~ K ~
One of the biggest things we wanted to do in Ho Chi Minh was the Cu Chi Tunnels, made famous for the fierce fighting that took place during the Vietnam war (or the American War from their perspective). There are several ways to get to the tunnels. The easiest is to take a tour bus to the tunnels. If you’re in one of the main hotels or in District 1, you can simply arrange for a tour bus to the tunnels and the operators will take care of the logistics – just show up where and when they want and off you go (these options will run anywhere from $15 – $40). You can also take a boat tour, where they will take you on a speed boat up the rivers and canals to the tunnels – this option though generally runs more expensive (~$80), but can be more personal and more convenient. Bike tours are another option if you’re up for that. You could also rent a taxi for the day which can run a little expensive as well (~$50). We chose a different, cheaper, and more exciting option.
We were up in the Go Vap district which is quite a ways away from District 1 and all the tour operators. We really didn’t want to take a taxi, and we wanted to experiment with riding a motorbike so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. There was virtually nothing online about riding to the tunnels – most people just said not to do it, that it was too difficult. Our host helped set us up with a SIM card so that we could use GPS and lent us his automatic scooter.
Our trip to the tunnels was quite an adventure, so I’m going to break this up into three sections: The journey there, the tunnels themselves, and the journey back.
We prepared to leave by thoroughly looking at the map, writing down directions, and taking pictures. Then I set up the directions within the GPS on my phone and we left around 10:45. The trek should have been about 40 km to reach the tunnels – 1 hour.
Our plan was to make our way up out of Go Vap and take the QL1/QL1A to QL22. Immediately we realized that taking a bike was the best way to see and experience Vietnam. There were just so many little things that you could miss on a bus or taxi. The views were really quite amazing even for a rather dirty little part of town. About 15 km down QL22 the road has a split, and you can take DH2 to Lien Xa. Lien Xa will then merge with Nguyen Thi Lang. Nguyen Thi Lang will shortly then dead end onto DT8 where you make a right turn and about half a km later will turn left onto Cay Bai.
QL1 and QL22 are both major highways, luckily it is divided between bikes and cars, which makes the journey a little bit safer. Once you turn off onto DH2 the roads become far more narrow and aren’t divided. Driving becomes more like regular city driving here. Once you hit Cay Bai though, you will be in very rural roads where you may be the only person on the road.
Once you get out here, your GPS may start to lose signal, so it’s important to know where you’re going. Although we’d taken pictures, I was relying on my GPS too much, which started confusing us (me). The issue we later figured out was that the GPS was taking us to Cu Chi the city, not the tunnels. So it was trying to bring us to the center of the town, which is really more an agricultural district than anything.
We should have stayed on Cay Bai and followed it all the way till it ends at Ba Thien (Cay Bai merges with Pham Van Coi about halfway through this distance). But the map was throwing me off and kept thinking that I was missing a turn – so began the beginning of getting lost. We turned down a red dirt road, that quickly looked like it turned into a military installation. To the left of us was a dry creek bed, and on the right were fields, old bunkers, and watch posts. We decided that we were not going the right direction and turned around. Before going, we went to the restroom though on the sides of the road, and then took pictures. What we had not noticed until near the end was that there was a soldier in the watch post who had been watching us the entire time. I decided to call up to him and ask him which way to the tunnels. He just laughed and didn’t answer. It didn’t mean much, but we figured it meant that we were no where near the tunnels.
Getting back to the main road, we continued on Cay Bai. The road here was quite scenic and we passed through a new growth forest that shielded us from the shade. This was a nice reprieve, as we hadn’t thought about sun burn, and we were getting a pretty bad burn. We came to a little town, and checked the GPS, which pointed us off down a little road which we took. Several km later, we arrived at what plainly a military installation, and what looked like the end of the dirt road we were on earlier. We turned down another much larger dirt road, and went for several km until we once again came to the realization we were totally lost. We made our way back out and went up to the guards to military gate and asked for directions. They drew us a map but it was pretty useless.
At this point, we were getting really low on gas, so we headed back the way we came for a bit to stop and get some gas. We were also getting very hot, tired, and thirsty and Briana started to feel sick, so we stopped by a little covered stall and got drinks. I thought I’d got us two sugar cane drinks, but they brought us coconut water. Briana does not like coconut water so I ended up having to drink two of them (which was fine for me I guess, but didn’t help Briana). A guy who spoke English there asked us if we knew our way back to Ho Chi Minh and we said yes, and then proceeded on our way to get gas. Luckily, the break and shade helped us a little bit.
We quickly came upon some gas and filled up the bike. I didn’t actually know how to open the gas tank, but luckily the attendants were quite helpful and took care of it all for us. It only cost us 40,000 Dong (~$2) to fill the tank completely and we headed back the way we came to look a little bit more before giving up.
As we passed the place we stopped off, the guy who spoke to us previously got on his bike and caught up to us. He quickly asked us why we were coming back (assuming we were heading back to the city). We told him we just needed gas and were looking for the tunnels. He told us to just follow the road for about 15 km and then turn right when the road ended.
We continued down the road for quite a bit. At some point, a local on a bike noticed us and started to follow and stalk us. We turned down the road Bau Lach and quickly found out that was not the way we wanted to go. The guy was following us and acting quite creepy. We turned around and decided to try the other direction of Bau Lach, to which the guy turned around and followed us again. He came up and tried to talk to us while riding. Trying to indicate for us to stop, and possibly for Briana to get on his bike. I kept trying to tell him that we weren’t interested in whatever it was he wanted (admittedly I was too nice in telling him no, and should have just been rude to him), and I kept trying to speed up or slow down to lose him, but he kept staying with us. I did not realize he was following us for a long time and wasn’t quite sure Briana was right but after 40 minutes of following us even with all the turn-arounds and u-turns, it was pretty evident. Eventually, I managed to turn around and head back towards Cay Bai. The guy turned around to follow us again, but finally seemed to give up and just left us. Our initial research seems to point to him trying to rob us. Whatever it was, he was being way too persistent to have had actual good intentions.
Turning back onto Cay Bai, we decided to just take the man’s advice and go to the end of the road. We were getting ready to give up after continuing on for a while, and were going to give just five minutes more when we finally hit the end of the road, saw a sign that pointed to the Cu Chi Tunnels and turned right. 2 km down the road we came to the tunnels and finally parked. What should have been a 1 1/2 hour ride had just turned into nearly 4 hours. Briana edit: Kyle was actually ready to give up when we were what I thought was 10 minutes, (but was actually 20 minutes) away but I convinced him to keep going. I didn’t want to have gone all this way and not make it there.
When we arrived at the tunnels, we were directed to park our bike in an area watched by security. We paid 6,000 Dong and received a ticket stub. We then headed off to purchase our tour tickers, which came out to 220,000 Dong (~$11). You have the option to take a self-guided tour, but we recommend actually going with a guide.
We proceeded down through a very large tunnel where we were given stickers and our tickets were checked and then we came out to the tunnel area and were lead to a little “movie theater” where we watched a short documentary about Cu Chi, the tunnels, and people who lived and fought there. The video was pretty interesting, though it was (obviously) heavily skewed against the Americans. It constantly talked about the heroism and honor of people killing many American soldiers. It didn’t mention anything regarding the reasons for the war, it simply said that one day the Americans came in and decided that they wanted to bomb and kill all the civilians.
When the video finished, we were lead to a tour guide who spoke English and we were joined by a Canadian named Eduard. We basically got a private tour. Our guide was excellent, and far more tasteful than the video. We’d heard that some of the guides could be quite callous about the deaths of Americans at the tunnels, but he covered all the details without being cruel about it.
We found out about how the tunnels were started long before the Vietnam war, during the war with the French. The civilians managed to live entire lives in the tunnels, working the fields at night, and fighting and living in the tunnels during the day. The 121 mile network of tunnels are extremely complex and elaborate – containing working kitchens, bunkers, living quarters, escape tunnels, and water access.
Within the tunnels, there were workshops where mines, grenades, and other weapons were manufactured. As well, they would create their uniforms: green for day fighting, and black for night fighting and women (women comprised 30% of the fighting force). Kitchens would have chimneys that could redirect the smoke several hundred feet away to misdirect the living location, and would often times only cook during the morning so that smoke would blend with the fog.
The most gruesome part was the display of booby traps employed by the Cu Chi fighters. They were varied, cruel, ingenious, and deadly. Some were even still very sharp.
We were also shown the remains of an American tank, which was destroyed by a mine and a crater from a B-52’s bomb. The entire region has been subjected to carpet bombing, and the lush jungle was reduced to nothing. Today, new jungle has begun to grow back.
Our tour then led to the shooting range, which ultimately we didn’t do. However, if you choose, you have the option of firing an m16, ak 47, m60, or m1. You have to purchase 10 bullets for whichever you choose, which comes out to around 400,000 Dong (~$20). We took a short break here before heading on to a tour of the tunnel itself.
We were lead down into a bunker which then descended into the tunnel itself. The tunnels were incredibly narrow, at only about 2 feet wide and 3 feet high at the largest. The guide told us as well that these tunnels had been enlarged to twice the size so that tourists could crawl through them. During the war, the civilians were so malnourished they could easily fit and crawl through the narrow passages. Getting through the tunnels was a lot of work though, because we could not walk normally in them and they got quite hot. At various places, you could get out of the tunnel if you became too claustrophobic. At one point, where the tunnels narrowed even more, Briana decided to get out and she took the backpack. The guide and the Canadian guy got out next. I proceeded on and had to lay down to get through the tunnel, and then crawl the remaining 40 something meters to the end. For only a couple hundred meter walk, it was really quite exhausting.
Coming out of the tunnels we were then lead to a table where we got to try some tapioca and tea. It was really nice to have. We were thirsty, and more importantly, we were hungry. We hadn’t eaten all day, and the tapioca root which we dipped into peanuts and sugar was quite good. It was very similar to a sweet potato.
After eating, we were shown a few other parts of the daily life at the tunnels. We were shown how rice paper was made for spring rolls as well as how shoes were made out of old tires.
Finally, our tour wound down and we were lead back to the entrance of the park. We made our way out, fully having enjoyed our experience at the tunnels. We also talked a bit with Eduard about his traveling experience before heading our separate ways.
Feeling a bit refreshed and ready to go, we quickly made our way back onto the road. It was almost 5 and the sun set around 6, so we wanted to make good time and get back before dark. We didn’t envy the idea of trying to navigate the roads at night.
It went smoothly at first, but at some point, I made a wrong turn. I ended up going way down on TL8 which wasn’t too big a deal, but it did require some adjusting of directions and added more time. We got a nice look at some of the more rural (suburban?) parts of Ho Chi Minh. We turned down Ha Duy Phien and went south for many km. At places, the road became chaotic and crowded and required some finesse on the bike. It went smoothly though. We began to enter some rush hour traffic as we got closer to the city. We crossed a large bridge next to a park with many people flying kites and then hung right and continued down Le Van Khuong until we came to QL1A.
Finally, we were near where we should be, and knew our path. Unfortunately, we missed our turn to get to Go Vap and had to back track a bit to get back to our turn. At some point during this time, our rear wheel went flat.
I tried checking the tire, but wasn’t sure if it actually was or not. Along the way, someone told us that our wheel was flat, so it probably was. We were so close to home though and had no idea how to take care of the issue anyway that we made it back to our host who assisted us. We finally pulled up just as it got dark. Not a moment too late.
We were sore, tired, and burned – but we had a great and exciting day. If you’re up for an adventure it’s worth trying to take a bike to the tunnels. But don’t expect it to be easy to accomplish. Definitely prepare: get a map, have GPS, bring water, and wear sunscreen.