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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 Comments (21)

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