Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

Tag: Destinations, Vietnam   
July 18, 2011   No Comments

In addition to the worthwhile attractions of the city itself, Saigon also offers tourists some interesting tours outside of the city, with the claustrophobic Cu Chi Tunnels from the war contrasting with the peaceful waterways of the Mekong Delta. They are very different and one was worthwhile, the other a frustrating waste of time and money.

Tour #1: Cu Chi Tunnels

The North Vietnamese dug this tunnel complex, just 40km from the South’s Saigon stronghold. The tunnel complex was 250km in length, and were a significant factor in the ultimate withdrawal by American forces as the Vietnamese resistance proved stubborn. The Americans simply couldn’t flush the north Vietnamese out – annihilation of the landscape through blanket bombing and chemical bombing didn’t work; they couldn’t fight toe-to-toe on the ground either; and most importantly, they couldn’t find the tunnels.

One reason was that at night the Vietnamese would swim from a submerged tunnel entrance into the river. During ground fighting they would pop-up from nowhere, fire some rounds before dipping back under and scurrying to pop-up somewhere else. They adapted to the conditions more effectively and they also set a whole network of crippling traps.

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

The woods where the Cu Chi tunnels are

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

One of the tiny tunnel entrances, from which the snipers would pop-up, fire off a few rounds before disappearing

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

One of the traps facing the US soldiers. In this case, the victim would fall in and get spiked through their armpits

A Walk Through the Woods

Starting the visit to Cu Chi a crackly, barely-understandable film sets the scene which kind of worked well for me, with it’s 1970s propaganda style. Then you start the walk through the woods to take a look at one of the impossibly small sniper pop-ups (around 12 inches square), a crippled US tank and finally on to the live firing range.

I was with an American chap (who barely had any idea about the war at all) who spent $200 on ammunition for the firing range – which lasted about 20 seconds! Having the incredibly loud noise of gunfire rattling through the woods certainly added an authentic edge to things.

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

The ammunition on offer at the firing range - sizeable bang for your buck

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

The firing range added explosive noise to the experience and really made the adrenaline run

The Main Event

Then it’s on to the main event, your chance to enter the tunnel complex and experience an inkling of what it must have felt like – without the bombs, gunfire, death and panic of course. Albeit the tunnels are now tourist friendly – bigger and in some sections lit. The tunnels are in 3 depths, progressively tighter the deeper you get. Before you enter the guide says you can go all the way through to the level 3 exit, or leave after level 1 or 2.

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

About to head down the biggest tunnel (widened for tourists from its original state)

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

Scuttling along the tunnel is not pleasant.

The first level requires a bent knees and arched back scuttle – it’s too tight to turn around or let someone pass if they came from the opposite direction. Even on a pretty cool day it was warm down there, breathing became difficult and it’s highly claustrophobic (hence the reason Carly opted out of the tour).

Getting Deeper

The second level gets tighter and the reassuring lighting put in for the tourists disappears – you’re suddenly thankful to be on a tour, with loads of people close by. The guy in front of me got about a metre ahead, went around a slight bend and disappeared. A sense of panic overtook me, hunched in a painful stance faced with a wall of blackness…until I saw the faint glow of daylight and realised this was one of the exits.

I got out of there, relived to be able to breathe fresh air. I had only been in about 2 minutes and made it through level 2, a distance of about 50 metres. The third level is hands and knees crawl (apparently!).

During the war the Vietnamese stayed in the tunnels for up to a day or two without getting out. It must have been horrific.

Gruesome traps

To complete the tour you also wander through the woods looking at examples of the clothes from the era, the makeshift buildings they constructed and the gruesome traps they laid. You also taste tapioca which was a vital part of their diet. Didn’t taste too bad!

It was good to experience a sanitised slice of the Vietnam/American war at first hand, seeing the brutal traps, hearing the bang of gunfire, feeling the claustrophobic nature of the tunnels – instrumental in the eventual success.

Tour #2: Mekhong Delta

We’d followed the Mekhong River all the way from North Laos, down to the 4,000 Islands, into Cambodia and now Vietnam, where it empties out into the sea. The Mekhong Delta is the final stretch of this journey, where the river branches out into countless smaller waterways, creating an incredibly fertile wetland that produces enough rice for the entire country.

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

A tug hauling it's load along the Mekhong

Craft Workshops and Food Factories

Visiting the Mekong Delta can be done in a busy day-trip, which what we went for, or on longer trips including a homestay. Either way, the package tours like the one we opted for are a waste of time – you just get ferried around in a group to countless craft workshops and food factories. The people on the overnight trips also get the same programme as you for the first day.

We really wanted to get on the water and head through lush green foliage down peaceful little rivers. Instead, this is what our day consisted of:

  • have your photo taken with a snake (tip optional but advised by tour guide!)
  • drink some tea that’s made with honey produced in the region (purchase optional but advised by tour guide!)
  • learn how they make confectionary out of coconut (purchase optional but advised by tour guide!)
  • go on a horse and cart ride (tip optional but advised by tour guide!)
  • eat some local fruit while suffering the tired strains of some musicians and singers (tip optional but advised by tour guide!)
  • one short punt down a pretty waterway (tip optional but advised by tour guide!)
  • and of course browse the endless market stalls and shops flogging tat to tourists (purchase optional but advised by tour guide!)

You get the picture!

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

The first stop on the tour of the Mekhong Delta is (unremarkable) local fruit and tea while the 'locals' play some music and sing for your pleasure

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

The honey tea was nice! They showed us the bees that produced the honey!

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

Making the coconut confectionary. Tasting the free samples was the best bit here

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

Some 'local' produce on offer to the tourists

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

Thirsty?

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

Experience the *real* Mekhong Delta by taking a horse and cart!!

The Best Bit

Even the best bit – the time on the water gently being punted through the beautiful overhanging bamboo – was severely diminished in it’s enjoyment. This brief, few-hundred-metre, trip frequently had traffic jams due to the volume of boats stuffed full of tourists. As you pass the empty boats coming back the other way with just the local paddler onboard, they don’t return your smile, but just say “money, money” at you. WTF?

There must be a better way to enjoy the water, the people, the culture of this region but avoid this kind of tour!!!

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

The overcrowded highlight of the day, a trip down a waterway

 Saigon Side Shows – Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

Once away from the traffic jams the glide through the pretty overhanging bamboo was enjoyable

Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta Tours – Which one wins?

Overall, the Cu Chi Tunnels tour felt authentic – you could feel the experience, well, a tiny % of what it really felt like at the time. The Mekhong Delta tour, while mildly interesting to see all these arts and crafts, left you feeling bewildered.

What do you think? – would you go down the tunnels or would you prefer the organised ferrying about of the Mekhong tour? Share your thoughts below!



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