Cu Chi Tunnels By Public Bus
The Cu Chi Tunnels, a dark and claustrophobic 250km underground network that helped the Viet Cong hide from the Americans during the last war in Vietnam, is a site that just about every visitor to Ho Chi Minh City seems to want to see.
Naturally, I had to include it in the guidebook I’ve been working on.
I’d been to the tunnels before, way back in 2007 when I was in Vietnam as a tourist. From all reports, not much has changed, and so I thought I wouldn’t need to visit the place again, even though the last version of the guidebook was published in 2003. The tunnels are technically part of Ho Chi Minh City, but it takes an hour and a half to drive there from downtown.
Way back in 2003, when my predecessor was writing the Ho Chi Minh City chapter of the guidebook, no one saw fit to include a phone number for the tunnels. Or a website, if such a thing existed back then.
And do you think I could find either information online? Nope. Not in any language.
So one sunny Saturday morning, Miss M and I walked to our local bus stop for the full budget experience, getting to the Cu Chi Tunnels by public bus. (To collect a phone number.)
It took us about 40 minutes to get to the bus station opposite the Ben Thanh Market, where the correct bus was supposed to leave from. But once we got there we were told the new bus route, which started operating in November 2014, left from the bus station in the middle of the September 23 park in Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacker district.
Walking to the bus stop, at a five-year-old’s pace, took a very long time. But we arrived just before the number 13 bus was due to leave. An hour and a half later we arrived at the Cu Chi bus station.
Outlay to this point: VND6,000 for the bus to the city; VND14,000 for two tickets to Cu Chi (not sure why Miss M was free on one trip and not the other). So far, easy on the pocket.
I had conflicting information on which bus to take next, and I wanted to visit both Cu Chi Tunnel sites (yes, there are two!) So I decided to get a xe om to take us around. The best I could negotiate was VND350,000 to take us the 30 minutes to the Ben Duoc (pronounced Ben YOOK) site, wait an hour, then take us the 30 minutes to the Ben Dinh site, wait and hour, then take us the 30 minutes back to the bus station. The xe om driver assured us that he usually charged VND300,000 to take people to one site, wait, and then return them to the bus station.
It was a good deal, he assured me.
We took it. Five minutes later, Miss M fell asleep. And after another 25 minutes we arrived at Ben Duoc, the site I hadn’t been to before.
It was lovely, with green lawns and trees surrounding the Temple of the Matyrs near the entrance, clean and tidy jungle on the left side, and a firing range off to the right, out of view and almost out of earshot.
We arrived at the tunnel part of the complex at 12.40pm and were told that all the guides were having lunch. I tried to tell the attendant that we just wanted to see one tunnel, then grab some lunch ourselves, and leave. But we were ordered to sit in the hut where the explanatory film was being shown.
After about 15 minutes a guide appeared and grumpily ordered the assembled tourists to follow him. As we approached the first stop, he turned to me and said “madam, no.”
“You cannot go in this tunnel,” he said. “Girl can go,” he said, pointing to Miss M. “Not you.”
I didn’t want to go into the stupid tunnel anyway, thank you very much.
Miss M did, however, and a lovely Vietnamese couple offered to take her through.
We were ushered to a couple of exhibits in open-sided huts, then told to sit at a table, where a bowl of boiled tapioca strips was plonked in front of us, with a crushed peanut dip. The guide then vanished.
After a polite amount of time, so did we. The long wait and the perfunctory tour had taken more than an hour and I didn’t want our xe om driver to demand any more money because we had kept him waiting too long.
But we also had to eat. I did not want a hangry tantrum ruining our day. There was a nice-looking restaurant onsite, right next to the river and the tennis courts (because every underground tunnel tourist attraction needs tennis courts, right?). But I thought that would take too long, so Miss M and I shared a bowl of instant noodles at the cafe on the other side of the tennis facilities.
Then we leapt back on our motorbike taxi and zoomed off to the Ben Dinh site, the one I visited in 2007, where all the group tours go.
It was much as I remembered, although I think the mechanised mannequins that display the Southern Vietnamese bomb-making techniques had been upgraded. The firing range was still right next to the souvenir shop, a compulsory stop on the tour. The noise was deafening and we hurried away as fast as we could. (M16 bullets are VND30,000 each and AK47 bullets are VND40,000 each.)
Miss M and I had a guide to ourselves, and he was incredibly lovely, soooo much nicer than the previous one. He took us through not one, but FOUR tunnels. These tunnels have been enlarged for big-sized tourists but they are still very small. Miss M strolled through them easily. I, on the other hand, was in a full crouch, holding my very large daypack in front of me, waddling along very uncomfortably, tripping over the daypack straps every second step. It was not a pleasant experience, and my legs were sore for days afterwards. I also hit my head hard in one part, when I misjudged where the extra-low part of the tunnel ended.
The guide offered to take us through more tunnels, but I’d had enough. Miss M, to her credit, didn’t sulk. Then it was another round of boiled tapioca (which is not very nice), some tea, a quick chat, and then back on the bike again.
We puttered into the Cu Chi bus station just as a number 13 bus was starting to pull out. Our xe om driver flagged it down, and we boarded — only to find it was standing room only. I must have looked a bit stressed about 1.5 hours of Miss M management standing up because a young guy gave her his seat. I was very very grateful.
Off we set. The bus stopping every 200 meters to pick up more passengers. Each time the bus stopped I thought no more people could squeeze onto the bus, but each time more people did. Some with large heavy sacks.
Still more people boarded the bus. Including a very drunk guy, who leaned against me in a very inappropriate manner.
After nearly an hour, it suddenly occurred to me that I could sit down with Miss M on my lap and we’d take up less room than the current arrangement, which was getting tiring.
After another hour, progressing slowly through heavy traffic, enough people had gotten off the bus for the drunk guy to sit down in front of us.
And about two-and-a-half hours after we left the Cu Chi bus station, we finally arrived back in the backpacker district.
bus tickets: VND34,000
xe om: VND350,000 (for both of us, on the back of one bike)
entry fees (if you visit both sites, you have to pay twice): VND180,000
Total: VND564,000 or $26.
Plus lunch and the taxi ride home (because neither of us could handle another bus by the time we got back to the September 23 Park in the backpacker district).
We had set out at around 9.30am and arrived back home at 6.30pm, very tired.
Guess how much a half-day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels costs? They’re as cheap as $4, excluding the tunnel entrance fee. Gah!
You can book onto one of these super-cheap tours at any of the travel agents in the backpacker district. At the end of our very long day, the cheap tour option seemed like a better idea.
However, even though our day was more expensive and longer than the budget tour (which is really just a bus directly to the site, rather than a tour), we did get to see the much prettier Ben Duoc site, rather than just Ben Dinh.
AND we managed to collect a brochure with the web address and phone numbers on it — score!
For the record, the Cu Chi Tunnels website is here and the phone number for the Ben Duoc Tunnels is (08) 37948 820 and the phone number for the Ben Dinh Tunnels is (08) 3794 6442.
Visiting the Ben Duoc site without the expensive xe om leg of the journey is much easier than visiting the Ben Dinh site. Once at the Cu Chi bus station, you can get the number 79 bus to the entrance of the Ben Duoc Tunnel.
Taking a bus to the Ben Dinh Tunnel site is tricker. You need to take the number 13 bus from September 23 park in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 to the An Suong bus station. There you need to get the 122 bus to Tan Quy bus station, then the number 70 bus to the Ben Dinh Tunnel. (Did I mention that Ben Duoc is the nicer site?)
If you do decide to go by bus, don’t arrive between 12pm and 1pm, the official tour guide lunchtime. Or if you do, stop in at the Dia Dao restaurant (Nha Hang Dia Dao) at the entrance to the Ben Duoc site before going in. Hopefully, you’ll get a nicer tour guide, which is included in the VND90,000 admission price, than the one we got. )
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2 years ago