Cu Chi tunnels are probably one of the most interesting places associated with the war in Vietnam. They are located between Saigon and the Cambodian border and are perfect for a half day trip from Ho Chi Minh City.
From the beginning of my arrival in Vietnam I wanted to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, but somehow I did not feel like going there myself. In the end, we managed to visit the tunnels (my flatmates and me) when we all had a day off, on 2 September when was the Vietnam Independence Day.
I thought that if we leave at 8 am we would be back at 2-3 pm. Nope. First, we had to have breakfast (bun cha for breakfast was an excellent idea), then find the bus, and before sightseeing, but after buying tickets, we sat down by the Saigon River for a beer. As a result, we came back home only around 7 pm. We barely managed to catch the last bus from Cu Chi to HCMC. 😀
Of course, it doesn’t mean that your trip will take the half day too if you go on your own. It won’t be if you don’t do it as we did. 😀 You can also just order it from local tour operators. More about this option at the end of the entry – in the practical part.
Cu Chi tunnels – are they worth a visit?
In my opinion – yes. The Vietnam War is probably the most iconic armed conflict of the 20th century, but we know it mostly from Hollywood movies that show the American heroic point of view. We forget that for Vietcong soldiers it wasn’t fun in the sandpit and it showed in tunnels in Cu Chi.
Previously, I read a bit about Cu Chi tunnels and was interested in the Second Indochina War. Although only a small stretch of tunnels is available for tourists, they have impressed me anyway. It is primarily a credit to the guide – without him this trip would not be so informative!
The beginning and role of Cu Chi tunnels
Cu Chi tunnels were an underground system of strategic corridors – they connected the suburbs of Saigon to the Cambodian border (the shortest distance is 60 km) and formed supply routes (mainly weapons) from Cambodia.
The Vietnamese civilians dug approximately 50 km of tunnels at the command of the guerillas during the First Indochina War (1945-1954) when the Vietnamese fought against the French colonists.
During the Second Indochina War (1957-1975, commonly known as the Vietnam War) tunnels were used by the Vietcong (Communists) against the South Vietnamese Army, which was supported by the Americans and their allies. Since 1963, the number of US soldiers in Vietnam has been growing steadily, but until then the tunnel system counted already around 200 km. It is estimated that the Cu Chi tunnels were 250 km long (only half of them lasts today).
The first tunnel was a test
The jungle path leads us to a small bungalow, where the old war movies show the every day in the tunnels. The guide comes in a moment and asks us if we have claustrophobia, asthma, or heart and pressure problems. The whole group (7 people) denies, and the guide leads us deep into the jungle.
The jungle during the war was not as dense as it is today – fighting took part here, so many trees burned down to form little, burned glades. The entrance to the tunnels was well hidden, and all life was underground – there were rooms for communist party committees, hospitals, kitchens, bedrooms, and even small rooms where propaganda films were displayed. Tunnels were built on four underground levels, entrances and corridors were adapted mainly to the little body of the Vietnamese, and traps were everywhere around.
The guide shows us the termite mound – very often such mounds were tunnel ventilation chimneys. Suddenly, the guide clears the ground of the leaves, places the wire in it, tilts and lifts a small cover. In the field, we see a small hole in the shape of a rectangle, 20cm by 30 cm, maybe a bit bigger.
We are surprised because we did not expect to stand on the tunnels. This tube is short because it is only 10-15 meters, but it’s enough for the beginning.
I descend to the tunnel – the hips are going well, but to fit in further, I have to lift my arms, and I still rub against the entrance walls. The guide says that the hole was enlarged for foreigners – originally it was even smaller.
Under the ground, I have to walk hunched and on bent legs. It’s too tight and small to stand upright. However, this tube is too short and “luxurious” for me to imagine what a warlike reality looked like in the tunnels.
Cu Chi tunnels during the war
The second tunnel, which we enter with the regular stairs, is much longer and leads to a room where the leaders of the Communist party were meeting. Then the guide lets us choose – we can leave by taking the shorter tunnel or longer – around 30 meters. “Just remember to take the first turn left!” instructs the Vietnamese seriously.
And here I can only imagine what the underground reality looked like. I’m wearing a top and shorts, and the 30-meter walk makes me exhausted. Crawling on your knees is more convenient. The air under the ground is humid and very heavy, almost impossible to breathe, but it’s still better ventilated now than during combat. Besides, there is light. And it’s clean!
It’s hard to imagine how the soldiers were moving in the tunnels. Wearing uniforms, weapons, shovels and a million things in pockets. In stuffiness, humidity, stench, garbage, faeces, worms, and above all – in the darkness. Often the only source of light was the flashlight. If they had had it.
Imagine you have to sit in such a tunnel for a few days or even weeks without going out. I ask the guide whether tunnels were flooded during the rainy season. He explains that the clay didn’t let the water flow, so flooding was sporadic. Now, however, the roots of the trees that have grown in the area have moved the soil, and heavy rains flood many sections of the tunnels.
At that time, however, the enemy’s forces were Vietcong’s biggest problem. Americans had their spies who instructed them what to expect in the tunnels, and soldiers (mostly Aussies) with appropriate size and strong mental abilities served in the army as the so-called tunnel rats – they got inside, often with a rope around their legs to pull them out if something happened.
Inside around every corner were trap-doors, holes, junctions, stairs. As I have already mentioned – tunnels were dug up on four levels underground. This was the only solution to survive in the tunnels during the bombing. Usually, the shells destroyed only the upper floor, sometimes two at the top. The deepest corridors were the safest.
Of course, in this whole system, you could easily get lost. Vietcong’s guerrillas knew their tunnels, but this was usually only a small area. Thanks to that, when they got captured, they could not reveal where the remaining tunnels were. Actually, at that time, the soldiers who were lost in the underground, often ended up with a mental breakdown.
Today, the guide show around the tunnels. He explains that there are still tunnels around us underground, which we do not know (he does) and still some tourists get lost. And then it’s not funny anymore, because it’s difficult to find them, and it’s better for that person not to get a panic attack. (At least this is what the guide said. Is it true – I don’t know.)
And all in all, it is good that only 100 m of these tunnels are available to visitors because sometimes people have stupid ideas. 😛
At the end of the tour, we see how cruel traps lay the guerrillas. It was their effective combat tactics, but also a necessity – they did not have enough weapons and ammunition. They tried to hurt the enemy rather than kill him – then the other soldiers had to evacuate him. It was an effective way to slow down the enemy. If they had to kill them, they tried to lose as little ammo as possible.
So they used holes, trap-doors, pits with sharpened bamboo poles, rotating or falling mechanisms with metal spikes and similar traps. Their ingenuity surprised me a lot.
I could write a long and passionate about tunnels because they were fascinating. First and foremost, however, I would like to emphasise – if you come to Vietnam and so far you were interested in the Second Indochina War or just curious about it, then you should visit the tunnels. A visit to Cu Chi casts an entirely different picture of this iconic war.
And all in all, no wonder why the Americans have retreated.
Cu Chi Tunnels – what more to see?
Outside the tunnels, you will find the Ben Duoc Temple. It commemorates 50,000 Vietnamese fighting in tunnels – with their names placed on the walls of the temple. However, according to statistics, half of them did not die during the battle, but of malaria.
There is also an outdoor shooting range on site. Ever wanted to shoot AK 47 – Kalashnikov? Here you can do it for 40 000 dong, which is less than $2. Other weapons are also available. Of course, we ran out of time. 😀
Cu Chi Tunnels – practical information
There are two ways to reach the tunnels. The first is only buying a tour (or just the transportation, because you have to pay the entrance fee separately) at local tour operators. It costs around 6-7 dollars.
The second option is to go on your own. At the bus station at Pham Ngu Lao and Ton That Tung, you should take the bus #13 to Cu Chi – it’s 6000 dongs, the one-way trip takes approx. 2 hours. At the bus station in Cu Chi take the bus #79 to the Ben Duoc Tunnel (it stops right in front of the entrance) – costs 7000 dongs, 45 minutes. So count that one-way trip takes 3 hours. And now note – the last bus #13 to Ho Chi Minh City departs from Cu Chi Station at 5 pm, so you have to finish your visit early enough to get there.
You can also take a scooter, although the traffic on the outskirts of Saigon is quite tiring and dangerous. I do not recommend that.
If you decide to go for an organised trip, you have to know that most of them go to Ben Dinh tunnels. They have been converted and dug especially for tourists. We were in the Ben Duoc tunnels, which are original tubes from war (except for the entrances – they enlarged them for tourists) – that is why the guide is obligatory. You can simply get lost in the tunnels. Probably because of it, less than 100 meters of tunnels are only available for tourists. Besides, the whole experience in both tunnels is very similar (film, exposure, etc.). Except that Ben Duoc will be less crowded.
Admission to tunnels costs 90,000 dongs per person, but the ticket consists of two parts: 20,000 and 70,000 dongs (one is the entrance, and the other is a compulsory guide fee). I do not know why they split, but anyway you have to pay both. I write about it because one girl tried to resell her four 20 000 dong tickets (I do not know why they didn’t validate them).
Visiting tunnels takes less than 2 hours.
If you want to go to the Ci Chi tunnels on your own, it is best to leave Saigon before 10.00 am and enter the tunnels by 1 pm at the latest. If you come later, you risk that you will miss the last bus to Ho Chi Minh City.
In the season from the tunnels to Saigon you can also return by ferry. I recommend it, although I do not know how much it costs.