We grabbed a fruit shake at Cafe Sinh To this morning before arriving at the T.M. Brothers office for our 1 day tour to the Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi Tunnels, only to be told that the tour we’d booked wasn’t running because we were the only two people to have booked it! Perfect time to break the news. It was too late to book a similar tour with an alternative company, so we had to take the only option being offered to us, which was to join the half day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels.
So we hopped on the bus (which was half an hour late leaving) and headed on our way. Our guide was a 55 year old long haired war and prison veteran who called himself “Survivor” (for obvious reasons – he spent 6 years serving in the Vietnam war, 3 years in prison, and 1 year uncovering land mines : 10 years of living on life’s knife edge) and kept following each piece of information with the question, “do you know what I mean?” in a thick Vietnamese accent.
We arrived firstly at a place where we watched rice paper being made, had a close up look at a rice plant, and witnessed the usage of a machine which separates the rice grains from the kernels. We then continued along to the tunnels themselves. Ben Duoc Tunnel is part of the Cu Chi tunnel network which is situated 70km north west of Ho Chi Minh City. Contrary to the information contained within the latest Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam (which states that the tunnels actually ran from Ho Chi Minh City to the Cambodian border), our guide informed us that the tunnels stretched for 250km in a winding network beneath the town of Cu Chi. The tunnels were built on three different levels – at 3m, 6m and 10m below ground level – and were in use for 26 years, from 1949 until the war ended in 1975. They are an architectural monument set deep in the earth and included sections for living, dining, meeting and fighting.
As we entered the site of the Ben Duoc tunnel, we watched a DVD detailing the history of the tunnels and were given a ‘Dia Dao Cu Chi’ sticker, and as the entire bus load of us were guided through the site, I felt like I was re-living my childhood as a 10 year old on a school trip. The tour was interesting and our guide knowledgable and informative, but I felt more like part of a process rather than an individual. Many of the tourists had the opportunity to squeeze themselves into the first hidden tunnel and have their photograph taken as they disappeared into the ground, but when you’re 3 rows back in a group full of about 40 other people and pushing rudely to the front is not a idea practised back in your country, the opportunity for me to do this was taken away almost as quickly as it presented itself.
After learning about the various different traps set up for the soldiers and witnessing waxwork models recreating life within the tunnels, we were finally given the chance to enter one of the remaining tunnels. The 500m stretch of the surviving underground network was a lot smaller than I’d imagined so manouvering my way through required me to either crawl or to squat right down with my heels touching my bum and walk along on my feet, which gave the calves and thighs a good work out! When we reached the end of the poorly lit and exasperatingly hot tunnel, we were all presented with a well needed cup of Vietnamese tea and a snack of sweet potato sticks and crushed peanuts.
We arrived back in Ho Chi Minh City at 2:30pm and were met with a beautiful lunch spread of spring rolls, fried rice and noodles. There was no mention of this being included in the tour so it was a pleasant and welcomed surprise and went some way towards compensating for the disorganisational error with our orginal tour.
This evening was the final evening Kotoe and I would spend together, as she only has 2 weeks in Vietnam (any longer and she’s also need to apply for a visa like us Brits) so she’s heading north and I’m sticking around to do a tour of the Mekong Delta, We shared a litre or two of beer Hoi at the street cafe next to our guesthouse and I met one of Vietnam’s Easy Riders (a group of guys from the central highlands who run motorbike tours around the area) from Dalat who gave me his business card. We then – upon a strong recommendation from John and Jasmin last night – paid a visit to the circus. The company were visiting Ho Chi Minh City for 2 nights in celebration of Liberation Day – 31 years since the fall of Saigon. It was a brilliant and original experience (with the exception of the performing elephants and monkeys) full of vibrance, colour and diversity, and was a fantastic and memorable way to spend our last night together.
I’ll miss Kotoe. It’s been great to have had company for so long from someone I now consider to be a good friend. Kotoe’s a genuine, down to earth, intelligent, funny, and quirky (and a little bit crazy!) girl and we’ve got a lot in common (apart from the speed at which we conduct our travel ; I’d call it laziness, she’s call it being sensible and not running yourself into the ground!). Considering that we were complete strangers prior to travelling together, and that travelling together meant spending time with each other 24/7, we made pretty compatible travelling companions, and I shall always look back on the experiences we shared together with a very large smile on my face.
Photo to follow.