The Cu Chi Tunnels are a network of tunnels to the northwest of Saigon built by communist guerrilla troops (Viet Cong). They were originally built during the resistance against French colonialists, and then expanded during the fight against American and South Vietnamese forces.
The tunnel network is now a popular tourist attraction, being one of the most visited war-related sites in Vietnam. In fact according to TripAdvisor, the Cu Chi Tunnels is listed as the most popular thing to do in Ho Chi Minh City. I never use TripAdvisor so I wouldn’t have guessed this was number one if someone hadn’t told me.
The tunnels are in Cu Chi District – one of the 24 districts that make up modern Ho Chi Minh City. During the war the tunnels were well outside of the urban area, and not part of Saigon. Today the city sprawl has caught up with Cu Chi and it is within the Ho Chi Minh City boundaries.
I had resisted going previously as I wasn’t interested in going into cramped tunnels. It turns out though that the tunnels are only a small and optional segment of the visit. I had a friend from Australia visiting who wanted to go, so after being based in Saigon for so long I figured it was time I paid a visit.
I checked to see if you could get there by local bus, but is a hassle to do so as there is no direct bus. There is a bus to Cu Chi District, and then you have to get another bus that gets you near the site. By comparison the cheapest tour bus is going to get you there for around $6, so it’s not worth the hassle of saving a few dollars.
Of course with such a cheap ticket there is a catch, and that catch is a visit to a handicraft factory on the way. The factory is an employment program for the handicapped, and the products on offer were nice. If I wasn’t such a nomad perhaps I would have been tempted to buy something.
Cu Chi is about an hour and a half drive from the city centre, which gives you an idea of how sprawling the city is. The tunnels are about 60km from Ben Thanh Market, so you are mainly spending that time in traffic on bad roads.
Upon arriving at the bus park I was not left in any doubt that it was the number one tourist attraction. If this was in central Saigon there would be no room to park so many buses.
Thankfully the site of the tunnel complex is huge so there is enough space for a bus park, and the site is big enough to absorb big tourist crowds.
The bus ticket also includes a guide, who led us around the complex. At its peak there were over 200km of tunnels that were dug by hand.
Near the start of the tour we visited a small tunnel entrance which I have seen on countless blogs and Facebook status updates. This tunnel entrance is so small that you descend feet first with your hands in the air holding the cover.
Those that tried to enter by not holding their hands up got stuck. There is a ledge in the tunnel so you don’t fall all the way down. Volunteers descend enough to cover themselves and get that Cu Chi photo opportunity.
There are several tunnels sections with different entrance points. We saw termite hills that conceal air holes, and bomb craters are still visible everywhere.
There are also displays of various booby traps, where a guide is there to show how they are set off and explain the gruesome damage they would cause.
Apart from the tunnels, another thing that had put me off visiting was the shooting range. Having only seen reviews of people popping out of tunnels and shooting it didn’t look like my kind of day out. A Saigon-based writer posted this article which had also made me think about whether the shooting range was a good idea.
I’ve lived in rural Australia and grew up around guns, so shooting a gun wasn’t a novelty for me. I had thought that having the gun range would be tacky, but after visiting I thought it was ok, but not for reason I would have thought. The sound of guns firing can be heard throughout the tour, and the sound is ear-jarringly loud. The noise gives you a little perspective of what it would have sounded like in the war zone.
Of course we didn’t have the stress of being shot at or standing on a booby trap. And just the thought of walking around all day in wet boots made me appreciate my life of not being in a war zone.
At $3 a bullet I don’t think this is going to be end anytime soon. No wonder the military industrial complex loves a war.
What did annoy me was the general lack of reverence at what should be a sacred site. Guides making jokes about booby traps is in poor taste, and tourists clambering over an American tank like a victorious army felt disrespectful. A good precedent is at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, where the tanks and aircraft are off limits.
Maybe this is a cultural thing where people move on faster here. Apart from the government holding big anniversary parades, people born after the war don’t talk about the war. I can’t imagine jokes being made at any World War II site in Europe, but I’ve heard tour guides make jokes at medieval European castles about torture equipment. If it’s in someones living memory then it is too soon.
At the end of the tour we reach a tunnel entrance that has been made big enough to walk into. Here you can experience a tunnel section for about 100 metres. I watched people go in, and not long after some people quickly back-tracked after realising how cramped it was.
My visiting friend went in and took a photo in the tunnel for me. After seeing the photo I’m glad I didn’t go in as small cramped spaces are not for me. While everyone else were going through the tunnels I thought about an American friend who is a Vietnam veteran. He was one of the “tunnel rats”, who went into the dark unknown of the tunnels looking for VC.
One of the drawbacks of the tour option was not being able to linger in the museum section of the complex.
Overall it was a good excursion outside of the city centre and I’m glad I finally went. I’m not sure why it ranks as number one, especially when the war remnants museum is in central Saigon and has much more to see and experience. Perhaps it’s a TripAdvisor feedback loop, where #1 things to do get stuck in #1 because people keep reading TripAdvisor and going to the #1 thing to do.
There are different tour options that you can find at travel agents around Pham Ngu Lau and Ben Thanh Market. We went for the a $16 option, which was a smaller bus, and that includes the entrance ticket, so about $11. The tour takes half a day, and there are also full day tours that also visit the Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh.
There is also a deluxe tour option by speed boat. Before visiting I didn’t realise that the Saigon River forms the boundary of the tunnel complex. This is the same river that is on the old downtown waterfront, so you can go from District 1 to Cu Chu by boat, bypassing all of the traffic while experiencing the river in the process.