Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cu Chi Tunnels, War Remnants Museum and Pham Ngu Lao street

Cu Chi village became world famous when tunnels built by the North Vietnamese soldiers during during the Vietnam war were discovered. The tunnels are a maze under ground ranging about 250 KMs. It has military quarters, meeting rooms, surgical rooms and also some booby traps. Surrounding area which used to thrive proudly with dense vegetation, now only has thin and small trees, one of the effects of Agent Orange used by US forces, when the entire land became dead.

The tunnels are divided in two segments, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc. Ben Dinh is a touristy segment with tunnels specifically made for tourists, while Ben Duoc has the original tunnels and very less tourists. Bus to Cu Chi village from Saigon costs VND 7,000 and onward to Ben Duoc costs VND 6,000. Entrance ticket is VND 90,000 which includes an English-speaking guide.

My bus left Saigon and within an hour I was in the country-side. Rice fields appeared on both the sides only to be hidden by a few coconut trees or small houses.  There was a series of hammocks with a few people sleeping quietly. An odd dog would appear, trotting on the middle of the road, only to scurry away off the road to avoid the bus.
Being the only foreigner on the bus, I had no idea where to get down. But the bus conductor came to the rescue when he asked me to get down. The bus stopped exactly at the entrance of Ben Duoc site. The entrance is lined by a few small shops selling food. As I entered the site, I had a green canopy of trees to hide me from strong afternoon sun, a sign that effects of agent orange are receding now and the earth is coming back to life again!
A clear tar road led me to the tunnels entrance and I caught the first glimpses of remnants from war. Guns, Missiles and Bomb shells.

Blast from the past

Remnants
At ticket checking counter a few guides in Khakee were relaxing. A friendly guide approached with a smile and asked me to read the rules first, which included warnings for patients with heart diseases or bad physical conditions. As we entered the forest, the guide started explaining history about the Vietnam war and led me to a small shed with a few chairs and TV in the center. He asked me to sit down and started a black and white video recorded in 70s. It was a typical propaganda video, explaining how the Americans destroyed once prospering town of Cu Chi.

Guide explaining the model of the underground tunnels
As the video got over, I was joined by two Japanese students. Our guide led three of us further inside the forest, stopping to show a few bomb craters created by B52, an original entrance of tunnel and a death trap created for the enemy with bamboo.
A Bomb crater
The Japanese guy trying to fit in the original tunnel entrance

A death trap made from Bamboo
Entering the actual tunnels gave a different perspective the Vietnamese people. It showed the struggle they went through and the perseverance they showed. With only hand tools they created a circle of life underground. And it was not just the physical work. It involved detailed plan and brain power. It allowed Vietnamese to attack the enemy from anywhere they wanted and disappear within a blink of an eye. The tunnels had escape plans and well positioned booby traps. Three levels: First, a larger one to be used when enemy is not bombing the field, second a smaller, you can't stand straight in it and third, made for massive bombing, where you can only crawl.
Our guide asked us to go through one small tunnel and to meet him outside, warning that, in case if we miss the first turn, we may never see each other again. As we started the crawl, bats started taking off at our approach and soon, our thighs began to hurt. Living inside became unthinkable!

A surgical room

Tactical meeting room (it had booby traps on all corners)

A booby trap inside

A tunnel

To give you perspective about the size
Coming out, we were offered a snack, Sweet potato like root with crushed peanuts, daily food for the soldiers during war. With an empty belly, the root tasted like heaven!

Our snack
As I bid farewell to my guide, I was approached by a huge group of Vietnamese tourists, which looked like a family who might have come there to enjoy the weekend. I had to take a photo with everyone before they finally let me go!

I left the place, with a new respect for the Vietnam and its folks.

The next morning, I went to the War Remnants museum (Entrance fees: VND 15,000). The museum hosts a few choppers, jets, tanks, missiles and other arms used during the war. But the main attraction are the photos inside, taken by various photographers in the battlefield. Many of these did not survive the war and there are a few sections dedicated to those who contributed the most.
The pictures present not only the brutality of the war and its effect on common people, but also life of the soldiers on both the sides. It shows the sorrow in the eyes of kids and a mother, pictures of villagers just before being shot, American soldiers wounded during the war, condemnation of war by the world and still a seemingly never-ending war.
Museum left a few chills on my nerve and my walk back to hostel was dazed.
A tank used during the war

A career/transportation plane

A war remnant

War posters

War posters/photos

Condemnation of war

Comparison of Vietnam war with other wars, quite unbelievable!
Pham Ngu Lao street is probably the most happening street in Saigon. Its full of restaurants and pubs, lined on each side. Backpackers and locals, alike, flock the street. And there are street food sellers and hawkers. Smell of beer, tobacco and marijuana is always in the air. As I sat there with a Korean friend enjoying a mug of local drought beer, at least a dozen vendors came to us asking to buy something, an offer, which we always so graciously declined. Backpackers passed by, searching for their hostels or hotels. A few Germans sat behind, cheering with each mug of beer. And there were always at least a few dozen moto-bikes.
The atmosphere was something very close to celebrations!





3 comments:

  1. Very well written. Keep it up man:)
    Best wishes :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. well done .. you should also write more about what you ate, your experience with it and also the cost ..(like you have given for the entrance fees .. when you will see this many many years later, the prices will seem ridiculous)
    PS - beer cannot be used for gargling after a meal .. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nice one Aniket. Do share more about people you meet, as well.

    ReplyDelete