WithLocals Tour To The Cu Chi Tunnels
Travelling through the geographical paradise that is Vietnam, it is easy to forget of the nation’s recent turbulent past. After spending a few weeks exploring some of the country’s more picturesque locations we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and felt like we could no longer ignore the war history that affected so many people.
Cu Chi tunnels are one of the important sites from the Vietnam War (or the American war as it is known in Vietnam). Comprising of a large network of man-made underground passages they stretch for 200km through the earth. Built over 20 years and eventually housing 12’000 soldiers during the fighting it became a place of terror and despair for many people. While not somewhere you visit to admire, the tunnels are still an integral part of history and we wanted to learn about it ourselves.
Normally we are huge advocators for independent travel. But we felt we would lose so much by simply visiting the tunnels ourselves without the use of a guide. That being said we wanted to avoid the maniacal chaos that comes with being on an organised day trip, crammed into a bus with scores of other tourists.
We had recently come across the website, ‘WithLocals’, and loved the concept that the company is promoting – Sustainable tourism gained by supporting local people in various endeavours such as cooking, activities and tours. After conducting our own research we decided to use WithLocals to explore the Cu Chi tunnels and get an insider’s perspective from a typical Vietnamese person.
Meeting our affable guide, Phuong, at 8am in the lobby of our hotel we were escorted to the local bus station where we caught public transport to the location of the tunnels. Much more authentic than being thrown into a minivan full of other tourists, we were the only foreigners on the buses we caught. After riding motorcycles for 8 weeks it was nice to be using local transport again.
Unexpectedly we were given xoi man, a typical Vietnamese breakfast dish of sticky rice, sautéed vegetables, egg and shrimp. A delicious way to begin the day!
Normally the guided tours take you to only one section of the tunnels, Ben Dinh. However Phuong had decided to take us to Ben Duoc, the area further away from the city centre that receives fewer tourists. The entire day we would only come across a handful of visitors, almost all of them local Vietnamese people.
Wandering around the premises our WithLocals guide imparted her knowledge of the history of the tunnels and we discussed the cultural differences of life in Australia compared to that in Vietnam. Phuong patiently tried to teach us the nuances of the Vietnamese language, politely correcting us as we butchered the pitches and tones that are required to be understood by the locals.
The main attraction of the day was the tunnels themselves. Such detailed and meticulous work went into carving these safe havens into the ground and we were shocked when shown the tools used to create them. They were nothing more than handheld picks and small weaved baskets. The labour required to complete the tunnels was fascinatingly intense.
Crawling through the claustrophobic corridors it was haunting to imagine that in our recent past these tunnels were filled with people living in moments of sheer terror and having to habituate their lives inside the passageways. They would often go days without being able to leave to tunnels and disease was rampant throughout the army.
Having wandered through the tunnels and learnt about some of the brutal history Phuong thought we should lighten the atmosphere by going for a pleasant walk around a beautiful lake.
We meandered through the rubber and bamboo trees while we continued to get to know each other. Phuong was very open in her conversations and allowed us to gain a fascinating insight into her daily life in Vietnam. Stopping by a picturesque lookout we snacked on quail eggs and miniature Vietnamese apples.
Luckily we had brought our walking shoes as Phuong was taking great pleasure in showing us all the sights that tourists normally miss out on such as the miniature relics of famous Vietnamese buildings around the lake and the reconstruction of a typical village from wartimes. Phuong took great pleasure in answering our barrage of history questions and her unique sense of humour shined through.
Eventually we made it back to the main entrance and we took a seat in a small restaurant by the Saigon River. Quite exhausted from the day’s activities Phuong bought us fresh lemonade and coffee as refreshments before we were to head back to Ho Chi Minh City. Another great personal touch to add to the tour.
Admittedly when it came to the 1.5 hour bus ride back to town, Lesh and I slept almost the entire way. A luxury we are not afforded from the seats of our motorbikes, we relished in this mid-afternoon siesta and felt our batteries recharging.
Awaking in the city we thought our lovely day with Phuong was over, but she had other plans! Not wanting us to leave unsatisfied she escorted us to one of her favourite restaurants. Ordering us bun cha she enthusiastically showed us the best way to mix the noodles, spring rolls and vegetables. To say the meal was delicious would be huge understatement. We have eaten a lot of different foods in Vietnam but this particular meal with Phuong remains the best we have had.
Only now was it time for us to part ways with Phuong. She walked with us back to our hotel and we said our goodbyes. More than just a tour guide, we had felt a real connection. Our WithLocals experience had been amazing. Deciding to break away from our typical independent travel style had yielded worthwhile rewards.
Away from the tour groups and touts we had received welcoming hospitality. More than just helping inject tourist money directly to local communities and families, the WithLocals experience had become a memory we will take away with us and cherish.
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