No visit to HCMC is complete without going out to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These infamous tunnels were used during the war by the Viet Cong and the nearby villagers as a safe haven against American troops as well as a “battleground” of sorts.
The best way to see the tunnels is early in the morning. I recommend taking a tour that brings you up there by boat, as the boats arrive earlier than all the massive tour coach buses. I went with Buffalo Tours, and the tour included pick up/drop off at my hotel (even in District 3), boat ride to the tunnels, a tour and history overview of the tunnels, and then a stop at a nearby cricket farm before driving in a comfortable van back to the hotel. We arrived about 8:30ish, and there was almost no one at the tunnels yet. It’s perfect if you decide that the tunnels are way too tiny for you.
The first stop at the tunnels is the 10 minute video about the glory of the tunnels, and, basically, how many of the heroes/heroines killed American troops. Some of those who knew I was American kept looking at me for my reaction, but really, I was there to understand more about the other point of view, and it wasn’t about being upset that someone was telling me my country had done something bad.
We learned a great deal about the tunnels on this tour, from the termite-like mud piles (which were actually air pockets) and the many traps in the tunnels (snakes tied to strings to bite invaders). There was a chance to get down into one of the tunnels’ hidden trapdoors, but only one of us was thin and agile enough to get into the tiny hole.
After exploring a few of the tunnels’ other features, like the “smokeless” kitchen and various horribly sharp and sickeningly ingenious bamboo spike traps, we had the chance to get into the “widened” tunnel for the tourists. We went down the stairs into the first level, which is a tall cavern. Then, we went down more stairs into the tunnel, and I thought I’d be okay in terms of getting through them. However, after about 20 m, I felt the tunnels getting very tight around my hips, and I couldn’t bend low enough to get through properly. It’s pretty much a nightmarish situation to be stuck in (literally!), especially if you have tourists in front of you and behind you in the tiny tunnels.
Luckily, since there were few other visitors at the tunnels, and my group was small, only two people had to back out of the tunnels to allow me out. I could not get through them, not with my American hips! It was either that, or we’d need a 2 lb tub of Crisco, but something told me that Crisco wasn’t available out in the Vietnamese jungle.
I met up with the rest of the group at another outpost of the tunnels, and we rounded out our tour with a visit to the rice paper-making hut and a quick snack of tapioca (a rootlike vegetable that tasted rather starchy with a hit of sweetness) and tea. At the rice paper-making hut, I was surprised to see how the spring roll wrap was made on bamboo mats – and how thin it was! I bought a little bundle of treats from the lady working there, a rice cake snack with peanuts and dark toffee crunch on top. It was a tasty treat after our harrowing journey in the tunnels.
There is a shooting range at the tunnels where, per bullet, you can pay to fire some of the war’s weapons. Keep in mind that automatic rifles go through bullets quite quickly, however!
As we were walking through the woods with so few people around, the sun streaming in through the treetops and the distant sound of gunshots startling us every so often, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fear as soldiers went through this area. I imagine it much more densely packed with vegetation, and the enemy literally popped up from anywhere under ground to shoot at you or launch grenades. No matter my training, the fear of stepping on a booby trap or having someone pop up suddenly from underground would unwind me. I can see the psychological aspects of this war … and why so many struggle with its memories and nightmares. It’s a tourist place now, but then, with monsoon rains and plants with leaves big enough to be toddlers and venomous snakes in the underbrush, I can’t even fathom what was going through the minds of these younger soldiers.
As we went to leave, hoards of tourists were just beginning to arrive at the tunnels. I will say, getting up early certainly had its advantages when visiting here. The experience was quieter, more personal, and I was able to appreciate the visit more without loads of people squashed around me.
On our way back to HCMC, we stopped at a local cricket farm. Crickets (along with the aforementioned tapioca) were staples of the soldiers living in the tunnels. Crickets have a lot of protein in them, apparently. The farm had all stages of crickets, from eggs, to babies, to fully-grown and edible adults. The farmers gut the crickets and sell them to restaurants around the city.
For our snack, we were served stir-fried crickets (de-gutted) with garlic and a hint of chili. The crickets were expertly rolled up into a spring roll with basil, mint, lettuce and carrot strips and then dipped into sweet sauce. Some of the group didn’t want to try it, but I was the first one to give it a go. Why not, right? Frankly, the crunchy crickets weren’t any different than eating a handful of popcorn – popcorn with legs, that is.
After the cricket farm encounter, we were escorted back into the city and to a local Vietnamese restaurant. Our lunch did not feature crickets, thankfully, but it did showcase local favorites such as sticky rice cakes, sweet and sour soup, fried spring rolls, an incredibly delicious river fish in passionfruit sauce, fried morning glory, and a few other gastronomic goodies. I actually came to love the pickled shallots and green onion bulbs whilst in Vietnam. They livened up any dish!
Once back at my hotel after drop-off, I cooled off from a sweaty day out and prepared to take a stroll around Dong Khoi in the evening, when all the real madness began.