After a brilliant nights sleep in the wonderful Continental hotel Saigon, I headed for an early breakfast at 7:15 and was amazed at the huge buffet selection on offer. One great thing the French brought to Vietnam is bread – there were authentic French baguettes and pastries which were a welcome change to the usual scrambled egg buffets in most of our hotels.
At around 8 we met again with our local guide, Tiger, to head to the Cu Chi Tunnels – around a 2 hour journey outside the city. The bus ride was fairly boring but we had a chance to look out the window and see more of rural Vietnam, although we already did 8 hours on busses in Hanoi so this was beginning to feel monotonous rather than exciting. Tiger gave us some summaries of the Cu Chi tunnels whilst we travelled, and also offered us the option to visit a lacquered wood store for disadvantaged families, although after our negative experience of the statue place in Hanoi, we declined this offer and this seemed to upset Tiger.
We arrived at the tunnels and joined a sizeable queue to get into the entrance before Tiger took us to one side to begin our private tour. I have to say that this tour was actually fairly bad – it felt like Tiger was rushing us around, each time we stopped he would reel off a few facts about whatever we were looking at and then immediately walk us to the next location. There was a lot to see, and I can understand that it’s somewhat upsetting to discuss some of the history of the wars, but if you’re a tour guide you should probably be okay with discussing it.
If you don’t know, the Cu Chi tunnels are a 200km tunnel system constructed by Vietnamese Communiststs (Viet Cong) to give them a hiding place from the American soldiers. They were pretty impressive, with 3 levels of tunnels upto 9 meters deep, as well as a series of traps which they constructed to catch the Americans. The traps in particular were really uncomfortable to look at – some involved really horrible injuries or deaths for the soldiers who were unfortunate to step on the wrong part of the jungle.
The whole tour took place in fairly thick jungle and the soundscape was punctuated by regular gunshot sounds from a shooting range at the mid-point where they offer the opportunity to pay to shoot some of the guns used in the war. I actually quite strongly disagreed with this offer, since it feels weird that the Vietnamese would encourage foreigners to shoot guns in a place where their own people spent so much effort to avoid the gunfire just a few years ago. The shots were about 35,000 dong per bullet, with a minimum charge of 10 bullets – making the activity not only immoral but also expensive. I declined this opportunity although a few of the group did take them up on this, and I winced as the deafening sounds came from their guns towards the targets.
Also on the tour we saw some of the ways that the Viet Cong were able to survive for days or even weeks in the tunnels – they had small kitchens set up with ventilation systems to distribute the smoke so that the Americans weren’t able to detect them. We were even given a chance to try the standard food they cooked – Tapioca root with salt, sugar and peanuts as a dipping sauce, as well as some green tea. This was actually pretty tasty, although I’m not sure I’d want to eat it every day for 3 weeks!
At the end of the tour, which seemed to come really quickly thanks to Tigers rushed displays, we found a gift shop and members of the group bought some beautiful wind chimes and things like that – I don’t have enough space in my bag for these big things, but I bought a round of beers for everyone (it was definitely my turn). We jumped back onto the bus and a couple of hours later were back at the hotel – around 2 hours before Dek had told us we would be back, which gave us a real indication of just how quickly we had been rushed around the tour. I wonder if our declining the Lacquered wood shop had really upset Tiger, or if perhaps he just didn’t really like us or something. Either way, we gave him a small customary tip but discussed with Dek afterwards how we felt about this part of the tour.
The rest of the day was recharge time, but Dek had helped me, Karl and Petra to book an optional activity – a Water Puppet show which is a traditional Vietnamese activity. We grabbed a taxi to the theatre (even the taxis are crazy cheap here – just over $1 for a 15 minute ride) and took our seats for a really fun hour of puppetry in a small lake constructed on stage. The show had a really simple story to it, which was provided in the program in English, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, French and a couple of other languages – yet we could easily enjoy the spectacle with the live band accompanying around 10 live puppeteers and their clever little puppets. It was impressive to see this, and also make links to the water fountain displays at the Wynn in Las Vegas which I’m sure used parts of this show as their influence.
After the water puppet show, I headed to the local backpacker street for a small dinner before going to the hotel. It was a really nice evening and Saigon is definitely a city I want to come back to and explore more – I can’t believe we move on to our next country tomorrow morning already!