Cu Chi Tunnels: What You Need To Know About Visiting These Vietnam War Sites

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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.

Overall thoughts

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?

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Comments

  1. I visited those tunnels in 2010, actually another site closer to Hanoi, but All of North Vietnam and good parts of the south have them everywhere. There literally was a 2nd Vetnam under the one above ground, with hospitals, meeting rooms, accomodation for thousands, jails etc…

    My only thought while inside: If GPS positioning had existed at the time, we would have won that war.

  2. @Tiffany, the us soldiers that went down in those tunnels were called ‘Tunnel Rats’. They were small, lithe, skilled and brave kids! The only kit they really took with them was a flashlight and a side arm (pistol).

  3. Clearly if Americans had built a wall it would have solved the tunnel problem. Wonder what should work now wasn’t considered back then.

  4. “with the last one requiring not only crawling on hands and knees, but basically shimmying on stomachs and forearms”…. Nope, Nope, Nope.

  5. We would find it lovely to read all about the french influence in Vietnam and where to experience it on the cheap.

  6. What you need to know…1. they were build by the Vietnamese which are much smaller in build than westerners…that said they enlarged the tunnels for tourists. Now, it’s still pitch dark when your guide is in front you, tight and hot and humid. Not ideal if you have any fear of small spaces. I did a few years back…took for some reason the longer route, came out exhausted and showered in sweat…it was awesome but I also have no fear of small tight spaces. Worth seeing for sure.

    My tunnel was so small that we had to do the squatting walk and I’m only 176cm/5′-9″. I think it’s a must see and do.

  7. What were the actual costs you incurred for the transportation and the guide, and what is the approximate range of costs from low to high end for the experience?

  8. The tunnels were amazing, but a warning to anyone who may even be SLIGHTLY claustrophobic: reconsider. I’m not claustrophobic at all, but it was SO small, pitch dark, and really hot. I started panicking and at the first ray of light, got the heck out of there. Amazing experience!

  9. @lira
    Thousands of miles and a 3 decades separated and you still can be political with your:

    “Clearly if Americans had built a wall it would have solved the tunnel problem. Wonder what should work now wasn’t considered back then.”

    I suppose that you simply leave your doors unlocked, the keys hanging in the ignition of your car, and your wallet and money lying about to be used at will by anyone who wants. I on the other hand refuse to use a travel discussion as an opportunity to show your ignorance.

  10. The tunnels are very interesting but think twice if claustrophobic. Vietnam is a fantastic destination as is all Indochina. Worth it.

  11. Great review that brought back memories. But if you decide to try firing an AK-47 at the Ben Dinh site (which is certainly worth the few dollars they charge, even if just to experience the strong recoil), and choose to take an empty cartridge home as a souvenir, don’t do what I stupidly did and keep it in your carryon: I had to give mine up at security before boarding my next flight.

  12. I was surprised just how many American tourists were in Vietnam last month. By far the biggest percentage of foreign visitors we saw including Chinese. I found all the museums to be relentless in tone, but that’s largely to be expected.

  13. Another excellent report and the use of “ obfuscate “ takes it to another level. Well done Tiffany.

  14. Great report, Tiff. Love the shot of the spike trap, but oh boy, I hope those aren’t your legs!

  15. @Lira – Debit is that you? Please go away. This is a travel blog. Your politcal views have no reason to be here. Go somewhere else troll.

  16. I made my first trip to a tunnel in early 1969 and a second a few weeks later when I discovered I was VERY claustrophobic, and basically scare to death down there.

    My wife went back to Viet Nam in 2008 with me and I revisited the Ben Duoc site with her but was again unable to go in to the tunnels though I tried.

    The victors of wars can write the history as they see fit but if you can get around the propaganda it is a worthwhile visit in a beautiful country with warm and welcoming people.

  17. In addition to the posts above mentioning claustrophobic conditions in the tunnels, readers should also be aware of the possibility of seeing a gigantic cave spider. Our guide smiled as he cast his flashlight on a cave spider that had the diameter of a grapefruit in the underground mess-hall kitchen area. It was about 5ft. away from our faces. I was overcome with nausea + got the heck out of there.

  18. I’ve been to the Cu Chi tunnels twice. Once with a friend, and the other leading a women’s tour. One of the women wouldn’t even go on the “walk” to see the area because of her feelings about the war. I however, enjoyed it both times.

    Also, I had one of my worst solo travel experiences in Ho Chi Minh City. It was Chinese New Year’s Eve. I got in a taxi near the market to visit the “American Way Museum”. After the taxi started driving, I heard the locks click. The driver pulled around to the back of the museum and asked for $60 for a $2 fare. I was stuck. No one was around to even bang on the window to attract attention. We went back and forth, and after 15 minutes, he let me out for $10. As he left, I yelled F*@k You at him. He seemed very angry that I would do this on New Year’s Eve. I hope I brought bad luck to him! And then, going into the museum, everything I saw made it look like American’s were horrible animals in the war, and I started thinking that all the Vietnamese there must hate me. A very traumatic day for me!! And then I let myself down when I lost my nerve to stay out to see the “fabulous” fireworks and walk back to the hotel in the dark. 🙁

  19. The tunnels were a high-point of my trip(s) to Vietnam. Incredible projects. It is also amazing how time heals wounds. When I was 18, I was a draft candidate and now, as an Import Manufacturer, we are shifting some of our client’s supply chains to Vietnam from China (not everyone loves a trade-war). The wonderful people I work with in Vietnam view me as a valued business partner and not a former foe.

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