Updated: Sep 10, 2020
The half-day Cu Chi Tunnels guided tour started at 8.30am and would last until 1pm — well, supposedly. For only US$5, it came with "extra" agendas on the itinerary that was not totally unexpected. A mini-van picked us up from our guest house after breakfast. There were 11 tourists, including us, being packed into the small van. The air inside the van was rather chilly on the way to Cu Chi.
The first stop was at a Vietnamese handicraft factory, about an hour out of Ho Chi Minh City, which specialised in lacquer-wares. It was said that the factory was setup after the Vietnam War for the handicaps to earn their livings, but after almost 35 years, the handicapped workers had mostly retired and were replaced with able-bodied ones. However, it was the handicrafts that were more appealing.
We were introduced to the decorating processes on paintings and big vases using either mother-of-pearls or egg shells. These arts were labour-intensive and the workers were very skillful. After walking through the factory, we were led into a showroom where hundreds of high-quality lacquer-wares were on display and for sales. They were really beautiful.
I would not mind getting a couple of them for my room but the prices were somewhat on the high side — and including commissions for the tour guides (but that was how tour guides earned their livings, they earned nothing from the US$5 tour package price). Souvenir shops in Phạm Ngũ Lão or Central Saigon would sell similar handicraft items at cheaper prices though but not all items here could be found in those shops.
The next destination, after the handicraft factory, was the main objective of the trip — the Cu Chi Tunnels that were dug during the Vietnam War. There were actually two tunnels in Cu Chi that were opened to tourists, one in Bến Đình and the other one in Bến Dược. We arrived at the Bến Đình Tunnels, which was modified after the war to accommodate the large sizes of European and American tourists. Most of the tunnels were unearthed, exposed and enlarged — and less authentic, of course.
(I had been to Bến Dược five years ago and there were a lot of differences between the two sites. Bến Dược would have been be a better option for Asian travellers.)
Ticket to Cu Chi Tunnels was not included in the tour package, so we paid 75.000 dongs per person at the entrance. The tour started with a video presentation on how the Cu Chi Tunnels was first built and expanded into a large-scale anti-American underground network. It also explained how the Viet Cong (Communist North Vietnamese Army) were able to survive in the tunnels and used it to escape from American soldiers. The narrations were actually skewed in favour of the Viet Cong and criticised the South Vietnamese Army and American soldiers of their "atrocities" during the Vietnam War.
After the video show, we were shown a few tunnels but they were crowded with tourists. The tour guide decided to skip to the next few stations and to return later. At one station, we were shown several types of booby trap, developed by the Viet Cong, and how each of them worked.
There were also other displays that showcased the Viet Cong's uniforms and their primitive bomb-making process using mannequins. There was a firing range for tourists to try firing some real guns and ammunition at some costs. We spent about half an hour at the range as some tourists in our tour group wanted to try the guns.
After leaving the range, we were shown a hut where its occupant made some rice papers and dried them under the sun. Another hut had a shoemaker that made different sizes of sandal out of black rubber sheets. Then, we were back at the main tunnels, which we had skipped earlier. Noticed that the entrance had been enlarged to accommodate a full human height and the walls were cemented?
In some parts of the tunnels, we had to duck-walked to get around. It was really muscle-straining to those who seldom exercise!
However, unlike in Bến Dược, we were not asked to find a concealed entrance and attempt to get into the tunnel through that small entrance, which I had tried. I had always believed that to be the main highlight of the Cu Chi Tunnels experience!
Leaving the tunnels, we were shown to a kitchen in an exposed section of a tunnel. A lady, dressed in Viet Cong uniform, was making some tapioca snack. We were seated at a table outside the kitchen and served boiled sweetened tapioca with tea. It might be simple food to most tourists from Europe or western countries, but sweetened tapioca was nothing new to South-Eastern Asians, including Singaporeans. Such was the food that the Viet Congs consumed during the Vietnam War.
After the snack, we left the Cu Chi Tunnels and returned to Ho Chi Minh City. The air inside the van had turned warm, making it an uncomfortable journey back. It was after 1pm when we reached Saigon but we were driven to a shop that sold local products. It was another of those "extra" agendas. The shop attendants tried to sell their goods to our tour group, but we just loitered around until it was time to depart.
We were all hungry as it was way past lunch time, so we declined to get back to the mini-van for the next destination, the War Remnants Museum. I had noted earlier the name of the street we were at and the Southern Vietnam Women Museum, just opposite the shop, served as a good landmark for me to know exactly where we were. And we were pretty close to a restaurant that I wanted to try. It would otherwise be too far off from Central Saigon if we were to locate it ourselves. But since we were in the vicinity, we might as well go for it, so I led our small group there.
We walked down Võ Thị Sáu, searching for a place to have lunch. It took us almost 15 minutes before we saw a shop selling noodles and walked in. A lady approached us and said "Bún bò" and other things in Vietnamese. Knowing that she meant Bún bò Huế, we agreed readily even though we could not understand what she was saying completely. When the Hue-styled beef noodles were served, we saw that there were extra ingredients, like ham and spicy fish cake, in it. The lady was actually asking us if we wanted extra ingredients, which we did not mind as we were very hungry. Anyway, it was only 30.000 dongs per bowl.
The lady also placed some dessert on the table — a kind of kueh (traditional cake) with corns in it and wrapped in leaves that were made into small cubic cups. We tried a piece each. Not too sweet but not tempting to have another one also. We only have to pay for those we ate. We also ordered some sweet coconut dessert in small bowls and pure corn milk in bottles. I liked the corn milk.
It was 3pm after lunch as we made our way to Huỳnh Tịnh Của Street, following a map. It was quite some walking. Half an hour later, we came to a shop that showcased several jars of wine with various types of snakes — such as cobra, python, grass snake, etc — soaked in them. Some jars even contained ant-eaters, crows, monitor lizards, etc. The big jars had different price tags on the lids. Jars containing more animals were priced higher.