We had seen a lot of offers for tours to the Củ Chi tunnels – our hostel advertised a half-day tour for đ400,000 ($17.23) not including entrance fee to the tunnels. After a lot of research, we figured out the vast majority of the tours go to Bến Đình, the closer of the two Củ Chi Tunnel sites. This is how they are often able to do both a Củ Chi tunnels tour and a trip to the Mekong Delta in one day despite the two sites being in opposite directions. As a result, the closer site is allegedly more touristy and crowded than the second site, Bến Dược. It is also slightly more expensive – đ110,000 ($4.73) vs. đ90,000 ($3.87). Fortunately, we had discovered it was possible to visit Bến Dược on our own using the public buses, which would cost considerably less than a tour, and we could avoid swarms of people. Also, we love taking the local buses when we can.
On Tuesday we woke up early, ate breakfast at the hostel, and walked to the local bus station five minutes away (TĐH xe buýt Sài Gòn on Google Maps). There we caught bus #13 in its parking spot after chasing it around the station for a few minutes. Bus #13 said Củ Chi on the outside. The fare collector came and collected đ10,000 ($0.43) per person and we rode the bus all the way to the Củ Chi bus station, roughly an hour and 40 minutes. At Củ Chi bus station, we switched to bus #79 – đ7,000 ($0.30) per ticket. We were the only non-Vietnamese people on the bus. A very nice Vietnamese woman named Dang chatted with us in English. She was very impressed we were taking the bus without speaking Vietnamese. Before she got off at her stop, she gave us her phone number in case we had any problems in Vietnam.
Google Maps would have had us get off the bus way sooner than we needed to, but the bus driver knew where to drop us and kept telling us to wait. Finally he let us out of the bus right across the street from the entrance. We followed a long, windy road past some restaurants until we saw a temple on our right-hand side. It turns out this is the Memorial Temple to honor people killed fighting against the Americans and the French in the Saigon area. The names of some 45,000 “revolutionary martyrs” are carved into a stone tablet in the main temple.
There are almost no signs in English at Bến Dược, so we were not really sure where we were going. At some point we passed a very small ticket window, but we did not think it looked important, so we kept walking. Later after finding the ticket collector outside the Củ Chi tunnels, we learned we should have bought a ticket at that window. We had to wander around asking for help to find another ticket window to buy a ticket – entrance fee is đ90,000 ($3.87) per person and includes entrance and local guide – and then go back to the ticket collector to get inside.
Once through the gate, we were shown a 20-minute film about the history of the tunnels and the Vietnam War, mostly about the honors Viet Cong soldiers received for killing their enemy. Afterwards, a local guide led our small group on a tour of the tunnels past one of many large, grass-covered bomb craters from the heavy American bombing campaign.
At the site we visited, parts of the original tunnel system remain, while at Bến Đình, the tunnels have been reconstructed, and in some cases widened for larger Western tourists.
We were able to squeeze through an original entrance, slightly less than 12 inches x 16 inches, although there is a bigger entrance at Bến Dược if needed. Once inside, we crawled a few feet to the exit, passing by a fighting bunker with a small bat inside on the way. The tunnels have low ceilings and are very narrow. We had to walk in a duck squat to fit. They now have low energy lighting, so at least you can see where you are going, but is hard to imagine spending any appreciable amount of time here.
Later we were taken to a stretch of tunnel that was 50 meters long. Inside there was a large conference room bunker where planning for operations like the Tet Offensive took place. It was crazy to be in the tunnel for that long, and we hardly went very far at all.
The tunnels are quite impressive. They stretched for 250 kilometers (of which 120 kilometers has been preserved) and were cleverly designed with bunkers for everything from fighting to sleeping to cooking. The tunnels had ventilation systems made from long pieces of bamboo that allowed fresh air in. The entrances were tiny and often covered with sticks and leaves to disguise them. The Viet Cong had three strategies for hiding from their enemy: 1) walk without footprints; 2) speak without sound; and 3) cook without smoke. The cooking bunkers had special chimney chambers that slowly released the smoke so it would not give away the position of the tunnels underground. In the morning, the smoke would simply blend in with the morning mist. They often wrote or whispered to communicate quietly. Walking without footprints required a little more creativity, since it is very difficult to not leave footprints in the mud in the rainy season. They wore special shoes with a heel in the front and a heel in the back, so it was hard to know which direction the footprints were going.
The Viet Cong used booby traps in case the tunnels were discovered. Outside there were a variety of terrifying-looking traps involving sharpened bamboo or long fish hooks. Inside the tunnels, there were dead ends and steep slopes ending in pits with sharp bamboo sticks in case anyone unfamiliar entered. This strategy mostly kept the Americans from discovering the extensive nature of the tunnels until they had largely served their purpose. The Viet Cong lived in the tunnels for days during bombing campaigns, and sometimes months or years, coming out only at night to fight or tend to their crops.
By 1969, Củ Chi was being carpet-bombed which ultimately destroyed many of the tunnels and resulted in an average of three kilograms of shrapnel per square meter covering Củ Chi by the end of the war! The tunnels had allowed the Viet Cong to transport materials and personnel and survive well enough to become entrenched in southern Vietnam by the time the tunnels were destroyed.
At the end of the tour, we walked back out to the bus stop to wait for the #79 bus. It came within a few minutes and took us back to the Củ Chi bus station. We were pretty hungry, having not yet had lunch other than a small cassava snack we were given at the tunnels, so we left the bus station in search of food. Half a block away, we found a woman selling roast duck. We asked if she would sell us 1/4 duck, but she would only sell 1/2 or whole duck which was, unfortunately, more duck than we needed. We settled for a plain baguette and a bottle of water and headed back to bus #13. We caught the bus without any trouble and were back in Ho Chi Minh City by 5pm.
Our excursion to Củ Chi took us a full day rather than the half-day with a tour, but for đ124,000 $5.33 per person, we had a very local experience.