Ho Chi Minh city is a beautiful city, as long as you live in the present.
If you turn back time and visit the sights of the Vietnam war, there are plenty of sad and sorry places in this city, which will make you start looking for the damn ninja cutting onions. Like the Cu Chi Tunnels, for example.
Note: If you are here only looking for practical information to visit Cu Chi Tunnels, and don’t want to read my slipshod writing, jump straight to the ‘Practical information’ section at the end of this post.
I had already spent a day in Ho Chi Minh city checking out the war atrocities in the war remnants museum. The following day, I decided to get away from the city for a bit, and check out one of the suburban districts of HCMC.
And that’s how I got to Cu Chi.
A Little lesson in cold war history
The Vietnam war (ironically, its commonly called ‘the American war’ in Vietnam) was fought between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. This was one of the largest proxy wars in history, as the communist regime of North Vietnam was supported by the Soviet Union, China and other communist nations. And South Vietnam was supported by ant-communist nations like United States, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
By all interpretations, the war was a decisive victory for the communists, as North Vietnam captured Saigon (the former name of the current Ho Chi Minh city) in April 1975. United States was humiliated and lost more than half a million military personnel, and had to pull out of Vietnam in the face of a large anti-Vietnam war movement which was going on within their own country.
But the victory of the north was not only due to the military strength of the North Vietnam government or the assistance of heavyweights like Soviet Union and China. It was mainly due to the efforts of the Viet Cong. Also called the National Liberation Front or NLF, the Viet Cong was a resistance movement which fought a guerilla war against South Vietnam inside their own territory. It wasn’t the North Vietnam army which gave sleepless nights to many American generals, but rather the group of Viet Cong fighters who would spring out anywhere, launch a quick guerilla attack, and then go back into hiding again.
The strength and backbone of the Viet Cong was the Cu Chi Tunnels – A series of elaborate underground tunnels in the Cu Chi District near Ho Chi Minh City, and a part of a bigger network of tunnels that were spread out all over the country. The Viet Cong soldiers used these tunnels not only as hiding spots to spring attacks or for moving supplies; but also as their home, office, community quarters and everything else. Thousands of Viet Cong soldiers and personnel lived INSIDE these tunnels for years!
The 120 Km long Cu Chi tunnels caused immense frustration to the United States, and were critical in North Vietnam winning the war. After the Vietnam war ended and Vietnam became a unified nation, the new government took all steps to preserve as much as they could of the glorious engineering achievement that is called the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Further Reading: Another place with interesting tunnels that I have been to, is the Taroko Gorge in Hualien, Taiwan.
End of History lesson. Let’s ride to Cu Chi!
The district of Cu Chi – and its capital of Cu Chi town – are less than 40 Km from the center of Ho Chi Minh. It is definitely possible to get here by public transport or even hire a taxi to do a day-trip. There are even speedboat tours that can take you to Cu Chi along the Saigon river! But as motorcycling has always been my preferred mode of transport in South East Asia, I wasn’t going to change it this time.
I rented a scooter from District 3 – which is also where the war remnants museum was located – and started riding early morning toward Cu Chi. People told me to be super careful on the roads of Vietnam, as Vietnamese people ‘supposedly’ ride their scooters in a chaotic frenzy. But after riding in India for long distances, I can tell you that Vietnam does not even come close to India in chaos. True, there was a lot of traffic on the roads, and most of them were 2-wheeler traffic. But the big difference was that the people actually followed road-rules in Vietnam!
I dodged the traffic and rode westbound. And about 1 hour later, I found myself looking at the Giao Xu Cu Chi. Or, the Catholic church of Cu Chi.
I was in the district of Cu Chi!
For some reason, the church gates were closed. I could only peer through the gate and take some photos, but the exterior still looked great. But I continued on, for the remaining distance towards Cu Chi Tunnels.
Ben Dinh or Ben Duoc? Which tunnels to visit
So, this is the part where I tell you that the term ‘Cu Chi tunnels’ actually refers to 2 different tunnel sites in the Cu Chi district. The more popular one is called Ben Dinh, and if you booked a tour with a travel company, the chances are high that you are visiting Ben Dinh. Ben Duoc is the lesser known one, located about 20 KMs away. It is much less popular and not ‘tourist protected’. Both have their pros and cons, which I have tried to outline below.
- Ben Dinh is designed for tourists, so the tunnels have been expanded to fit every kind of human shape. So, if you are slight overweight, I would definitely recommend going to Ben Dinh.
- Again, Ben Dinh is lit much better – keeping the tourists in mind. Ben Duoc is still the real deal, so lighting is not great everywhere. So, if you are claustrophobic, again head straight to Ben Dinh.
- And finally, Ben Dinh is managed a little better, so there are no bats or other critters (scorpions, lizards etc) inside the caves. Ben Duoc being a little raw, do expect to see some bats. There are reports on the internet about people dying inside Ben Duoc tunnels due to scorpion stings. But I am pretty sure that is an exaggeration, and I am also sure that the guy who shared that story is someone from the tourism industry, trying to get the backpackers away from Ben Duoc and towards Ben Dinh. I call bullshit!
- In favour of Ben Duoc, the biggest attraction is that it is not a touristy site like Ben Dinh. In fact, you will find mostly Vietnamese people when you visit this place, instead of foreigners.
So, which one did I choose?
I am claustrophobic, 6 ft tall, big-boned and shit-scared of scorpions. So, I said ‘FUCK IT’, and decided to go to Ben Duoc itself.
B’coz what is life without some challenges, right?
Hello there, Ben Duoc!
From the town of Cu Chi, the Ben Duoc tunnels itself are about 25 KM away, closer to the Saigon river. But this wasn’t Ho Chi Minh City, so the traffic was almost negligible. I rode easily, and found myself at a gate. I had no idea what it said in Vietnamese, but if you manage to reach this gate below, you have managed to reach Ben Duoc!
The tickets were priced at 90000 VND (Vietnamese dongs), and this included a tour guide. I didn’t have to find a tour guide, but rather, one found me right at the entrance, near a giant building that looked like an administrative office. I promptly joined him.
Leading me towards the tunnel tour, the tour-guide pointed out that were many articles from the Vietnam war strewn all around the place. Apart from 2 Mig-21 aircrafts that were positioned near the entrance, there were also the ruins of a war-era helicopter around.
The tour began with a display of the army uniforms and personnel statues around the tunnels. There were carefully placed mannequins wearing soldier uniforms under thatched roofs, with clear descriptions of the roles they played during the war. There were also displays of American weapons – mostly disarmed bombs – kept behind.
There was a customary 15-minute video that all tourists had to see. The tour guide led me to a roofed movie theater where a grainy, black and white war-time propaganda film was playing. In a nutshell, the movie attempted to explain how the Vietnamese were forced into a war by the Americans, and how they turned their traditional animal-hunting methods (creating tunnels) into a lethal military strategy.
Crawling through the Tunnels
After the movie, the guide led us towards the tunnels. There was the customary warning about not to go into a tunnel if I felt unwell. Well, I had to try!
I did notice that the entrance to the tunnel was mostly wide. But as I entered the first one, it became obvious that the tunnel started to narrow as I climbed in. There was a decent amount of lighting, and I could also notice that the walls of the tunnel were cemented. Obviously, because the Vietnamese know that there are plenty of tourists who freak out at the sight of raw earth on the walls!
Note: I couldn’t take any good pictures INSIDE the tunnels, as my camera flash does not work, and the light is really low (I have never used a flash in my life!). So, bear with the verbal explanations.
The narrow tunnels led into multiple chambers, and I followed my guide carefully. There were military chambers, kitchens, hospitals, living quarters and all other kinds of chambers. There were mannequins or display items to ensure that visitors got the gist of the room I was in.
At some points, there were also water wells. Their entrance was blocked, but I could peek through and hear the distant sound of water.
I soaked it all in, at times slightly trembling from a sudden attack of Claustrophobia. But then, it would slowly vanish when the guide started explaining the layout and neighbourhood to me. After a few more minutes of wandering through tunnels (only those that would fit me), the tour was done.
And then I was free to roam the Ben Duoc site on my own.
Only Tunnels? What else?
If crawling through narrow, dimly-lit tunnels is really not your idea of a vacation, then there are a few other things to do in Ben Duoc. One of my favorite activities was walking around the Ben Duoc Martyr Memorial temple. Situated in a 7 hectare plot, this place is vast! It is an actual temple to the martyrs who were killed in the Vietnam war. I walked around here aimlessly for 2 hours, exploring its towers, gardens and gates.
Distance from HCMC to Cu Chi Tunnels (Ben Duoc): Roughly 70 Kms
How to get there:
1) Buses leave from Ho Chi Minh City to Cu Chi everyday. Round trip tickets can be purchased at any tourist office, for less than $10. Most buses leave by 8 AM. Ensure to check if they are going to Ben Duoc or Ben Dinh.
2) Private cars will quote you around $50 to 80, for a full-day rental, with driver.
3) If you are comfortable with self-riding a total of 140 Kms, rent a motorbike. The cost should be around 150000 Vietnamese Dong per day for a 110CC motorbike. Tip: If you don’t have much riding experience, ensure that you rent a single-gear scooter. The way the traffic in HCMC goes, you need to know how to change gears quickly!
Tickets to the Cu Chi Tunnels:
The tickets costs 90000 Vietnamese Dong, and also include a guide. The tourguide was a little rushy at times, but still, was super useful in showing me little aspects that I would have surely missed in the tunnels.
Eat and shop:
There are eateries and shops everywhere in both Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. Remember to try the Cu Chi beef, and the local tapioca! It is common for the shops to sell you a souvenir Vietcong bullet, but do not that you will not be allowed to carry this in your luggage on flights. Not even in your checked baggage.
Tips for entering the tunnels:
Getting into the tunnels is definitely not recommended if you are claustrophobic! If you are obese, there are guards who will advise you which tunnel is recommended for you. (At Ben Duoc, I was discouraged from going down one of the tunnels, because I was quite ‘big shouldered’, to quote the guard)
What to wear and carry:
You will get dirty! I mean, there is no point in going to a tunnel site, if you don’t get inside the tunnels, right? So, do not wear your latest white shirt, unless you are feeling extremely charitable today. Also, remember to carry insect repellants. And water.
Because crawling through tunnels is an incredible workout by itself!
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