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Published: February 12th 2011
Even after a grand total of 4 weeks in Saigon, Karen and I had still somehow managed to miss Saigon’s most popular tour; The Cu Chi Tunnels. Located a 90-minute bus ride from Saigon it can be done in a half-day tour leaving Saigon at 8 AM and returning by 2 PM. This tour can be booked at any one of the thousands of tour agencies in the city. As our friends, Zuby and Dina had not been and wanted to do so we took the trip together. All tour companies quote their prices in US dollars and you are well advised to pay in that currency. If you pay in Dong the agency will calculate based on the current black market exchange rate regardless of the fact that the official rate is lower
The bank rate as of February 12th, 2011 is 19,693 to a US dollar. The agencies are calculating at a rate of 21,500 per dollar which is a rate you might be able to secure by canvassing the local gold shops with hard US currency. If you don’t pay in dollars you will be whacked with the higher rate. Bottom line; bring lots
of US currency with you or suffer the consequences which amounts to an average 8% tariff.
Our hotel charged us $4 US each for the Cu Chi tour and then handed us off to TNK Tours which is one of the biggest tour operators in Saigon. We were picked up by the bus punctually and soon found ourselves seated in a comfortable vehicle heading northwest. Our guide’s name was Dong. After he told us every Dong joke that he knew (and he knew plenty) he announced that our tour tickets did not include the price of admission to the tunnels?! Unless we wanted to spend the morning in a parking lot we would have to fork over an additional 80,000 Dong to get in the park. Bottom line; Make sure you know what your tour ticket includes before you buy it. You should also shop prices amongst the various agencies. On our last three day trip to the Mekong Delta, for which we paid $45 each, we found many folks in our group who had paid as much as $60 US for the same deal. Be smart. Shop the agencies. Don’t be afraid to bargain.
Cu Chi History:
To make a long story short; the Viet Cong dug 225 km worth of tunnels from which they ran their military operations in the Saigon area. The US and it’s allies tried to eliminate the tunnels for many years, unsuccessfully . The Viet Cong suffered mightily but persevered. The tunnels are now a National landmark and are visited by thousands of people every day. Thousands.
On arrival we were given the opportunity to avail ourselves of the facilities while our guide secured our tickets which took all of 10-minutes. From the main gate we were led, en masse, to one of six bunker/ theaters where we watched a 20-minute long, grainy, black and white film about the role of the Cu Chi tunnels in ‘The American War’, as it is called here. The theaters seat approximately 200 people and are set into the ground and thatch roofed. After the film we were led along a meandering dirt pathway set under high trees to the first exhibit. The park attendants are all dressed in the old North Vietnam Army (NVA) uniform though few, if any, appeared old enough to have fought in the ‘American War’. Our first stop was
at a secret tunnel entrance which consists of a rectangular hole measuring 1 x 2 feet and capped by a camouflaged lid. People line up to have their photo taken standing in the hole with the lid held over their smiling noggins. (’Look at me! I’m VC too!’) There’s always a traffic jam here so if you want to get in and out fast, be at the lead of your tour group.
There are a number of NVA garbed, life-sized mannequins sprinkled about the grounds standing with their wooden weapons permanently at rest waiting for an eager photographer. There was also a long display of various booby traps employed by the Viet Cong against their opponents. Basically large holes with bamboo stakes planted at the bottom. At the end of the display stands an American M-41 tank under a thatched roof. Photo time! People clambered aboard the steel behemoth like kids on a jungle-gym and the cameras started whirling’.
Now the icing on the cake. The Cu Chi’s top attraction. The firing range, which we had been hearing from since our arrival. There are four weapons to choose from. The AK-47, the M-16, the M-60 and the M-1
carbine. You have to buy the bullets which range in price from 26,000 Dong to 30,000 Dong each and you have to buy at least ten rounds to play. Just about every guy in the group headed for the bullet vendor with their camera toting girlfriends by their side. The M-60 machine gun has a firing rate of approximately 600 rounds per minute so you can burn through money really fast and burn through it they did as the air was quickly filled with the snap, crackle and pop of boys at play. For those pacifists among us; we occupied our time visiting the gift shop and the rice paper making demonstration. Zuby disappeared with an M-16 and re-emerged with a smile on his face. He thought it fun. Which it is. If it weren’t we wouldn’t be having all these damned wars. There is also a small café’ serving drinks and ice cream. Around us one could see a large number of 30-foot diameter bomb craters. Evidence of the B-52 bombings in the area.
Next stop: the tunnels, which have been enlarged to accommodate western tourists. The tunnel is 80 meters long with escape possible every 20 meters.
This is the AK-47. The M-16 appeared to be the most popular choice when I was there.
It is likely that you will find yourself in the middle of a single cramped line of people who will move very slowly so if patience is not one of your stronger virtues think hard before you enter. Most people found themselves out of breath and sweat soaked by the time they emerged. Karen and I visited the tunnels in Vinh Moc on our last trip. After an hour crawling through those famed excavations we pretty much had had our fill of Vietnam’s tunnels.
Now to cap the Viet Cong experience we paid a visit to the mess hall where we were served boiled Tapioca root. The main fare of the those famed and famished warriors. It was everything that I expected and less. One final gift shop and weapons display visit and that was the end of the show. It was 12:30 PM when we left and there was nary a soul to be found at the entrance. Total time spent in the park was two and a half hours. Except for the 80,000 Dong surprise the tour was well organized.
Bring a flashlight (torch) if you plan on going into the tunnels. None are
Unlike this picture there are no lights in the tunnel so bring a flashlight with you.
Wear clothing that is cool, comfortable and not highly prized. You will get a little dirty. Wear shoes.
Shop the rates and ascertain whether or not the park ticket is included in the price.
Try to go in the afternoon when the crowds are gone.
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