With only about 40 hours in Saigon, we had to be fairly aggressive about how we spent our time. While we of course wanted to enjoy the city and the local cuisine, visiting some of the sites related to the wars was high on our list. Both Heather’s dad and my grandfather were involved in the Vietnam-American War, so it was important to us to visit some of these sites and hear the local perspectives.
One of the places we felt we couldn’t miss were the Cu Chi tunnels — an extensive network of tunnels (like 75 miles worth) that were hand-carved during the French occupation, and then expanded during the later conflicts in the 1960’s and 70’s. This (somewhat ridiculous) diorama shows how there were layers to the tunnels, and a complex system of connecting rooms, air vents, escape routes, and booby traps.
On that note, I think it’s important to mention that Cu Chi is not treated as a typical reverent war memorial (though there is a temple and memorial at Ben Duoc). There is no reverent reflection on the horrors of war, rather you exit the park through a gift shop that sells souvenir bullets. Many of the reviews we’d read noted that the propaganda was intense and borderline disturbing, but I didn’t really find that to be the case. Yes, there were elements of nationalism, and a rather glib approach to what were probably gruesome deaths, but I think if you go in understanding that the point of both sites is to celebrate the ingenuity and heroism of the Cu Chi people, and the succor provided to them by the tunnel network across a few generations of war, it all makes more sense.
I can’t think of anything immediately similar in the U.S. (but we have a complicated relationship with war and heroes in America), though from a certain perspective I’m sure the Revolutionary War sites in New England seem in poor taste. Truly, outside of the booby traps, it didn’t feel that different to me than visiting something like the Churchill War Rooms in London — there was a very narrow focus showcasing how a particular group overcame adversity during a time of broader conflict, without giving air time to the causes, or implications, or controversies, or really any thought to the human costs or the other side.
So, there’s that.
For a more comprehensive and somber approach to the war, you’ll want to carve out time for the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, but the tunnels themselves are absolutely worth a visit in my opinion.
Planning a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels
Out of the gate, let me emphasize that like many things in Vietnam, visiting Cu Chi is one of those things where you can basically spend whatever you want.
You can take public transit and spend just a few dollars. You can book bus tours or limo tours or boat tours or motorbike tours, you can book excursions with guides or without, with meals included or not, as a half-day or as a full-day with other stops — truly, there’s just such a massive range that no matter your budget or travel style, there’s a way to fit this in.
And while it took a chunk of time, we felt it was worth carving time out of our itinerary in Ho Chi Minh City to visit.
Ben Dinh or Ben Duoc?
Beyond budget, one of the major considerations is which of the two tunnel sites you decide you want to visit.
99% of the advertised tours go to Ben Dinh — it’s a massive operation, visited by sometimes thousands of tourists per day, has a firing range where you can shoot machine guns, etc. The tunnels there have apparently been reconstructed and significantly expanded, so they’re probably a bit more comfortable to explore, if that’s a concern.
The Ben Duoc site is a bit further away from HCMC, and depending on your mode of transportation probably adds an hour to your day. I think it’s well worth it, personally, as Ben Duoc is a much more authentic experience (parts of the original tunnel system have been preserved), and it’s significantly less crowded. On the day we were there (a Saturday during a holiday period) we only saw two other groups, comprising a total of about twenty people.
Here’s a map showing the incredible expanse of Cu Chi tunnel network (all the black lines are tunnels, I don’t remember what all the other things indicate), and I’ve labeled both sites and Saigon for context.
Both sites have the same propaganda videos and awkwardly jovial booby-trap exhibits, and in both cases the areas where tourists are allowed have been reinforced, and some of the entrances have been expanded.
The tunnels at Ben Duoc, however, haven’t been enlarged for the most part. So you can really get a better sense of what the tunnels were like when they were in use. As such, they aren’t exactly easy to get around in — to give a sense of scale, this is the largest of the tunnels we were able to explore, and my mom is ~5’3″.
The tunnels got progressively smaller, with the last one requiring not only crawling on hands and knees, but basically shimmying on stomachs and forearms. I don’t think most Western males would have enough shoulder room to negotiate that final tunnel, much less a French or American soldier with gear, so it’s no wonder that these tunnels were as effective as they were.
This is probably a good time to note that entering any/all of these tunnels is optional, none of them are more than a few hundred meters long, and the staff will guide you to the exit of a particular set of tunnels where you can wait for your group if you aren’t feeling it.
So I’d still choose to visit Ben Duoc over Ben Dinh — even if you don’t go in the tunnels at all, I think the relative remoteness will lead to a better experience.
Choose your mode of transport
Once you’ve decided which site you want to visit, you’ll need to decide how to get there. I strongly recommend taking the time to visit Ben Duoc, but regardless of which site you go to, I also recommend traveling by speed boat.
Granted, I always want to take the boat if it’s an option, but this is another case where I think it’s significantly more pleasant. The alternative is to spend 1-2 hours in traffic each way, which doesn’t sound particularly fun to me even if you aren’t prone to carsickness.
The only stop-and-go we had on the boat was the occasional reverse to unjam water hyacinths from the propeller.
Apparently it was the peak of water hyacinth season, so there were sections where the river was basically blanketed.
Still, we found the boat trip to be a perfect way to spend our first full day in Vietnam. The engine was loud, but the fresh air was enjoyable, particularly as we moved out of the more industrial areas of Saigon and into the countryside.
Our particular combination of circumstances (a specific day during Tet, a tight time window, wanting to visit Ben Duoc, not wanting to have lunch, preferring to take a boat both directions, etc.) led to us having a private boat for the day. This wasn’t really necessary, and if it had been possible to join a group we would still have had a comfortable experience. So I wouldn’t shy away from a group boat — and you’ll save a fair bit of money by doing so.
Groups, tours, and guides
Again, there are a million different options here, but I would highly recommend that regardless of how you structure your outing, you make sure you have a guide for when you’re actually in the park. Some tours provide guides, others only provide transportation, so read the details carefully.
When you’re at the tunnel complex, a park employee will be assigned to your group, but they’re mostly there to ensure you’re not wandering off, and I wouldn’t rely on them for information. Similarly, the various exhibits have very limited labeling, and what is there isn’t terribly informative.
As an example, here’s one of the tunnel areas that was used as a field kitchen for cooking:
The kitchen looks roughly like you’d expect, but there’s also a complicated network of tunnels and bamboo pipes that not only ensure proper ventilation, but also work to disperse and redirect any steam or smoke so as to obfuscate the actual location of the kitchen. And it was fascinating, but completely unsigned.
Similarly, there were several depressions in the forest left by B-52 bombs. These at least had a label, and would have been interesting me regardless (my aforementioned grandfather was a B-52 Navigator-Bombardier in Vietnam and the Cold War), but hearing about the processes and defenses on the ground (or under, rather), was thought-provoking.
Other stuff was more self-explanatory:
So I’d really suggest making sure you have a guide or an amazing book or something to get the most from the experience.
We used Mr. Chi of Interesting Saigon, who was really accommodating of our schedule concerns, and recommended a range of options before we settled on our private tour. A great compromise would have been to join a larger group for the transportation portions of the day, and then have him as a private guide in the park — that’s what I would have done if we’d had any schedule flexibility at all.
He was also great with my mom, which matters more to me than anything else. So I was more than happy with the experience, even if it came at a price premium.
While I hesitate to say that anything anywhere is a “must-do”, I think carving out time to see the Cu Chi tunnels complex is well worth it. And I’d go further, and recommend dealing with the extra hassle to visit Ben Duoc, as the relative isolation made for a pleasant and uncrowded experience.
Either way, I think a visit can provide some very useful context to other parts of Vietnamese history, and it’s a good way to spend a half-day or so.
And I’d definitely recommend taking a boat.
Have you been to the Cu Chi tunnels (either at Ben Duoc or Ben Dinh)? Any tips to share?