The Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

If you told me a year ago that I would be willingly visiting war related museums and attractions I’d have thought you were mad. But there’s something about the Vietnamese/ American war which fascinates, shocks, saddens and intrigues me. On reflection, I think this may be because it was such a misunderstood war: no one really understood why America got involved, and no one really understood how brutal the war was besides those fighting and those who suffered. Having been to The War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and learning a little more about what really went on, I was eager to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels to see for myself where some of the most brutal and famous warfare happened.

Most hostels/hotels or travel totes in Ho Chi Minh City will arrange a half-day excursion from the city to the tunnels. Tours operate twice per day (in the morning or the afternoon) and will cost around 120,000 VND ($6) plus a 100,000 VND ($5) entrance fee. It takes approximately an hour and a half to drive to the Cu Chi province which gives you approximately 2 hours at the site with your tour guide. Whilst there are a lot of tourists, it is certainly worth the visit as it’s such a poignant place for the Vietnamese and their culture.

It was amazing to walk through the jungle and imagine the fear that gripped the American troops who were not at all prepared for the traps laid out for them, and also to imagine the resilience and comradery of the Viet Cong soldiers. Our group was guided through the jungle where we were shown the gruesome traps which awaited the Americans, a huge cavity in the ground’s surface where an American bomb was dropped and even allowed to walk through one of the original tunnels. The tunnels were incredibly claustrophobic and sweltering hot, it was difficult to imagine anyone surviving down there for more than an hour (in fact I bailed at the second exit)!

The tunnels are a three-tiered network of underground passages which span 200km over and around the Cu Chi district, homing nearly 10,000 Vietnamese civilians and soldiers for near enough 10 years. If this isn’t impressive enough, I was most amazed by how resourceful the Viet Cong troops were; making weapons and traps from pieces of sharp bomb shells, making shoes out of American tank tyres, and disguising kitchen vents with termite hills.

What really brought the experience to life was the firing range you could participate in if you wished. Personally this is something that I’m against, however from afar the gunfire and vibrations from the shooting range resonated the terror the American troops must have been experiencing wondering through the unknown and walking into the palms of danger. If you want to, the shooting range costs 300,000 VND ($15) for ten bullets.

Whilst it’s easy to sympathise with the American soldiers, I couldn’t help but feel quite proud of the Vietnamese. The American army were obliterating villages and vast quantities of nature through their use of illegal chemical warfare, yet it was basic knowledge of the land, sneaky and cunning tactics and brutal traps which enabled the Viet Cong to defeat the Americans altogether. We had a really inspiring morning at the Cu Chi Tunnels and highly recommend the excursion to anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh City or Southern Vietnam.

 

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Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City is Hanoi’s elegant, wealthy younger sister who sits around taking selfies all day. Often mistaken as Vietnam’s capital city, old Saigon is trendy, cosmopolitan and economically booming, drawing large numbers of tourists year upon year. Having travelled Vietnam extensively, Ho Chi Minh definitely feels out of place, to the extent where I feel it’s more similar to Bangkok in terms of culture, appearance and vibe.

If you’re planning a trip to Ho Chi Minh City, I would advise that you allow two full days to absorb the sites, and a further two days to take trips out to the Cu Chi Tunnels (a half day excursion) and the Mekong Delta (full day excursion). District 1 is where it all happens: you can find the backpacker area (which personally I thought was as sleazy as Koh San Road), the CBD, the historical/cultural museums, monuments and buildings as well as markets, shopping malls and an abundance of places to eat/ grab a coffee.

As a huge lover of Northern Vietnamese lifestyle and culture, I wasn’t sure if I’d like Ho Chi Minh. I was, however, pleasantly surprised: the streets are wider (and quieter!) with huge, tall trees lining them, everything is landscaped and manicured, the people are beautiful and friendly, and above all the city feels much less polluted. It’s almost like going to a different country altogether as Ho Ci Minh city feels removed from the rest of the Vietnam I know and love – to illustrate, they’re currently collaborating with the Japanese to build an underground network which will shoot them into the next century!

I left Ho Chi Minh City feeling like I understood Vietnam a lot better. I was profoundly moved by the War Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels and had a newfound respect for how far Vietnam has moved on since the war. It’s somewhere that you’re unlikely to miss if you’re travelling to Vietnam, but shouldn’t be the benchmark for the rest of your travels around the country.

 

What to do:

 

What to see:

Ho Chi Minh City is a walking city. You can easily stroll through district 1 in a day and see most of the beautiful architecture and famous sights. Here are a few musts:

  • Notre Dam Cathedral
  • The Post Office
  • The Opera House
  • The Town Hall
  • Ben Thanh market

 

Accommodation:

Vietnam Hideout Hostel – We were thoroughly impressed by this hostel as it’s bang smack in the middle of the backpacker area, next to the bus station, is only 160,000 VND ($7 per night) and includes breakfast and some free beer. Beds were dead comfy and rooms weere clean and the hostel offered plenty of services.

 

Eating Out:

What should you eat in Ho Chi Minh City? STREET FOOD. By street food I don’t mean the dried out squid on the side of the road, but the little spots with plastic chairs and bright, unforgiving lights – this is where you’ll get the best home cooked grub and for next to nothing. Read my post on the best dishes to try in The Flavour of Vietnam: What you must eat in the south

If you are craving something other than Vietnamese food and an upset stomach, you must go to Baba’s Indian Restaurant.

The Flavour of Vietnam: What you must eat in the south

Food is my forte (correction, downfall!) However, as controversial as it is to say, despite living in Vietnam for over a year now I’ve not been a huge lover of Vietnamese food… that is until my recent trip to southern Vietnam. I’m not sure why I haven’t gelled with the cuisine before now, perhaps because it’s not overly moorish (unless laced with MSG). Since being on this trip I’ve not had a single Western meal and feel great for it – I’ve learnt a lot about the flavours of Vietnam, the classics, the accompaniments, the techniques, the freshness and understand at last why it’s becoming a food trend back home.

The flavours in southern Vietnamese food definitely steer more towards the extremes: sweeter, sourer, saltier and spicier. Whilst I’m a sucker for classic northern dishes (mmm Bun Cha), I would actually go as far as to say I prefer the taste of the South.

In Saigon/ Ho Chi Minh City, here are some dishes I thoroughly enjoyed eating:


In Con Dao we relished in eating fresh sea food every day. It’s just about all you can eat on the island, and is freshly caught every day:

 

In central Vietnam there is much more of a noticeable presence of sugar. Food taste sweeter and sticker. If you are visiting Hoi An you MUST try the local speciality Cao Lau – only 20,000 VND from the market!

 

 

 

All of the dishes below are typical dishes you will find on the menu all over Vietnam, but it’s interesting noticing the differences and you travel up/down the country. These are:

  • Bun Thit Nuong – noodles, salad, slow-roasted pork in a sweet sauce covered in peanuts
  • Banh My – The classic Vietnamese sandwich (pate, meat, salad picked veg, coriander, sweet chilli sauce)
  • Pho Bo – Beef noodle soup, with spring onions and salad leaves (make sure you squeeze a lime or two in!)
  • Pho Ga – the same as above but with Chicken (personally prefer the beef i think)
  • Com Chay – My favourite way of eating in Vietnam – you are given a large portion of sticky rice and can point to which of the many toppings they have
  • Com Tam – Very similar to Com Chay except it is broken rice rather than sticky
  • Com Rang – Fried rice which usually comes with a meat or veg
  • My Xao – Stir fried egg noodles with a meat or veg
  • Nem – The Vietnamese classic deep fried spring rools

 

All of the dishes above should not cost you between 25,000-50,000 VND depending where you are. Often the rougher looking places are some of the best as they are more authentic home-cooked meals … don’t judge a book by it’s cover!

The War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

I have been profoundly moved, educated and haunted by the exhibitions inside the War remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The Vietnamese/ American war has gone down in history as a brutal, savage and somewhat pointless war; emancipating Vietnam from French control, uniting North with South whilst murdering millions – the extent of which is honestly depicted in the museum.

I felt that the museum payed heartfelt homage to all lives lost (northern Vietnamese soldiers, southern Vietnamese soldiers, American GI’s, and most tragically the innocent civilians), and to the photographers who documented the events which unfolded for the rest of the world to see. I was impressed by how balanced the summaries of events were, as there seemed to be no party favoured. That said, the brutality and barbaric nature of war tactics on both sides seem to be just as bad as each other (I’ll save the disturbing accounts of torture techniques as an unpleasant surprise for those who visit…) However, whilst millions have lost their lives, it is really quite incredible that the Viet Cong’s basic knowledge of the land overthrew the American’s chemical warfare.

In my eyes, the most moving part of the museum was the section on the long-term effects of the chemicals used during the war have had on innocent civilians across Vietnam. The chemicals used by the American army were part of what was essentially an experiment, the Vietnamese countryside and people being the test subjects. These chemicals, namely Dioxin and Napalm, have had a repulsive and shocking effect on those who survived the war and the generations who have followed, of course the poorest communities suffering the worst. Mutilation, disfigurement and both mental and physical disabilities are just some of the ways these chemicals continue to scar Vietnam, not to mention the continued loss of limbs/life from abandoned land mines.

If you a planning on visiting Vietnam, especially Ho Chi Minh City I cannot recommend the museum more highly. It was both a harrowing and moving experience which clearly explains the history of the war and lays excellent foundation for other historical excursions you may experience throughout the rest of your travels in Vietnam (such as the Cu Chi tunnels, Con Dao islands etc.). Put this on your to do list now!

Address: 28 Vo Van Tan St, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City,Vietnam

Entry fee: 15,000 VND

Opening Hours: 7.30-5.00 (closed for lunch from 12.00-1.30)