Cu Chi, Vietnam
Cu Chi. If you’re any kind of aware of the war in Vietnam in the 1960s, you’ve heard about Cu Chi, a vast network of tunnels and bunkers in the hills north of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), where the North Vietnamese regular army, and the Viet Cong hid out. You can read all about the place here. If you want to see a Communist video about the tunnels and the war, rather than all the tourist videos, here’s your link. I had heard about them for a long time, and have been deeply curious how this placed worked. So I came up on a day tour out of HCMC, and wandered around. This is what I found – in pictures!
This was creepy when I walked up to it! Mannequins of NVA and VC soldiers reenacting what they did when they weren’t being bombed by B52s. They lived on very little food, maybe a couple rice balls and tapioca (see below). I still don’t know how the Vietnamese people, even today, can wear jackets when I’m sweating like a mafia accountant accused of embezzling. I don’t notice them sweating. Very odd. It makes a HUGE difference being in the shade though, and a when a little breeze comes up…you feel like life is worth living again.
Some of the tunnels were very deep, maybe 30 meters down, and of course they needed air down there. So throughout the system they’d dig air holes in random places. Sometimes in natural mounds like this, sometimes in mounds they made. For the most part, the holes faced east, where the wind usually came from (the South China Sea). But during an attack by the US or S. Vietnamese forces, they would step away from these holes because gas would get blown into them by the soldiers.
One of the tactics the NVA and VC would use would be to shoot at enemy soldiers on the ground, and then disappear into these trap doors, quickly covering themselves up with camouflaged lids. They demonstrated, and even though I saw where the hold had been, I couldn’t see it once the lids were in place. Sometimes they’d pop out, shoot, grab whatever weapons they could, and then jump back down in the hole. I can’t imagine how frustrating and terrifying it was.
This, I was told, is what the Cu Chi soldiers lived on. The food on the left is ground peanuts with spices, and on the left is tapioca, a kind of root. I ate some of both, and they tasted good! But 3 times a day for months on end? Still, it kept them alive, if not in great health.
I’m not sure they wore Vans, and I know for a fact that they’ve embiggened the tunnels so fat Westerners can get through, but this is what a tunnel looks like with someone in it. I knew it would be a tight fight, and not so comfortable to walked hunched over like a drunk looking for his keys. But I thought underground would be cooler. Not so much. The sweating became embarrassingly torrential in this thing. Again, how they lived in here for months, or in some cases years, I can’t imagine.
At some point, the US decided they needed to bomb the bejesus out of this place. The NVA and VC used it to stage attacks on South Vietnam targets, and that was intolerable. So they sent out B52s to drop tons of bombs. Here are a few that did NOT explode. These unexploded bombs turned out to be excellent resources for the NVA and VC to use to make their own weapons – mostly booby traps, but other kinds of more offensive weapons.
This is one of dozens of bomb craters I saw still here, made by bombs dropped from B52s In fact, the little sign on the tree says so. It turns out that these craters eventually fill with water, and locals – after the war I think – would use them as fish ponds to grow food.
This tank was blown up by a mine, and stayed here. So there were plenty of ground battles on Cu Chi as well as bombings.
Because of those ground battles, the NVA and VC put in lots and lots of booby traps. They weren’t designed to kill, just maim on the theory that they didn’t need to kill to take out US soldiers. So if you were a US soldier, or S. Vietnamese soldier, in addition to VC soldiers popping out of trap doors and shooting at you and then disappearing, you’d have all sorts of these contraptions around just waiting to skewer you with bamboo punji sticks.
Here’s one example, called a Bear Trap. It had a swinging door that you couldn’t see, because it was covered with leaves and stuff. You step on one edge of it and…..
This is what you fell into. Again, hundreds, if not thousands of these things around.
Another thing that continues to be deadly are land mines. Still around, and still blowing people up. No one knows where they are, exactly, other than “over there”, and there haven’t been enough resources to clear all of them. This is more of a problem, I learned, in Cambodia, than in Vietnam. But still a legacy of the war here.
That’s it for Cu Chi. While I marveled at the ingenuity, industry and deprivation of the inhabitants, I came away with an even deeper sense of how stupid- and utterly inhuman – wars are. (Heavy sigh….)
I’ve been a bit frustrated during this trip that I haven’t been able to travel slowly, by rail or bus. Instead, for a lot of reasons, I’ve only been able to fly. So I was keenly wanting to take the train on my way south from Da Nang, to se the countryside!
This first bit is for a cool site I’m using, seat61.com, which is all about taking the rail around the world. I thought Mark’s readership might like a bit of detail about this trip. Following this review, I’ll add some additional commentary for you, my loyal readers!
Bought my ticket online at vietnameimpressive.com, $75, about the same as a flight. Straight forward purchase process online. I booked a week ahead of time, and they delivered my ticket (along with travel tips), to my hotel in DaNang 2 days before my train. They recommended we get there an hour before, but really, 15 minutes would be fine, if you have your ticket. Waiting room is no frills, but comfortable. There’s a convenience shop in the DaNang station where I bought water and carbo snacks. The train boarded at 1:00pm and left promptly at 1:15pm. (A word about the travel tips. None of their dire warnings happened for me. No one asked for more money, or was in my seat.)
I had Coach 10, lower berth 22 (which put me in compartment 6). The ticket taker told me in English where to go (“Go to six!”). The compartments on this train are strictly sleepers, no conversions. There are four sleepers in each compartment, two up , two down. I found mine, threw my luggage underneath, and settled in.
When you get in your compartment, the linens will likely be used, but just wait. As soon as you get moving, the attendant will come by and give you fresh ones, which you put on. The cabins are clean but not new and at all fancy. I’m 73 inches tall and my sleeper was just long enough and wide enough, about 24 inches wide. Sitting was comfortable, albeit in a legs crossed position. My head didn’t reach the berth above me. There are two power plugs in the compartment. No wifi, but cell coverage worked fine so I was texting with my friends all night, and using my phone’s GPS to see where I was. Definitely reserve a lower berth if you can, it’s simply more comfortable (ie, you get the use of the floor). There’s a short table between the two lower bunks, which was nice to put snacks on.
You can close the door to your compartment, I left it during the afternoon, to just look out the window from my sleeper. At night, I closed it, and turned off the lights. For the first few hours of the trip I shared the cabin with one nice young woman who mostly slept. When she got off, two other smiling women got on for the rest of the trip. Then around 10pm, a man got on the bunk above me. Not sure if he was smiling or not. All reserved seating. All I had to do was move my feet over a bit so he could get a leg up. Again, they mostly slept. Neither my Vietnamese nor their English was strong enough for conversation.
The night went uneventfully, although the 2 inch thick mattresses weren’t really great for my 56 year old bones. So I was little stiff when we arrived, right on time at 5:30am, in the HCMC station. I slept in my clothes, which seemed easier since I didn’t know my sleeping mates – no curtains between the bunks. The sheet didn’t stay on during the night so I’m glad I had my clothes on. While the mattresses looked clean, who knows? The good news, no bedbugs or anything creepy crawly.
Summary: a no frills, adventurous alternative to flying, at the same cost. 16 hours, most of it in the dark. Bring your own entertainment, including a flashlight if you’re bringing non electronic reading.
——- Further commentary for my friends!
The reason I wanted to take the train, instead of a flight, was to see the countryside. And for the 4.5 hours of daylight, I was not disappointed. Granted, taking pictures out of a speeding train isn’t the best way to show, but here we are.
My train stopped every hour or so for a town, and preceding each was an announcement in Vietnamese. Except one time. It was a warning, in English as well as Vietnamese, explaining the reasons someone might get thrown off the train. The usual…”no ticket, trashing the place, bothering others, drunkenness..” And then: “those carrying corpses or body parts”. Hmmm. I look next to me, and notice, with fresh vivid insight, the large Styrofoam box, tightly wrapped with packing tape, on the floor just 2 inches from my face, as I sleep. That a new passenger had been perhaps a bit too furtive in moving on. My imagination, in my half asleep state ran with it. Taking Grandpa back to his ancestral grounds for proper burial, in the most cost effective mode available? I was flummoxed. What are ones options? I couldn’t very well ask the woman , “is there someone you knew in that box?”. I didn’t know Vietnamese well enough, and the Vietnamese I do know is all in the context of dining. Which is not the proper context at all. So….I just let it go. I just let…..it…..go. And went back to sleep.
I hadn’t really done a good job of preparing my food for this trip, aside from a roll of Ritz crackers, a bag of peanuts, a couple Snickers bars and water. So when the man with the rickety cart rolled by yelling out who knows what, I hailed him, “Em!” (which is sort like “sumi masen” in Japanese, only “em” means the person you are addressing is younger than you, which nearly everyone I meet on this trip is). Em! He stops in mid ramble and glances at me in my cabin. And then he gets this look that I get a lot which I have come to interpret as “You are a big strange looking beast. I suppose I need to deal with you, but I don’t know English, and don’t want to know English. I’m guessing you know even less Vietnamese. And it’s a hassle dealing with beasts like you. So here I am. Stuck with you. Sigh….What do you want?” All of this I pick up in a glance. Amazing. However, he is shocked and then laughs with glee when I simply say “tôi muốn ba gà”. (I want 3 pieces of chicken!). It astonishes me how so much joy and acceptance and downright hospitality I’m getting from the most hardened customer service people here when I trot out even a tiny bit of Vietnamese. With the newfound warmth of an old friend he dishes me up 3 fried legs of chicken, and tosses in a “chicken on a stick” (think shawarma) to boot. At that moment, a mouse decides to run the length of the coach – we see it coming – right under our feet, and disappears under the garbage can at the opposite end. We both watched it run past, and then look up at each other. My look was, I’m sure, one of “uh….really?”. He laughs and says something that he found amusing, Then the moment shifts and he gets that worried look back as we approach the payment issue. So I say to him, “bảy mươi?” (Seventy?) And he lights up again and says “no (in English!), NAM mươi!” (Fifty!) A deal is struck and I pass him the money he wants. 3 pieces of chicken and a “chicken on a stick” for $2.50. Not bad. As I return to my berth, he continues moving down the coach and I swear I heard him cackle in glee, shaking his head and looking back at me, not once, but twice, utterly bemused. The chicken wasn’t bad.
I took a video outside the window with my Smartphone. Not great quality, but you’ll get to see bucolic Vietnam, with rice paddies, water buffaloes, and mountains.
And that was it!