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Cu Chi Tunnels and Chinatown, HCMC

Indochina Day Twenty-Four, part one

View Indochina 2020 on ToonSarah's travel map.

This sign in our room at the Liberty Central Hotel made me smile

Breakfast here was easily the most extensive buffet we had seen on this trip, with lots to tempt us – although I passed on the ‘century eggs’!

Breakfast buffet

Century eggs

The hotel lobby

This was the last full day of our holiday, and it was a full day! We spent it exploring a number of sights in and around Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon with our very good guide, Tai.

Driving through the city was for me as interesting as visiting the sights. The streets are full of activity - lined with shops and impromptu pavement market stalls, and with the constant movement of hundreds of motor scooters weaving in and around the cars, pedestrians and each other in some sort of manic dance to which only they know the steps! Disconcertingly for pedestrians the scooters often even mount the pavements (aka sidewalks) in order to bypass a queue at traffic lights or take a short cut.


On the streets of Saigon

Propaganda poster

On the streets of Saigon

Street vendor's wares

Cu Chi Tunnels

We started our tour by driving out of the city to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This immense network of tunnels (tens of thousands of miles) was dug by the Viet Cong during the war to provide a base from which to launch surprise attacks on US troops, as well as serving as transport, communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters.

The communist forces had begun digging a network of tunnels under the jungle terrain of South Vietnam in the late 1940s, during their war of independence from French colonial authority. Tunnels were often dug by hand, so they could only expand only a short distance at a time – we were shown a tool typical of what would have been used to work in the confined spaces.

From the early 1960s the United States escalated its military presence in Vietnam to support the non-Communist regime in South Vietnam. In response Viet Cong troops gradually expanded the tunnels. At its peak during the Vietnam War, this network of tunnels linked Viet Cong bases over a distance of about 250 kilometres, from the outskirts of Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border.

In heavily bombed areas, people spent much of their life underground, and the tunnels grew to house entire underground villages, with living quarters, kitchens, weapons ‘factories', hospitals and bomb shelters.

A route has been laid out through the woods here to introduce tourists to just a small section of the network and explain how the tunnels were used and what life was like for the soldiers and volunteers who were based in them. They would usually spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops, or engage the enemy. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or US troop movement, they had to stay underground for days at a time.

Replica tool used to dig the tunnels

Plan of the Cu Chi Tunnels visitor site

Captured US shells in the small museum

We watched an introductory video with lots of footage which took me back to my early teens when the Vietnam War was headline news. It struck me that unlike some other war history sights we have visited in recent years such as Hiroshima and the Killing Fields just a few weeks ago in Cambodia, there was a disconcerting air of triumphalism in the telling – we were left in no doubt that thanks in part to these tunnels the Viet Cong were the victorious side in this war. It was much less however than we had experienced in North Korea last year, where the narrative is aimed at convincing the listener that it is being told by the victors when in truth there were no victors.

Tai then led us on a thorough tour of the site, past various examples of access holes, traps and bunkers. We watched as a man in replica Viet Cong uniform demonstrated how well the holes leading to the tunnels could be disguised.

Going ... Going ... Gone

The traps were particularly gruesome, but also ingenious – there were so many ways in which a man could be tricked into impaling part or all of his body on sharpened bamboo sticks.

Trap with spikes

Trap types demonstration

We saw mock-ups of guerrilla activity such as adapting captured US shells and weapons to create landmines – more ingenuity. Tai mentioned several times that their intent was not to kill the enemy but to injure sufficiently that they could take these weapons; however I was not convinced – If the aim was only to capture weapons in order to capture more weapons there would be little sense in the exercise at all.

Model showing fighters dismantling a captured US shell so that the gunpowder could be used

There were several demonstrations showing what life was like for the Viet Cong soldiers and volunteers. We watched a woman making rice pancakes, and a man using old tyres to make sandals. These had a uniform shape front and back so that if they left footprints the US enemy soldiers would be unable to work out in which direction they had been walking – more ingenuity.


Making rice pancakes


Cutting an old tyre to make a sandal

A finished sandal

Then it was time to walk through a small section of tunnel ourselves. Signs warn against entering if you are afraid of the dark, elderly (defined as over 70, so we were OK!), etc. We went down a short flight of steep steps and made our way, bent almost double, along a tunnel just wide enough to pass through – my shoulders rubbed against the wall on each side. At one point there was a drop of about a metre, so I had to sit and lower myself down, with some difficulty.

In the tunnel

Rules for entering the tunnels

Exiting was easier as a ladder of wooden steps had been installed. Once outside Tai told us that section of tunnel had actually been widened to make it easier for tourists!!

After our walk through the tunnel we offered given some steamed tapioca to try as this was often the only foodstuff for the guerrillas. Agent Orange killed most of the crops but as a root vegetable tapioca was still available to them. It was surprisingly tasty dipped in salt, pepper and chopped peanuts, but I can easily imagine would be a very dull diet if you were to eat nothing else.

Steamed tapioca

And green tea to wash it down

This was the final stop on our tour of the tunnels so after a quick toilet break back in the visitor centre it was time to return to the city to visit a number of sights there. As we drove Tai told us a bit more about the history of Saigon and in particular the Chinese influences there.

Binh Tay Market

Entrance to Binh Tay Market

A sizeable number of Hoa people, an ethnic Chinese minority, settled in Saigon from the early 17th century onwards after leaving their original trading bases in Hoi An and Bien Hoa, not far from here. The area where they settled is known as Cholon, meaning ‘Big Market’, and is considered the largest Chinatown in the world by area. At one time in fact Cholon was a separate city, which only merged with Saigon in 1931 to form what was initially officially known as Saigon-Cholon. After Vietnam gained independence from France in 1955 the Cholon part of the name was dropped and the city became known as simply Saigon.

Today the communities living in Cholon include many of Vietnamese and other origins, not just Chinese. In its centre lies Binh Tay Market, constructed by the French in the 1880s.


Stalls in Binh Tay Market

Tai told us that this is primarily a wholesale market where the city’s many Chinese restauranteurs and small shop owners come to buy goods – although it seemed to me that some of those shopping here at least were private individuals, judging by the relatively small quantities they purchased. Actually shoppers of any kind were relatively scarce as the early morning rush was long over, and many stall holders were relaxing, chatting and/or eating their lunch.

Cooking lunch

Children in the market



In the market

We had a walk around the market with goods ranging from cinnamon to coffee beans; star anise to sharks' fins; cashew nuts to century eggs; sea slugs, squid and sandals; dried mango, ginger, pots and pans, sweets and toys, mushrooms of all kinds and of course rice.


Sea slugs

Sharks' fins

Star anise

Dried mushrooms

Dried fruits and cashew nuts

Thien Hau Pagoda

Also in Chinatown we visited this temple dedicated to Thien Hau, the sea goddess whom we had encountered in some of the assembly halls in Hoi An. As we entered Chris and I were given a face mask which we were told we must wear, and all three of us had to use hand sanitiser. In the sticky heat I found the mask so uncomfortable that I told Tai I would rather skip the visit, but as soon as we were out of sight of the entrance he told us both that we could take them off! Interestingly, locals coming to worship, and guides like Tai, weren’t being asked to wear them – only tourists. I guess there was a nervousness that visitors might have previously been in China or another region where the Coronavirus had taken hold, but we hadn’t so we didn’t feel guilty about removing the masks. And I was very glad that Tai had encouraged to do so as the temple is lovely and really worth seeing.

Entrance to Thien Hau Pagoda

The entrance gate is quite astounding, its roof decorated with exquisite little porcelain figures depicting themes from Chinese religion and legends.

Detail of roof carving

Inside is an enclosed courtyard (where we surreptitiously removed those masks!) with the main altar at the far end. Incense coils and sticks were burning there and throughout – this is clearly a very active place of worship.


Incense burning

It is believed that Thien Hau can travel over the oceans on a mat and ride the clouds to save people in trouble on the high seas. Tai explained that of the three statues of the goddess behind the main altar, the front two were regularly taken out to be paraded but the one at the rear, in red, always remained in the temple.

Main altar with three statues of the goddess, and side altar

As in so many places, it was photographing the details that gave me the most pleasure here – the carvings in wood and stone, incense rising ...

Wooden box used to parade the goddess

Wall carving

Wall carving

This is proving to be a long entry (it was a long and full day!) so let’s take a break and continue later …

Posted by ToonSarah 03:44 Archived in Vietnam Tagged traffic history market vietnam saigon ho_chi_minh_city street_photography war_and_peace cu_chi_war_tunnels

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Just wondering if I am ignorant or did others have to look up to see what "durian" might be? You certainly did get a feel of the history of the war and the market looked fascinating (apart from the shark fins of course). I can see why you wanted to photograph the Thien Hau Pagoda - truly photogenic. Looking forward to reading about the remainder of your day.

by Yvonne Dumsday

That was quick Yvonne - thank you Durian is famous for its unpleasant smell (unpleasant is putting it mildly!) but you're right, perhaps I shouldn't have assumed that everyone would have heard of it - sorry!

by ToonSarah

We noticed that the Germans (particularly in Cologne) in 1950 were very pale as if they had been living underground. And since there were almost no buildings standing except the cathedral, they must have done.

As a former safety and health inspector, where I had to do inspections after trenching accidents, I wondered how safe the tunnels were against collapse. ALso they seemed to meet the criteria as confined spaces where gases like carbon monoxide and methane and other lethal vapors and gases might be found. Of course I could not inspect them myself as I am past the allowed age :)

I had heard of durian, although I have been fortunate not to have smelled it.

by greatgrandmaR

Hi Rosalie - yes, I wonder if that would have been the case around here after the war?

You wouldn't miss much not going in the tunnel - it was very short. But I guess it gave us a little bit of an idea what it would have been like.

by ToonSarah

I am so looking forward to the rest of the day, it seems a lot already, but it is nice to read all the things which I have been too as well.

by Ils1976

Thanks Ils - yes I always enjoy reading blogs about places I have been, to get someone else's perspective :)

by ToonSarah

In 1995 we also visited the Cu Chi tunnels — also on our last day in Vietnam. Cu Chi turned out to be only about thirty kilometers from a place where I was stationed for several months when I was in the army, thirty years before.

by Nemorino

Your photos make HCM City look so lively and colourful and, indeed, prosperous compared with my visit 30 years ago. I retain vivid memories of that visit: the cyclopousse rides, the weird nightclub, the elderly waiter who spoke perfect French, the thick wads of Vietnamese dong, the perilous ride to the airport on the back of a scooter with one arm clutching my luggage and the other holding, not too tightly, the pretty young girl who turned up from the state tourism office to offer me a lift.

by CliffClaven

I would think any decent hunter or tracker would have no trouble knowing which way someone was walking while wearing the one-way sandals simply by checking where the pressure was. A cute idea though.

No one could have gotten me into the tunnels. I consider you very brave.

by Beausoleil

Thank you all :) It's interesting to hear about your visits, Michael and Don - which according to my maths were only about 5 years apart?

That's a good point about the sandals Sally, but the Viet Cong must have been doing some things right because despite several targeted initiatives and throwing everything at them, the US were unable to close down the tunnels and put an end to their activities. As for going in the tunnel, I wasn't going to go all that way and not see inside

by ToonSarah

Those no durian signs are all over South East Asia. They are very popular here but not with hotel owners. Haha. In Hanoi I once accidentally put a 1000 year egg in my morning congee. I thought it was something else. I'm ashamed to say that when I put it in my mouth I instantly spat it back out again all over the table cloth as it was like eating a lump of mould.

I have been down those tunnels as Cu Chi which given that I am a bit claustrophobic was a very stupid idea on my part. I was very relieved to come back out again I can tell you.

by irenevt

Hi Irene :) This was the only hotel on our trip that had that sign in the room so it was a novelty to me

You make me glad I didn't try the eggs! I don't have problems with claustrophobia but with slightly dodgy knees I did struggle a bit with getting down the one metre drop in such a confined space. If I'd known about it I might not have gone in, so I'm pleased in a way that I didn't know!

by ToonSarah

I see you hated wearing a face mask. I'll be back to teaching from 25th May and have to wear one all day while teaching plus while travelling to and from work. All this in 30 odd degree heat. I hate it so much, not only is it uncomfortable but it makes me sweat so much I end up with acne like a teenager despite being 54. Just got to put up with it though.

by irenevt

Yes, I found it really uncomfortable Irene - I would certainly hate to wear one all day. I'll be surprised if they bring that rule in here but I do think we may be asked to wear one on public transport.

by ToonSarah

We have this custom that when you come back to work from a trip you are suppose to bring some sweets, candies or something to everyone to taste abd I bought kind of toffee made of durian from Thailand. I can say that it wasn't big success! :D

Full albeit interesting day, can't wait to here the rest! :)

by hennaonthetrek

We used to have that custom when I worked in an office Henna. I never brought back anything flavoured with durian but there were a few that weren't exactly well-received!

by ToonSarah

Before I retired, I had to have a yearly physical that included assessing my ability to wear a respirator. Not everyone is medically fit enough to wear them. If you have lung damage or high blood pressure, you shouldn't wear one. I have a full face respirator from before I retired which I would wear when getting the winter clothes out because the mold and dust would make me sneeze so much I couldn't do anything else. I am thinking about wearing it now. It is uncomfortable but not that bad. But it looks like it belongs in a hazmat suit outfit.

Anyway the disposable respirators are pretty useless in terms of keeping a person from breathing chemicals because they can't really be fitted to your face - stuff can get in around the edges. And some chemicals are bigger than some viruses.

by greatgrandmaR

The general advice in the UK, Rosalie, is that non-medical masks don't really offer you protection but they are helpful in stopping you from spreading the virus if you have it asymptomatically

by ToonSarah

That's true. But from that POV you don't need to wear such an uncomfortable mask. You just want something that stops a sneeze or a cough from getting into the air around you. So you could just wear what my trainer called a "railroad respirator" - that is a neckerchief tied over your nose and behind your head like bandits in the old westerns wore.

Also you need to have clean hands of course.

by greatgrandmaR

A very interesting morning in Saigon (HCMC). I liked the variety of sights and like you, I think street scenes can be every bit as captivating as traditional tourist sites. The Cu Chi Tunnels are something I'd want to see, but a bit foreboding. Those traps are hideous and I pity anyone, human or animal, that fell prey to them. Thien Hau Pagoda was certainly worth the visit, and I'm glad you were able to mostly forego those masks -- I'm so tired of wearing them here at home! Great photos, Sarah!!

by starship VT

Thanks for the compliment on the photos Sylvia :) I quite agree about street scenes which is one reason I like to have some time on a trip to sit in a bar or cafe and watch the world go by (the other reason is to give me a rest from sightseeing )

by ToonSarah

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