09.03.2011 - 10.03.2011 30 °C
9th March 2011
We finally got up in time for breakfast! In fact, we were eating omelettes in a bread roll (!) at 7:30 in the morning as we were off to see the famed Cu Chi tunnels. We didn’t really feel like eating much at all at this time of the day but knew we were in for a long day. We made our way over to the tourist office and waited for our coach to arrive which it did at 8:20. After making some more passenger stops along the way, our trip started in earnest and most people were nodding off in no time at all until our effervescent tour guide grabbed the microphone and introduced himself to us in the most appalling English we’d ever heard. In fact, he may as well have been talking Vietnamese! He was a very bubbly young chap who talked incessantly and, just as we thought things couldn’t get any worse, he decided he was going to serenade us and chose Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello” to kick things off! At first we thought he was just having a joke with us but when he strained for the first few notes we knew he wasn’t... This particular rendition of such a popular song was so painful to our ears that we wanted to stick some nails down them and perforate our ear drums! He was so bad that the entire coach was wincing and laughing at the same time. Stew had tears rolling down his cheeks and a woman sitting directly behind us could hardly breathe and shrieked with laughter as every note and word was bellowed with gusto by our singing guide and we thought we would die when he screamed “Herro it me you rooking for?” at the top of his voice! It was absolutely hilarious and we were torn between wanting him to stop and wanting him to continue! He really did think he could sing and, just to prove this point, he then dived into a rendition of a popular Vietnamese ditty which provoked a similar reaction to his previous effort! Our stomachs were hurting and our faces were aching from laughing so much. When he had quit causing us so much pain he then set us some riddles to work out. Unfortunately, his English was so bad we didn’t have a clue what he was going on about! Ten out of ten for effort in keeping us entertained though! After a little while he must have sensed we were getting fed up with his constant talking and he elected to rest his larynx, no doubt saving his voice for The Gleen Gleen Glass of Home on the way back....
After driving past some lovely green scenery, vast rice paddies and through some little villages we came to our first stop – a lacquerware factory that employed disabled people who made lacquered boxes, furniture, plates, bowls, screens and pictures amongst other things. We were shown the various stages of manufacture and each one was meticulously performed. There was much rubbing down and smoothing of the object before the next stage and then more rubbing down etc. The finished products were quite beautiful and we were taken into the main warehouse where completed pieces were available for purchase.
After half an hour or so, we were back on the musical bus and on our way to the tunnels and it wasn’t too long before we were pulling into the car park, some 70km from Saigon. We all piled off and waited by some souvenir stalls for our guide to join us and we followed him down a path and stopped by a small pit. The pit walls had two small holes either side – entrances to tunnels. They were tiny!
Here he explained some things about the tunnels. There was an immense network of tunnels over 200km long and they were used by the Guerrilla forces to move around within and hide from enemy forces and proved so effective that they had enemy forces confused as to how fighters suddenly appeared seemingly from nowhere. They housed hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for the fighters as well as serving as communication and supply routes. The famous Tet Offensive was planned here in 1968. Life was hard though, our guide explained in his broken English. The tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, spiders and mosquitoes. Malaria was the biggest cause of death next to war wounds, and intestinal parasites were so common that almost one hundred percent of soldiers living in the tunnels had them at one time or another! Sometimes the Guerrilla fighters would be forced to remain in the tunnels for many days at a time because of carpet bombing operations by the US (when they tried to destroy them) or when enemy troops were scouring the area. As well as housing troops there were kitchens, tool-making rooms and weapon manufacturing workshops where Guerrillas would make landmines and other weapons from unexploded ordnance that they had retrieved.
We walked from the pit to an area of ground covered in dirt and leaves and gathered around our guide (who we nicknamed Bing!). He pointed to the ground and asked us what we could see. We saw nothing but a patch of dirt. He bent down and brushed some leaves and dirt aside and pulled open a tiny trapdoor! Inviting anyone to jump down the tiny tunnel, Stew decided to give it a go. It was very small and narrow with just enough room to bend your knees slightly and was more of a hiding hole than a tunnel.
Jen declined the invitation. From here we walked down a path through some trees and past many bomb craters to a bunker of sorts and watched a short propaganda movie on the uses of the tunnel during the conflict. After the film we walked a little further through the trees and the sound of gunfire echoed around us. Single shots followed by bursts of machine gun fire. We guessed that, for maximum effect, a soundtrack of weapons fire was being played over loudspeakers hidden in the woods to give the whole experience that authentic touch. Next we were shown some rooms with models showing how landmines and weapons were made as well as everyday tools. Even shrapnel was collected and put to use as something! Then it was time to try out a tunnel for real. We were warned that they are extremely small and narrow (but had actually been widened for tourists!) and we should not go down if we were in any way claustrophobic! We both climbed down and, torsos bent at the waist and almost crawling, we set off, our instructions were to come out at the next exit. It was incredibly hot down there and we were soaked in no time. Our legs and backs ached within seconds and we marvelled at how on earth anyone could have lived down here for so long – and these tunnels had been widened and heightened for tourists! We were very glad to find the exit and climbed up the small ladder to freedom, feeling the cool air as soon as our heads broke the surface, the sweat dripping from our red faces. We exited the tunnel and gathered with everyone else and walked to another hole in the floor. This one would be a longer crawl. We were both game and disappeared into the tiny entrance. It was quite a tricky step down to the flat part of the tunnel and Stew cracked his head as he ducked! Once again we were soaked and aching in seconds, stopping every now and then to rest our aching stomach muscles. It seemed like we were crawling forever and we began to wonder if we had missed the exit somewhere along the way! It was very dark – pitch black in places – and we and the people in front of us were using everything we had – cameras, cell phones – to create enough light ahead to see where we were going. We eventually came to the ladder and climbed to freedom, exiting into a large room.
We were in a kitchen and something was cooking! We didn’t know what it was, but we would find out before our day had ended! Once again the sounds of gunfire, crisp, brittle and brusque, filled the air and our ears as we headed further into the woods until we stopped at a destroyed US tank, minus its tracks and covered in bullet holes. From the look of the wreck whoever was in it at the time probably didn’t get to go home. It was a sobering thought. Just to the right of the tank were some models of Guerrillas and we all had a photo or two taken with them.
Bing called lunch and took us to the nearby cafe – complete with shooting range, the source of the eerie sounds of gunfire filling the woods! Here you can fire an M16 rifle, an AK-47 or an M60 machine gun – all for the price of around £1 a bullet! We opted for an ice cream each and a bottle of water! Stew tried to go and see the weapons but the gates were only opened for customers paying for bullets. After our small meal and a little look around some of the obligatory souvenir stalls attached to the cafe we were on our way to the next part of the park where we were to see some of the booby traps devised and built by the Guerrillas. They were terrible and the displays were backed by paintings depicting US army soldiers falling prey to them as they strode through the jungles. They were designed to maim rather than kill as they knew no injured soldier would be left to die and it would take at least two others to carry the injured one to safety, thereby effectively reducing the number of enemy soldiers fighting at any one time. The traps were as ingenious as they were deadly and all contained sharp spikes. The “Tiger Trap” consisted of a camouflaged trap door in the ground that swivelled in the middle. When the unsuspecting soldier stepped on it, the trap door swung downwards dropping the victim onto an array of sharp spikes sticking up from the floor some ten feet down. Rolling traps performed a similar job where rollers loaded with sharp spikes would rotate as the unwary soldier fell down the trap thus spiking his legs all the way up as he fell feet first onto the spikes below. The folding chair trap caused two sets of spikes to spring up either side of the victim, impaling him in the head, neck or upper back depending on how tall he was!
There were others and they were all very gruesome and it sickened us to realise that these traps were used on human beings. The pain from getting caught in one must have been excruciating.
We had one more tunnel to crawl down and this one was very long, so we both decided to give this one a miss but stood and waited for some of the others in our party to give it a try. There were only a couple of them! They came out of the tunnel at a room with a few large benches in and we were invited to sit down and try one of the foods that would have been served up in the tunnels during the Vietnam War. It was Tapioca root dipped in sugar, salt and ground peanuts along with herbal tea and it wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be (although we couldn’t honestly say we actually enjoyed it either!). This marked the end of our adventure and we were soon heading towards our coach via a display of dismantled unexploded ordnance and a number of souvenir stalls along the way selling all sorts of memorabilia including models of guns and planes all made from spent bullet shells, army lighters, knives, fake grenade cases and the like.
As we set off we wondered what was in store for us from our unpredictable tour guide Bing! Would he assault our poor ears with another song from his catalogue or would it be Silence is Golden?! Thankfully, as it turned out, he was pretty quiet on the way back and only grabbed the mike to ask us if we had all enjoyed the trip. He left us pretty much to admire the scenery racing past outside or to nod off. You could almost feel the collective sigh of relief...
We arrived back in town at around 3pm and we headed straight for our coffee haunt – Sojo. Much to Stew’s disappointment his little lady friend wasn’t on duty but we enjoyed our coffee and sandwich before heading back to our room. Opting for a late afternoon siesta, we both slept for a few hours (Stew more so than Jen!) before heading out in the evening for something to eat and another wander around the many shops in the area. We headed back fairly early for a quick blast on the internet and an early night.