The Cu Chi tunnels north of Ho Chi Minh are a popular tourist attraction today – but during the Vietnam War they were a link between Saigon and Cambodia that allowed the Viet Cong to covertly move supplies and personnel beneath the dense foliage that made up the battlefields surrounding the Saigon River.
I visited the tunnels this week and it was a pretty surreal experience. I can’t imagine how the American soldiers known as “Tunnel Rats” found the courage to do their jobs.
My father was a soldier in Vietnam, and to see firsthand the jungle and booby traps it held was quite sobering. I don’t mind that this place is a tourist attraction now – but a couple of things really bothered me. The first was the flippancy of other visitors. I saw parents posing their kids beside booby traps and laughing. It made me so angry I had to walk away.
The second was the propaganda by the Vietnamese government. I thought I was prepared for it after previously visiting the Hanoi Hilton and other sites in the North, but the captions on the photos that litter the designated Cu Chi tourist area are intentionally demeaning and provocative, and serve no legitimate purpose.
However, I am grateful for the opportunity to visit Cu Chi and I believe it’s a place that should be visited by Americans – especially if you had a loved one who served in Vietnam.
If you are so inclined, a good history of the Cu Chi tunnels can be read here.
This traffic, I mean — it’s a daily part of life for people who live in big cities the world over, but the motorbikes ubiquitous to Vietnam (and especially HCM) have made the traffic so much of a curiosity for foreigners that it’s practically become a tourist attraction.
In my opinion, the most authentic and surreal way to see Vietnam is by motorbike. If you get the chance to visit Vietnam and feel up for an adventure, then the first step is to make sure your medical and life insurance back home are paid up-to-date and that your policies are valid for “out of country” incidents (read the small print).
The rest is easy.
Rent a motorbike when you get here and as long as you don’t crash or fall off or do anything worse than a “near-death” experience then you will go home with some great memories and even better stories.
The rainy season in Vietnam doesn’t deter the ubiquitous motorbikes … Any guesses how many people (hint: kids included) are under the purple and yellow ponchos? And my favorite poncho of all time goes to the dude in white with red apples …