I have been challenged by slightly (and completely unnecessarily) nervous potential guests on the Tunnel Rats Authors Tour to tell them what the greatest danger in Vietnam might be.
Is it the tunnels themselves? Well, we go to both sets of tunnels in Cu Chi. Most tours only go to one or the other but to get the full tunnel experience you have to go to both. The first, which we’ll call the Tourist Tunnels - because that’s where most tourists are taken – are the more authentic tunnels because they are smaller than the other tunnels.
They’ve been widened a bit to accommodate better fed Westerners (but not as much as the other tunnels) and they go down three levels and back up again. But they also have escape runs every 20 metres or thereabouts so you don’t need to worry about getting claustrophobic. However, the ‘underground’ bunkers and rooms are easily accessible by steps from the surface, which takes away a little of the magic but does make them a lot easier to get in and out of.
The other tunnels I’ll call the Pagoda Tunnels, because there is a beautiful memorial pagoda there, are wider and higher and a lot easier to negotiate. However, the only way to get to their bunker rooms (including a war planning room where you can sit at the big table with mannequins dressed as Vietcong) is via the tunnels. Even so, these are the easiest tunnels to negotiate and I would recommend them for the less mobile or slightly more anxious.
Both locations have virtually identical facilities and both have shooting ranges where you can try out an AK47 and several other guns if the mood takes you – real guns and real bullets and the range at the Tourist Tunnels is the actual rifle range that the Vietcong used to train their soldiers.
By the way, we will be travelling to both sets of tunnels, and back to Saigon by river, avoiding two long and boring road trips in and out of the city.
And speaking of roads, this brings me to my second great ‘danger’, crossing the road in the city. The problem is that there are about 12 million people in Saigon and most of them are on motorbikes (the estimate is actually about 5 million bikes). So you can spend hours standing by the side of the road waiting for a gap in the traffic that will never come.
The first time I tried to cross the road
in the centre of Saigon, an old man took me by the hand and said “the traffic is like a river – it will make way for you and flow around you.” What ca I tell you? It works and while the first couple of attempts are a bit nerve wracking, your biggest danger is that you will get back to Australia and forget that the traffic here is a lot less accommodating. As long as you don’t slow down or speed up suddenly, or stop or change direction unexpectedly, the river of Hondas will work its way around you.
No, I reckon the biggest threat to guests on the Tunnel Rats Tour are the hotels’ ‘triple threat’ breakfasts. One of the legacies of the French colonization of Indochina is their love of food and the ablilty to produce some of the best bread and pastries outside of Paris.
So every morning you will be faced with three distinct choices – French style patisseries, Asian curries and soups and a ‘traditional’ Western fry-up of eggs, bacon and sausages. By the end of the week you will have fallen in love with traditional Vietnamese noodle soup (pho) but won’t be able to resist the pain chocolat (chocolate croissant). You are just one step away from an artery clogging, excess baggage bulging, Triple Threat breakfast.
Don’t say you weren’t warned.