government and they seem grateful about it. And so, they live. Admirable resilience, and here I am complaining about many trivial things in life. Despite the delay, it was absolutely an eye-opener.

The mix of foreigners in our bus was mostly European. There were four Spanish speakers, four German speakers, two Slavic speakers (could not infer which language), two Dutch speakers, two Scandinavian speakers (could not deduce if Swedish or Norwegian), two Japanese, and the rest were English speaking, mostly from the United Kingdom and Ireland based on the accent. It was fun observing the tourist dynamics, on how people speaking the same languages found one another, and how English became the lingua franca when needed be. The tour guide was Vietnamese. He spoke English with a very thick accent, though still intelligible.

Fine, let's go to the main attraction now. What to see there? Tunnels, what else! I do have this suspicion, though, that the tunnels might be fake or at least those for tourists. The site itself is where most of the actual tunnels are, and the tour guide would be very happy to point that out. When you alight the bus, you'll see the ticket booth. Here's the catch. The USD 5-6 that you pay at the travel agency is just for the transportation costs. The actual entrance fee of VND 90,000 is payable onsite, except that for us the tour guide already collected the mentioned amount while on the bus. Once you arrive, you'll be given your ticket and a sticker to put on your shirt once you cross the first tunnel, a modern one leading to the compound.

Most of what you'll see first are huts with thatched roofs. You'll then be led to one of them where you'll watch a video after a mini lecture by a funny Vietnamese guy who explains how the tunnel system worked as well as its history and how it was constructed. You have to give it to the Vietnamese, they did manage to outwit the Americans through those tunnels.

The actual tour starts after the video. Most of what you'll see then are trees, paths, and dried leaves all over. The first stop is where the guide asks you to locate the tunnel lid leading to the entrance. Of course you won't be able to do so unless you have some sort of super canine powers. Once he shows you the lid, some people will be allowed to take pictures. Again, I have doubts if that was real or just made for show. Most of the Caucasians in the group fit easily in that hole. It's just that, the claim to fame is that Vietcongs easily managed to navigate the tunnels because of their petite frames, while the Americans needed to count on Filipino and South Korean soldiers during war time to actually get into those holes. Unfortunately, I was too shy and alone to be photographed there. And so I just walked away with the group.

There are more to see such as air holes disguised as ant hills as well as traps with bamboo stakes! Those things are plain scary and really well-hidden, must have killed a lot of American soldiers back in the day. There's also a tank and some life-sized Vietcong figures dressed in US troop uniform, which is said to be another method used to outwit the GI’s. The tour ends in a snacks and souvenir shop which is also where you buy bullets if you want to try their shooting range. Wait, this is not where it ends! Blooper. Excited? HAHAHA.

You'll then be led to try the tunnel experience yourself! Again, I don't know if those tunnels were actual or just made for tourists. There are three levels, each with varying range of difficulty. You can choose to exit early if you could no longer bear all the crouching. The trip ends and this time it's for real, at a hut where you'll be served taro, which was the daily staple food of the Vietcong during the war. Served with tea and chit-chat with other tourists!

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