Hồ Chí Minh City, Notre Dame & Củ Chi Tunnels
Six hours on two minibuses saw our group pull up to our hotel in Hồ Chí Minh City, known by the locals as Sài Gòn. It seemed bizarre that Christmas decorations were being put up, not only because it was December 2nd, but because it was 25°C in the shade. It was lovely of the locals to try and make the tourists feel at home, though, and I appreciated it. Christmas is my favourite time of year, and this trip meant missing the build-up, as I’d be arriving back in Heathrow on December 24th.
Anyone who has been to Southeast Asia will know that 99% of travel is done on motorbikes. We’d already experienced that in large doses in Cambodia, but nothing could prepare us for the sheer number of motorcyclists or the complexity of junctions in Hồ Chí Minh City. There’s a trick that my brother, Sterling, taught me; “To cross the road, just walk. Look down at your feet and walk. Motorbikes will zip past in front of and behind you, but don’t break stride.” And it worked. The riders judge where you’re going to be by the time they’re level with you, so they’re able to dodge you. Scary stuff, nonetheless.
During our time exploring, we took in the Hồ Chí Minh City Opera House, traceurs practising Parkour in the park playground, fitness classes utilising castanets, and finally, the jewel: Công xã Paris (Paris Commune) complete with its own version of the Notre Dame de Paris; the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. Finished in the late 19th century, it stands at nearly 200 feet tall, and in the middle of the thriving metropolis, looks a little out of place. After a mental reminder that I wasn’t back in Eastern Europe, we had a brief look around and went for some of our new favourite food; Phở.
After a night out with much shisha smoking (a personal love of mine), it was time to sleep, for the next day would bring with it the famed Củ Chi Tunnels. But first, the war in a nutshell. For around fifteen years, North Vietnam (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) fought with South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam). The Americans supported the south until 1973, when they withdrew their forces. South Vietnam surrendered two years later, rendering the US’s efforts useless. America had just faced their largest defeat in history; politically and socially.
The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong guerrillas as hideouts, and were their operations base for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The whole forest is riddled with booby traps: huge centrally-pivoted planks in the ground (that, if stepped on, would send the victim falling ten feet onto rusted metal spikes), mines that have not yet been detonated, and other gruesome ways to meet your end. Amid the pitfalls are secret entrances to the three-storey tunnel system. Amazingly, these, along with the tunnels, have been widened to over twice their original size.
Our incredibly stout, plump, straight-faced, dry-humoured guide, Fat Man Hi (“If you need me, shout ‘Hi, Fat Man'”) informed us that the tunnels were made very narrow so the “fat Americans” could not fit. Still, it was amazing to think that, with the heavy combat gear, rifle, machine gun, radio, hand grenades, gas mask, rations and a torch, anyone could squeeze themselves in. We were shown tanks, weaponry and rather creepy mannequins portraying the day-to-day lives of the soldiers. (“This soldier flirt with this girl. But she a virgin. ‘Virgin’ is when you don’t know how big the banana is.”)
Then came the inevitable. We were offered the chance to crawl just over 100 metres through the original tunnels. I suffer relatively badly from claustrophobia, sometimes to the point where I can’t breathe if I’m pulling a jumper over my head and it gets stuck. But I was determined to give it a go, so the photo below is not an accurate representation of what was running through my mind by any means. Please permit me to remind you that these tunnels have been widened twofold…
Once out of the tunnels and back into sweet, fresh air, it was time to leave yet another fascinating place. Our guide had made the day for us. Pictures are one thing, but once one visits these places so full of history, coupled with a local’s view, a much more realistic picture is engrained in the imagination.
That night, we were to take our first overnight train to the city of Nha Trang…