We arrived in Vietnam in the South city of Ho Chi Minh to start our journey north, ending in Hanoi. Busier than Phnom Pen but a little quieter than Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh (formally named Saigon) is big city with an interesting history. It is commonly the starting point or end point along with Hanoi for backpackers embarking on the great Ho Chi Minh trail. Because Vietnam is a long, thin stretch of land most travellers follow a route from one end of the country to the other (the Ho Chi Minh trail). Since we just came from Cambodia which is next to the south of Vietnam it was logical to start are journey in Ho Chi Minh.
By foot we managed to find our hostel called the ‘Mi, Mi art house’ which was down a maze of small alleys. We had been pre warned by many travellers that Vietnam was the worst for theft and after having a strong briefing from the hostel owner about keeping safe, we locked up all our positions immediately! As long as we weren’t parading our expensive phones and keeping our cash in our pockets, we would be fine.
Later on we met up with the people we travelled with, whose hostel was just down the road from us. We went for a walk to get our bearings and went for some food. We had heard about a good trip to do in the area called ‘The Cu Chi tunnels’ so we all booked to go on it the next day. We got an early night and caught up on some sleep before getting picked up in the morning for our tour.
We were picked up the next day by a mini bus full of young backpackers like us. The Cu Chi tunnels are to do with the Vietnam war so we were lucky enough to have a Vietnamese tour guide that was an ex soldier. He worked for the Americans for many years as a translator so his English was perfect. He started the tour straight away as the bus set off for the tunnels. He was and still is know by his nickname ‘Jackie’, given to him by his American comrades for his uncanny resemblance to Jackie Chan! He explained about how the Vietnam war started and how he became a part of it.
The Vietnam War started in 1959 and ended in April 30, 1975. There had been fighting in Vietnam for decades due to French colonial rule before the Vietnam War began. After thirty years of travelling the world, Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh arrived back in Vietnam. His aim was to rid Vietnam of the French and Japanese occupants. After gaining support for his cause in the north of Vietnam he announced the establishment of an independent Vietnam with a new government called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. After years of trying to coheres the United States to support him against the French, Ho had failed. The United States held a Cold War foreign policy of containment, which meant preventing the spread of Communism. Due to the fear of Vietnam falling to communism and therefore creating a domino effect on surrounding countries, the U.S. decided to help France defeat Ho by sending the French military aid in 1950.
Before we arrived at the tunnels we stopped off at an ornament factory. This was an establishment that hired and supported those who have been affected by a gas called ‘Agent Orange’ in the war. Agent Orange was used as part of a chemical warfare program by the U.S. military, during the Vietnam War. Estimates claim that 400,000 people were killed and 500,000 children were born with birth defects as a result of its use. The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems due to Agent Orange. Still today many Vietnamese are born with some kind of birth defect due to the effect of Agent Orange carried in family bloodlines. The factory provides some of these people support and a way to earn a small living.
It was fascinating watching these people create beautiful works of art. Egg shells and sea shells were used as the materials to delicately form different patterns. The pieces ranged in size from a small dish to enormous vase worth thousands of pounds. I refrained from buying anything this time and left the shop to head on to the tunnels.
What are the Chu Chi tunnels? I hear you ask.
Well, the tunnels of Củ Chi are just one part of an immense network of connecting underground tunnels built in the war by the Viet Cong guerrillas . This section of tunnels located in the Cu Chi district have been restored and opened for public viewing but are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The tunnels were used as hiding spots during combat, as well as hospitals, food and weapon caches, living quarters and communications.
But life in the tunnels was far from easy. A scarce supply of air, food and water proved difficult for most as well as sharing their environment with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. During the day the gorillas would rest and then come out at night to scavenge the land for food and engage in enemy battle. On some occasions due to heavy bombing, they would have to spend a number of days underground. This caused much sickness and disease among everyone. Malaria was the second largest cause of death along with battle wounds.
When we arrived at the site there wasn’t initially a lot to see, just a shaded woodland area that you might find in England. But it was what was hidden under the ground that we had come to see. As we followed Jackie into the wood we looked around for clues of the tunnels existence. After a few minutes he stopped and pointed at the muddy ground covered in leaves. He explained that under where he was standing was the original tunnel built in the Vietnam War. This particular tunnel has been left as it was found, just three quarters of a metre high, half a metre wide and crawling with bugs! But where was the entrance? He swept back the dirt and leaves to reveal the outline of a small hatch. It had a piece of string attached to it to lift the lid off. As he lifted the tiny concrete lid a small hole appeared.
The opening to the tunnel was so discreet, it was no surprise to us that often the tunnels would be undetected by the enemy. The hole was tiny. It was a wonder how anybody could fit down it let alone live down there! Tourists were allowed to go down and crawl through the tunnel network. However, large openings had been made for people to exit after each few metres if they changed their minds! Jackie wanted one volunteer to bravely enter the tunnels before anyone else. A rather big guy volunteered. I wondered how the hell he would fit down there but Jackie was adamant he would.
We watched him as he lowered himself into the dark hole and disappeared. After just a few minutes he re-appeared out of the exit. “Any more volunteers?” Jackie asked. A wave of male hands rose up in an instant, including Pete’s. One by one the guys went down and one by one they came out covered in dirt and leaves.
Despite being pretty claustrophobic and a big scaredy cat when it come to creepy crawlies, I never refuse a challenge. After watching Pete go down and come out with ease I knew I would have to go down. I can be quite competitive you see, especially when it comes to beating Pete! He agreed to let me follow him down and with a little encouragement, my friend Maxine decided to tag along. It was horrible to say the least! But I’m glad I did it. It always feels like an achievement for me when I do something I’m scared of, no matter how big or small it may be.
We continued exploring some more tunnels. Some had been widen and cleaned for tourists to explore, I went down these with a doddle. I even managed to take a few videos and snaps. Jackie even showed us underground rooms that were made for bedrooms, kitchens, maternity rooms and much more. It was really amazing. A whole community was built underground. We watched a short film about the Cu Chi Tunnels and how they were built before moving on to see more of the tunnels smart inventions.
We were showed a series of booby traps made by the Cu Chi Gorillas to kill or injure the enemy. The tunnels were often rigged with explosives and covered in different kinds of traps riddled in sharp nails to blind unsuspecting intruders. Some traps were hidden under the earth and when stood on, the enemy would fall into the hole and be impaled with nails. The day was filled with interesting information from our guide and gave us a better insight into the story of the Vietnam War.
That night we went out with our friends from Siem Reap. We spent the night on ‘Pub Street’ which was the notorious location for partying backpackers. We ended up in a club called ‘Go Bar’ which was full of locals. We made friends and danced the night away with Vietnamese girls (who were not prostitutes!) and staggered home at 4:00am!
Earlier in evening we had met a friendly Vietnamese guy called Sang. He told us he owed a hostel just an hour north of Ho Chi Minh in a place called Bein Hoa. He explained that he treats all his guests like his own family and that they should treat his home as their own. You spend time with him and cook with his family. You are given as much free food and drink as you like. He will take you on trips around the city and teach you about Vietnamese culture. To our surprise he told us that he doesn’t charge any rent. He explained that he felt that money got in the way of emotion and the relationship between his guests (that he deemed his friends). All he asks is a donation of what you feel your stay as worth. After chatting with him we decided that our next stop would be Bein Hoa to spend some time with Sang and his family.
Due to the massive hangover, the next day was of course a write off. We spent the morning recovering and mooching around town. Before we went travelling we considered buying a motorbike and travelling up Vietnam on the Ho Chi Minh trail. However, since I had never driven a motorbike in my life you could say I was a little dubious about travelling through a foreign country on roads with no rules! Saying that, I have always wanted to take my bike test and get my license. I thought if I could conquer the roads of Vietnam, I would find British roads a doddle. So we hired a moped for the rest of the day and Pete gave me my first bike lesson in one of the busiest cities in Southeast Asia!
Needles to say I was pooing my pants whilst ambling along trying to move with the heavy flow of traffic and deafening beeps from oncoming bikes and cars! Despite my wobbly start I was determined to do it. So we searched around for two decent bikes to start our journey. Before I go any further I must apologise to my dear parents who are probably having kittens right now reading this but it is something we both really wanted to do and you know me, I’m a bit of wild one for adventure! We scoured the street looking for bikes and came across a local mechanic who was well known in the area for selling decent bikes.
The next morning we bought two bikes from him. They were called ‘Honda wins’ and were 110cc. We managed to get the two of them for $580 dollars. $300 was a common price for a bike like that and since the motorbike trail is so popular in Vietnam (after Top gear), we were confident that we would be able to sell them in Hanoi for the same price as we bought them. That afternoon we met up with Sang the hostel owner. He offered to lead us to his hostel that would NORMLLY take an hour to get to but after leaving Ho Chi Minh a little too late, at rush hour time and in heavy rain, I was in for a frightful ride as we headed to our first destination with just one hour of motorbike riding under my belt! Wish me luck!!