Markets, Cu Chi Tunnels & Water Puppets

Trip Start Jul 02, 2012
Trip End Oct 04, 2012

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

On Friday, both Richard and I had caught Michael's cold and had excellent sore throats. We had a nice quiet morning enjoying our first experience of staying in a five star hotel.  It's a life we could get used to!

After lunch we caught the hotel shuttle bus in to a local market called Saigon Square.  It is a market absolutely jam packed with stalls selling clothes, shoes, bags, watches, belts etc.  Each stall would only be 10x20ft and they are completely crammed from floor to ceiling with stock.  When you ask the price of something it is always over inflated and with good bargaining we usually got 40-50% off that starting price.  It was always really hard to know if we were being ripped off or not because they were such good actors and every dollar they dropped the price was another mouthful of dinner their child was going to miss out on!  Our approach ended up being that if we were happy with the price of what we bought then that was OK - the fact we might have been able to bargain harder and get a little lower was just too hard.

After lots of fun (and bargains) at the market, we went back to the shuttle stop and enjoyed our ten minute wait watching the traffic negotiate the roundabout we were at.  We are kind of used to the 'no rules works' driving theory now but it is still great viewing seeing just how close they drive to each other.

We ate at the hotel restaurant on the 25th floor that night.  It has fantastic 180 degree views out of the floor to ceiling windows and the chef had created a personal menu for us - it was 6 courses of Vietnamese vegetarian cuisine which was delicious.

On Saturday Richard and Michael hung out at the hotel swimming and relaxing while I went on a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels.  I was picked up by the tour operator at 7am and taken to the jetty where I boarded a speedboat with 7 others and headed off up the Saigon River.

We sped along the river past houses that could barely be called shacks right alongside five star high rises.  The river was muddy brown and full of weeds that we wove our way through.  There were lots of barges laden with soil, and all along the edges of the river there were hand made fish traps with netting strung between bamboo poles.

After an hour and a half we arrived at the jetty and walked around to the entrance of the Cu Chi tunnel complex.

The Cu Chi district was an area that the US focused a lot of attention on because it was in the middle of the Ho Chi Minh trail which they wanted to cut it off. The people of Cu Chi however fought fiercely and dug a 250km network of tunnels by hand which played a major part in the area never being captured by the Americans.  The tunnels were used by Vietcong guerillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. 

After passing through the checkpoint at the entrance, we were taken in to a dug out area and shown a 10 minute movie that was made in 1966 by the Vietnamese Communist Party.  It was totally Anti American and talked about the girl who picked up a gun and after her first week had become a celebrated 'American killing hero'

There were lots of great quotes:

    "The Vietnamese lived with a gun in one hand and a plough in the other"

    “The Cu Chi guerrillas killed the enemy in the morning and ploughed the fields in the afternoon”

    “The US troops are on the ground, the Vietcong are under”

And amazing facts which brought home the magnitude of the war:

    275 kms of tunnels had dug, mostly by women; half a million ton of bombs were dropped in a 100 square mile area.

    20% of the US bombs didn't detonate and it has been estimated that it will take another 20 years to clear the bombs left behind.

    Roughly 57,000 Americans died in the war compared to more than 3 million Vietnamese, 55,000 in the Cu Chi area alone.

    More than 10,000 Vietcong lived underground during the war, some for up to 12 years.  Babies were born underground who never saw above ground for years.

After the movie we were taken around lots of displays that had been set up depicting life as it was during the war and also many of the techniques used to fight the Americans.  We saw ingenious (and horribly painful) traps, weapon making, a destroyed US helicopter;  a B52 bomb crater; kitchens and of course the tunnels.

The digging of the tunnels was incredible – it took 3 people just a few hours to dig a 6 foot square hole after which they would dig a horizontal tunnel as far as they could reach from that depth, finally filling in the original hole, leaving only the horizontal tunnel 6 foot beneath the surface.  The dirt from the tunnel would be taken away and dropped in bomb craters or in the Saigon River so there was no evidence for the US soldiers.  They had air vents disguised as ant holes, bunkers underground for people to live in and to store weapons and 3 levels of tunnels in the network – 6 feet, 12 feet and 18 feet.  Today it might take 3 days to dig the same amount but in those times it was “dig or die”.

Every new story just added to the wonder of the people who had little money, no technology but unbelievable spirit, courage, determination and incredible ingenuity.  So many times they used the US weapons and gear against them.  They recycled the un-detonated bombs to make traps and landmines.  They used the paratroopers parachutes to make camouflage cloaks.  They used US uniforms to disguise themselves as the enemy and they cut up soldiers’ uniforms to put the US dogs off the scent.  The one I liked the most was how they made sandals from the US tyres – we saw all sizes from tiny children to adults, and the saying was that you could walk 10,000 miles in American tires!

The tunnels themselves defied belief.  We were shown one entrance which I could just fit in so long as I had my arms above my head.  As soon as you put the hatch down, it was pitch black.  The entrance to the tunnel was at your knees so you would have had to crouch down and then crawl in.  It took us probably 15 seconds to get in to the hole and cover it over – the Vietcong did it in 2-3 seconds….you would if your life depended on disappearing.

Later, we were able to go in to the tunnels – made bigger for the westerners and although I entered quite confidently, as soon as I was in the tunnel and away from the light, I quickly felt quite claustrophobic and keen to get out.  You had to walk bent over in half, it was pitch black and stiflingly hot.  I had planned to come out a couple of exits up, but the first sign of light I came to I was out of there!  Even in the 15m that I crawled, I had time to wonder if I was lost and have that terrible moment of not knowing if I would be able to find my way out.  It seems quite irrational you’re back in the fresh air and light but it’s a whole different experience underground. 

There has never been a map of the tunnels drawn – it was too dangerous in case it fell in to enemy hands, and underground is like a spider web maze of interconnecting tunnels and bunkers.  When someone asked how the Vietcong knew where to go, the guide smiled and said "if you dug it, or your father or grandfather dug it, you would remember".

We were shown a kitchen dug in to the ground which had an ingenious pipe system to carry the smoke to vents up to 2km away so that the position wasn’t given away.  They only cooked in the mornings so the smoke seeping out of the jungle floor would look like morning fog.

The diet for the majority of Vietnamese during the war years consisted mainly of tapioca root which only took 2 months to grow and was starchy so would give the impression of feeling full when eaten.  Rice was only for soldiers and so many people wanted to fight simply to be able to eat better.  Even in the cities, tapioca would make up 80% of a dish with 20% rice.  For people over 40 years old, tapioca is hated as a food nowadays!  

Life in the tunnels must have been beyond miserable. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin.  Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. At any given time half the army had malaria and “one-hundred percent had intestinal parasites of significance".  When the Vietcong emerged from the tunnels after the war ended, they were malnourished and often very sick.  There is a local saying/'joke' which says “5 VC climb on a papaya tree and the papaya tree is still OK” which cracked the guide up when she told us and only made sense when she explained that the Papaya tree is very thin and bendy.

We asked the guide how the Vietnamese people feel about the Americans now and she explained that people are happy because there is no fighting and they are not so poor.  For them, they don’t worry about the past, the present is good and that is all that matters. She said that the Vietnamese are the 2nd happiest people in the world (after Costa Rica!) and it is simply because for 37 years there has been no fighting.

The guide also talked about the government and said that when they vote they think there is no point because there is only one party, so she always chooses the one who has the nicest smile and looks like they will be kind to the people and never the fat one who will be corrupt and greedy. 

After an incredible couple of hours we boarded the boat to take us back to Saigon (it seems no one there calls it Ho Chi Minh City) and were treated to a lunch of local Vietnamese cuisine which was delicious.

I found the trip fascinating, it was a great insight into the Vietnamese perspective of the war and I so admired the ingenuity and spirit of the Vietcong that shone through.  It was mind blowing to see how they lived and the lengths they had to go to to survive being relentlessly hunted down and attacked.  Very touching and sobering.  Of course it was a tour completely from the Vietnamese perspective and so included nothing of the US experience.  It was a graphic reminder that there are no winners in war.

Back at the hotel, we all enjoyed a swim and then a foot massage although my legs are in a poor state after the “please be gentle I am very bruised” somehow got lost in translation!  I also had my first, long overdue, haircut since we left, for the princely sum of $9.  It was so good I booked in for a colour (3 inches of regrowth needing attention!) which will also not break the bank at $23!

One of the things we had been recommended to see while in Vietnam was the Water Puppet Show, a very traditional Vietnamese form of entertainment.  Richard and Michael declined the opportunity (no culture!) so I caught a taxi (having been warned only to use one company and to hold my bag very tightly) in to the Golden Theatre to see the show.  It was classic! 


There are 3 people on either side of the stage playing instruments, singing and being the voices of the puppets and the stage is a big 'pond’  where the puppets splash about and perform to the music. The show was only 50 minutes and was great – the sort of thing you would go to see once just for the experience!  I had a great seat in the front row after they tried to give me a back seat row and I insisted I wanted something closer….we learnt that persistence is expected and works in Vietnam – say nothing and you get nothing![

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Elaine on

What an amazing tour and photos, you have such fantastic way of telling the story, really feel like we are there with you (but unfortunately we're not !!!) - can't believe your trip is almost over

Jo Souness on

Very Brave of You Phillipa going underground fascinating thankyou for your info on the tunnels i
Micheal and Richard think I would have joined you in the swimming pool no tunnels for me.
What an awesome round the world in 95days
Looking forward to your return to West Melton nothing changed spring norwesters continue to blow.
Sue LInda and I off to Flavours for coffee get together for Lindas B/Day
Dog family continue on their joyful life plenty of play walks swimming at Waimak have Riley with us this week, Skye joins the pack nxt wk and puppy bazil joins us on Sats for pack play

Shirley jackson on

What a wonderful commentary to read, and all the photos to see. A marvellous holiday. Shirley (Margaret's friend)

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