read the label
IT WAS my third day in Saigon and I was determined to visit the infamous Cu Chi tunnel before I embark on the next leg of my adventure to Nha Trang – staying overnight on the sleeper train! Part of the challenges in travelling as a backpacker (with very limited budget) is that you learn how to manage your time wisely and to be frugal with your spending – some of my friends yelped when I said the “F” word (Frugal that is). While travelling for most Bruneians would mean – at least three-star hotel, shopping malls and a good excuse to spend more on the frivolous in life, I plan to break the cliché and start a new trend while I’m at it. My own interpretation of travelling looks like this – guesthouse/hostel/couchsurfing, street food, culture and not afraid of getting tanned (I was told that I look better bronzed – sunshine here I come!).
This is where the generals used to assemble with his high ranking officers
I spent like 10 good minutes explaining to my guesthouse receptionist where I wanted to go. One thing about travelling in a country where English is as rare as French in Brunei is that, you just have to be patient when talking to the locals (and pray that they understand what you are talking about!). I was trying to be assertive and at the same time tactful with her but in the end (after much exasperation from both parties), we both agreed that the place that I wanted to go was “Goochi Toonell” and not Cu Chi Tunnel (alright lady, I can live with that!). It made me smile when I think of it now, as I absurdly assumed that I already pronounced the name correctly (the English way, naturally), I forgot that it was the Vietnamese who created the name of the place in the first place and not some expats from foreign land, hence lesson learnt – never argue with the locals when it comes to pronouncing names of places, just show them the business card instead! Later on, I learnt that "Cu" means male genitalia in Vietnamese (YIKES!) so when I told the lady that I wanted to go Cu Chi Tunnel, she gave me that “look” and was probably laughing her heart out in her mind (no wonder she was adamant with her correction).
Well at least, she knew then where I really wanted to go.
B52 case turned into a bell to warned the people if there was any attack
After getting ripped off a few times since I landed in Vietnam (noyce…) I promised myself to be more careful and vigilant in my next transactions and ruthless with bargaining (a skill that I need to master – I need more tutoring from my mom). I decided to take a taxi and asked the receptionist to find out the cost. She punched some numbers on the phone and started talking to someone on the other end (at this point I was wishing that I could at least understand some Vietnamese).
A few minutes later she came back and told me that it would cost around 500,000 VnD to get me to Cu Chi Tunnel by taxi.
“Okay, that sounds a lot…” I thought (I was still confused with Brunei Dollar against Vietnam Dong exchange, applied math never was my forte) so I decided to call up my tour guide and find out how much he would charge.... 20 seconds later I hang up and decided to take the taxi (yes, he tried to rip my off again.).
The infamous B52
Before I carry on with my story, let me just share a tip that I had to learn the hard way.
Southern Vietnam is divided into more than 20 districts. District is indicated with the letter Q, so the easiest way to find out in which district you are is by reading the signboard of any shop and look for the symbol Q which is always followed by a number (for example Q1). The smaller the number is, the closer you are to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I was silly enough to overlook that when I booked my hotel online. Desperate to find a cheap lodging, I ended up in a hotel in Q7 which was a distant between Bandar Seri Begawan and Kuala Belait. I guess, subconsciously I was thinking Vietnam as the size as Brunei (Duhh!). And as if things were not interesting enough, I took a motorbike taxi from the airport all the way there - sans helmet – sans goggle – at 8pm! Why you might ask? It was for the sake of keeping me on track with my budget.
I think this banner means...enter at your own risk.
The next day I had to check out and moved to a different hotel in Q3 (keeping track with my budget? Rrright!).
This bed belong to the rich man of the Viet kong. You can see that there is a hiding place under the bed.
Back to my trip…
Thanks to the asphalted roads, the trip to Cu Chi Tunnel was an easy one although it took us around four hours to get there from Q3. Luckily I had my ipod to help me pass the time as having a conversation with my taxi driver was pointless (we got lost in translation). Don’t get me wrong though, I did try to initiate contact and the only response I got was a smile followed by a panting giggle through gritted teeth (I gave him a courteous smile, showed him the address of Cu Chi Tunnel and voila, we were on our way – Phew!). The only consolation was the beautiful sceneries along my journey to Cu Chi.
..sea of paddy fields as far as the eyes can see. The air out in the suburb was a lot cleaner than the city. One sight that I could not escape was the motorbikes – they’re everywhere! Some turned into pickup trucks with the driver maneuvering his vehicle weaving through the busy traffic while his friend at the back holding the loads steadily. The loads varied too, from a ladder, to a barrel, to a 41” flatscreen tv! (You should’ve seen the view from the back, the passenger sitting at the back with his arms stretching in X to hold the television – it looks like something taken out from a comic book). Yes, life is evolving there indeed and Vietnam is gradually developing and it is gaining momentum every minute.
A very deep crater created by B52
We reached Cu Chi Tunnel some time around noon (that’s 2 hours more than predicted).
My taxi driver was not familiar with the roads there that we got lost a couple of times (luckily we already made an agreement that I only had to pay 400,000 VnD for my round trip to Cu Chi Tunnel because by the time we reached there, the meter was already showing 400,000VnD!). The weather was warm and sunny (perfect!) and I was in a high mood to explore the famous and historic place. I paid 80,000 dong for entrance fee and went straight to the main entrance. There I had to show my receipt of payment and was told to wait for a ranger who would guide me around the place. I was relieved that the ranger could speak English fluently so I had a great time bombarding him with my trivial questions.
The entrance took a shape of a gate with a big blue arch hanging over it bearing Vietnamese wordings that I couldn’t make up its meaning.
It was flanked by two of the many booby traps dug around Cu Chi area (why they did that was beyond me, symbolic perhaps?). The booby traps that killed hundreds of unsuspecting american soldiers during the Vietnam war were a silent reminder of the ingenuity of the Vietkongs that outwitted the heavily armoured US army. The sight of the sharpened bamboos in the rectangular holes brought chill through my spines. They were covered with revolving doors camouflaged by dried leaves. They door closes up after it had taken its prey, ready for its next victim. The holes were quite deep too that if someone falls inside them, death would be inevitable.
The beginning of cafe life in Vietnam
To reach the tunnels we had to walk along an earth trail. Bushes and bamboo plants that fenced the trails flourished there - the museum management were wise not to cut them down as they serve as shade for the trail during a hot sunny day.
Mannequins were seen erected at some designated parts of the route donned in Vietkong signature clothing. They gave a great touch to the place so rich with history. I saw a lady busy changing the clothes of the mannequin –maintenance is important to keep the quality of the museum sustained.
This carriage used to transport the injured vietkongs
My guide took me to the only house that survived the Vietnam War, which belonged to the richest Vietkong at that time. The house with size no bigger than the power station commonly seen in Brunei, nestled silently among the tall bushes astonishingly unscathed during the war which saw showering bullets from the AK47s and the shattering impact of the napalm bombs dropped in the area. The simplicity of its architecture amazed me – the walls were made of rattan, weaved and then framed with wooden sticks. No decorations to garnish the barren walls, nor curtains to brighten the space reflecting the tense situation experienced by its owner.
I asked the guide if they had modified the place and he told me that the only thing that they changed was the roof – the original roof had been replaced as it had taken more than its share from the weathering. The house was considered the most exquisite by standard of its time. There was only one bedroom and it was connected with the living room. I was fascinated by the bed there was no plush mattress on it while underneath was a hiding place which is connected to the rest of the tunnel network. A convenient escape route during bomb attacks. Everything built around Cu Chi Tunnel was made to be self-sustained – outside of the house on the porch was a traditional rice processing mill which looks astoundingly similar to the one I saw in the Brunei Museum of Technology.
This is actually a chimney. The smoke from the underground stove will come out through here.
We left the house and continued our walk through the jungle where deep craters could be seen scattered everywhere covered by plants, trees and dead leaves; suddenly I could feel the vicious wrath of the napalm bombs dropped by the Americans in the 60s.
The Vietkong village suddenly appeared among the undergrowth – there were clinics, schools, farms, markets and even café there. According to my guide, the Vietkong went out at day time to run daily dwellings like farming and selling crops while at night they would return into their underground burrows hidden from the American soldiers. He said that the Vietkongs rather suffocate in there than risk getting shot – when I think about it I would probably do the same thing too.
I would be a happy teacher if my students behave as quiet as these students.
Not many people knew this but the underground tunnel was actually built by the French during the Indo-Chine colonial era way before the Vietnam War. So when the war broke out, it was converted into a secret settlement network by the Vietkongs. The network spans some 5km in radius and has three levels – first level is about 2 metres deep.
I convinced myself that the trip there wouldn’t be complete without me daring myself to get inside so I did.
It was the longest five minute walk of my life. I am 5’3 and the only way for me to move in there was squatting. I hummed the jingle “How low can you go” while making my way anxiously through the dark (so this is how gophers feel). In the movies they kept saying not to walk towards the light, but in my situation then it was the light that I was aiming for. It was pitch black and suffocating inside (definitely not for the claustrophobic) and I couldn’t imagine how the Vietkongs survived in there throughout the war.
It's hard life being a vietkong statues...you just need to take a break sometimes
The tunnel took me to a small room - a kitchen. The stove was made in a way that the smoke was channeled through a chimney which led to the surface; disguised as ant nest. My guide took me to the dining room connected to the kitchen by mean of a tunnel. The dining room is bigger than the kitchen and it had a dining table which was skillfully crafted from bamboo. There I was treated with some sweet tea and tapioca.
Since rice is a luxury during war time, the Vietkongs thrived on tapioca and peanuts. Tapioca was boiled to cook and was eaten with ground peanut mixed with some sugar and salt – a simple but sumptuous dish (highly recommend). My guide told me that rice was only served to the injured soldiers as tapioca could make their wounds worse.
The maingate to Cu Chi Tunnel
We resurfaced after exploring the underground tunnels and I found myself in a clearing with corpses of army trucks, jeeps and bulldozers bearing the US army insignia were left under the mercy of the weather. The Vietkongs were quite resourceful and used what ever the Americans brought and left in Vietnam. They cut tyres of the army trucks and turned them to slippers, recycled shells of the B52s into landmines that had claimed thousands of lives, both army and civilians, and stole torchlights to illuminate the tunnels when before they only had candles.
The Cu Chi Rose
Cu Chi Roses
While walking around there I saw bright pink flowers in patches amongst the undergrowth. My guide told me that they were Cu Chi roses. It is a type of flower that are commonly found around Cu Chi and is the symbol of the Viet kong as It thrives through the harshest condition just like the Viet kongs.
The tour supposed to take half a day to finish but since I had to catch a train that night to Nha Trang, I had no choice but to cut my trip short. My brief tour there had taught me a lot about survival and the cost of freedom.
How low can you go? Try walking in the Cu Chi Tunnel.
Water is collected in pots like this for drinking.