Joe and I on the Cu Chi Tunnels tour
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is unlike any city I've ever explored. This trip held a special place in my heart because my father fought in the Vietnam War. Since he was based near Saigon, I've always wanted to visit the city. Although I experienced Saigon under totally different circumstances, I kept thinking to myself, "Are these the jungles my dad trekked through and did he walk the streets I'm winding down?"

Side note: because we had a jam-packed trip, I'm splitting my blog entries about Saigon into multiple parts.

I call Ho Chi Minh City "Saigon" because the native Saigonese people say they prefer the name as a symbol of their heritage. After the Vietnam War ended and the communist North Vietnamese government took hold of South Vietnam, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City to remind the Saigonese people of their defeat. Statues and pictures of President Ho Chi Minh are all around town, which I imagine was another way to defeat the spirit of the Saigonese people.

Entrance to tunnel... barely longer than my foot!
To begin our exploration of Vietnam, we took a tour to the famed Cu Chi Tunnels. Our guide explained that when Vietnam was a French colony, the Cu Chi villagers evaded the French by digging a system of intricate tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels are made up of 250 km of tunnels, including three levels with designated kitchen bunkers, meeting rooms and hospital wards. When the Vietnam War rolled around, the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists) used the tunnels to their advantage. During the day they avoided American troops by escaping into the tunnels and came out at night to fight with guerilla tactics. Those who didn't come out to fight stayed in the tunnels for days on end. There are no lights in the tunnels and they are extremely small (the Cu Chi villagers were tiny), so it is amazing that anyone could live in the claustrophobic environment. The history is fascinating and I can't do it justice in this blog, so I encourage you to read more about the Cu Chi Tunnels here!

The Viet Cong used secret entrances (there are many of them along the tunnel system) to get in and get out of the tunnels. The entrances are tiny and it is incredible to think that people just popped in and out of them (see the video demonstration below). Our guide said we could try going into the tunnels this way, but I passed on the offer!

Inside the tunnel
Later in the tour we had a chance to crawl through the tunnels. To accommodate bigger, western tourists, the tour site created bigger entrances to the tunnels and also expanded the tunnels so we wouldn't get stuck. Once I was in the tunnel I had to hunch over to shuffle through. Some of the taller people on the tour had to crawl on their hands and knees. I don't like dark spaces, so getting through the tunnel was a little scary. Everyone kept taking photos so that the flashes from our cameras would light our path. And, with little ventilation in the tunnels, it was hot and a little difficult to breathe.

After 20m, the tour guide gave us the option of continuing through the tunnels or getting out. I chose to exit! I was impressed by a group of tourists (I think from Australia) who ventured the entire 200m of the tour tunnel! Apparently when you continue through the tunnels you hit some bottlenecks that are really small and you go further and further underground through lower levels - I can't imagine how the Australians squeezed through!

A U.S. tank that was immobilized by a land mine
There was a shooting range on the tour in which tourists could try shooting guns that were used during the Vietnam War. I have to admit, it was a little creepy hearing the loud blasts of the guns as we walked through Cu Chi - I felt like there was a war going on around me. There were several times when the grounds would go quiet, and then all of a sudden a machine gun would go off and people would jump out of their skin!

Another creepy thing was that the tour guide said although Cu Chi was combed over for any land mines that might be out in the fields, there could still be active ones hidden in the foliage. So, he asked that we stay on the walking path (and I did!).

Towards the end of the tour, we had a chance to see remnants of weapons used in the war, including a U.S. tank that was immobilized by a land mine. Notice that Joe is wearing army fatigue colors in the photo - with his shaved head he looked like he was in the military! 

The Cu Chi tour took a half day, and as you can see, it was very interesting. More to come on Saigon in Part 2 of my story. Stay tuned!

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