We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City - (commonly known as Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam and the former capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) on Saturday 19th. The bus journey from Mui Ne was only about 5 hours. We arrived around 7pm. We were shattered so checked in the hotel and went straight to bed!
On Sunday we spent the day wondering around the city. We got really fed up of constantly being hassled to buy stuff (books, sunglasses, hammocks, purses, cyclo rides, the list goes on!) so we chilled at the hotel for the afternoon. We found a small restaurant that sold a Sunday Roast so after chilling in the hotel we headed there about 6pm and had an amazing dinner, everything was perfect apart from the Yorkshire pod. We stayed out and had a few drinks, chatting to people and watching the hustle and bustle of this crazy city!
Monday 21st we did a tour to the Chu Chi Tunnels; (a 2 hour drive from HCMC) an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, through which they secured American withdrawal from Vietnam and ultimate military success.
American soldiers used the term "Black echo" to describe the conditions within the tunnels. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, guerrillas would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. A captured Viet Cong report suggests that at any given time half of a PLAF unit had malaria and that "one-hundred percent had intestinal parasites of significance.
The tunnels of Củ Chi did not go completely unnoticed by U.S. officials. They recognized the advantages that the Viet Cong held with the tunnels, and accordingly launched several major campaigns to search out and destroy the tunnel system.
Operation Crimp began on January 7, 1966, with B-52 bombers dropping 30-ton loads of high explosive onto the region of Củ Chi, effectively turning the once lush jungle into a pockmarked moonscape. Eight thousand troops from the U.S combed the region looking for any clues of PLAF activity. The operation was, for the most part, unsuccessful. On the occasion when troops found a tunnel, they would often underestimate its size. Rarely would anyone be sent in to search the tunnels, as it was so hazardous. The tunnels were often rigged with explosive booby traps or punji stake pits. The two main responses in dealing with a tunnel opening were to flush the entrance with gas or water to force the guerrillas into the open, or to toss a few grenades down the hole and "crimp" off the opening. The clever design of the tunnels along with the strategic use of trap doors and air filtration systems rendered American technology ineffective.
However, an Australian specialist engineering troop did venture into the tunnels which they searched exhaustively for four days, finding ammunition, radio equipment, medical supplies and food as well as signs of considerable Viet Cong presence. One of their numbers died when he became trapped in a tunnel that turned out to be a dead end. However the Australians pressed on and revealed, for the first time, the immense military significance of the tunnels.
From its mistakes, and the Australians' discoveries, U.S. command realized that they needed a new way to approach the dilemma of the tunnels. A general order was issued by the Allied Forces Commander in South Vietnam, to all Allied forces that tunnels had to be properly searched whenever they were discovered. They began training an elite group of volunteers in the art of tunnel warfare, armed only with a gun, a knife, a flashlight and a piece of string. These specialists, commonly known as "tunnel rats", would enter a tunnel by themselves and travel inch-by-inch cautiously looking ahead for booby traps or cornered PLAF. There was no real doctrine for this approach and despite some very hard work in some sectors of the Army and MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) to provide some sort of training and resources, this was primarily a new approach that the units trained, equipped and planned for themselves.
Despite this revamped effort at fighting the enemy on its own terms, U.S. operations remained largely unsuccessful at eliminating the tunnels. By 1969, B-52s were freed from bombing North Vietnam and started "carpet bombing" Củ Chi and the rest of the Iron Triangle. Ultimately it proved successful but futile. Towards the end of the war, the tunnels were so heavily bombed that some portions actually caved in and other sections were exposed. But by that time, they had succeeded in protecting the local guerrilla units in "surviving to fight another day".
Throughout the course of the war, the tunnels in and around Củ Chi proved to be a source of frustration for the U.S. military in Saigon. The Viet Cong had been so well entrenched in the area by 1965 that they were in the unique position of locally being able to control where and when battles would take place. By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels of Củ Chi allowed guerrilla fighters in their area of South Vietnam to survive, help prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972, and the final defeat of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975.
The 75-mile (121 km)-long complex of tunnels at Củ Chi has been preserved by the government of Vietnam, and turned into a war memorial park. The tunnels are a popular tourist attraction, and visitors are invited to crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system. Some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists, while low-power lights have been installed in several of them to make traveling through them easier and booby traps have been clearly marked. Underground conference rooms where campaigns such as the Tết Offensive were planned in 1968 have been restored, and visitors may enjoy a simple meal of food that Viet Cong fighters would have eaten.
We also had the chance to fire an AK-47. Joe did want to fire an M-16 (I think he wanted to feel like he was in COD!) but with the bullets costing $1 each and a minimum of 10 had to be bought we decided to shoot 5 bullets each in the AK-47. It was very noisy but fun! I'm glad the gun was attached to the fence as it had so much recoil!
Joe did go inside the tunnels, (I opted out after the mines in Bolivia!) the parts he went in weren't very long but were very small (and they've been made bigger!) The tour finished and we had a 2 hour drive back to HCMC, we grabbed some food and chilled in the hotel.
Tuesday 22nd, we went on a tour of the Mekong Delta (the region in south-western Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the sea through a network of distributaries. The Mekong delta region encompasses a large portion of south-western Vietnam of 39,000 square kilometres (15,000 sq. mi). The size of the area covered by water depends on the season. Water for baths, washing and drinking comes from the River itself but that is also where you dump your waste so I don't know how healthy it is to drink.
Another 2 hour journey on a bus (we're getting a sick of buses now!) and we arrived at the Mekong Delta. We transferred onto a little boat and sailed across to visit a coconut candy factory! We sampled some coconut sweets and some snake wine! Then we got onto a smaller boat where we stopped for lunch. Our hotel had sold us this trip by saying it had the best lunch. (This company was $10 more than the one we'd originally chosen) Lunch was a big fish - known as elephant ear as it supposedly looks like an elephant's ear (?!?) It reminded me of a piranha! It was cooked whole and looked like it was covered in maggots (see pics!) I didn't eat much! We had a bit of time to cycle around (we did but soon went back as my bike had no brakes!) before getting back on the boat to a honey bee factory. Here we sampled some honey tea and banana wine. Next stop was a tropical fruit farm - self-explanatory really; we tried some different fruits. Quite ready to we headed back to the main port to get the bus back to HCMC!