After a great day exploring up the Mekong Delta for today we had opted to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Cu Chi played host to 18,000 guerillas during The Vietnam War and they waged a hit and run war against American forces from the 125 miles of hand-dug passageways. Today parts of this tunnel network have been opened up to the public giving a glimpse of what life must have been like for those living through this period in history.
Peasant soldiers first started digging into the ground in the late 1940’s during the French War. By 1967 and the American intervention in Vietnam the tunnels complex consisted of aid stations, kitchens, theaters, dormitories, weapon caches and wells. The network was so extensive and complex that it had three layers to it and went down up to 30 feet underground, so deep did it go that the 25th U.S. Infantry actually situated their base unwittingly above part of the complex.
I had been really looking forward to visiting the tunnels and especially at having a go on the firing range but I have to admit that the tunnels proved to be one of the big let-downs of our trip around Vietnam.
The entire area had become a mass tourist trap (and it felt like it). Aussies, Americans, French and the odd Brit all jostled and pushed, shoved and barged their way around the tunnels area, all desperate to get their pounds or dollars worth of flesh having paid their entrance money!
Together with the amateur looking mock soldiers in uniforms, fake wax dummies in the tunnels, plus the now manicured and cleared jungle tracks the whole place had become a bit of a parody. All sense of remoteness and of a stealthy unknown secret base had been well and truly lost. Tourists wearing sticky badges denoting their specific tour groups marched around between tunnel entrances pushing and shoving to get that perfect photo of their relative or co-holidaymaker emergingform the tunnel entrance in their regulation mock Rambo combat attire!
The firing range was a tardy affair with M60’s, AK47’s and M16’s all locked down on metal pedestals for firing, resulting in a lack of recoil and a loss of appreciation of the weight of these beasts of war. I still bought $10 worth of ammo but with the semi-automatic weapon locking twice and some noisy Aussie lout shouting in my earhole as he filmed the action using an iPad the moment I had been looking forward proved a massive anti-climax. Needless to say I missed the target from less than 100m even with a tripod lock-down to aid me! No Medals of Honour to be dished out here!
The tunnels I suspect were once a real sight to see and explore but if this is the way that tourism is going in Vietnam then my only advice is to get to the country quickly, very quickly because it’s going to change fast and not in an entirely good way either.
I crawled along several tight, claustrophobic and dusty tunnels but never felt far away from the next tourist. To add insult to injury as we left the tunnels a stag-party all in hired US Jeeps decided to wheel spin in a cloud of dust and grit out of the crowded coach and car park just compounding my theory that the combination of weapons firing and war remnants plus cheap beer had made the tunnels a magnet for your typical all lads type boozy stag outing. (shakes head in disbelief!)
Eventually the day ended and we all headed wearily back to Saigon along a dusty country lane. A few minutes down the lane and we passed funnily enough (and at the time even funnier) an overturned Jeep presumably of one of the stag-party members, who in his drunken madness had managed to career off the road and into a ditch totalling the Jeep in the process. No-one seemed to be dead or injured this time but it was possibly a fore-taste of things to come for both the region and tourist attraction itself.
In reality there is not much more to write about the day and our time was coming to an end in Saigon. We had a good night out back in the city having a drink on the rooftop of the famous Rex Hotel. The hotel was made famous during the Vietnam War when it was hosting the American military command‘s daily conference, derisively named “The Five O’Clock Follies” by cynical journalists who’d find the optimism of the American officers to be misguided. Its rooftop bar was a well-known hangout spot for military officials and war correspondents. Come the morning though it really felt that is was now time to leave the capital of the south and try and experience something a little bit different and luckily enough for us we were about to because we were about to catch a flight headed out of Vietnam and heading instead for deepest hottest Cambodia!
You can see more photos from my Indochina Adventure on Flickr by clicking on this link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/sets/72157629031722105/