Rockin’ It From the Cu Chi Tunnels to the Mekong Delta (A Recap of A 12 Hour Tour)

August 4, 2017.  Dateline: Saigon.

I left my airbnb to walk down to the tourist office at 5:45 AM. I was supposed to be there for 7:30 but I wanted to err on the side of caution given yesterday’s tour debacle. Besides, I wanted to see the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon…  and with a minor detour that was easily achieved by walking.

If one ever needed evidence of French influence and impact on Vietnam, one need only consider this dramatic architectural tribute in downtown Saigon. But as is typical of my sightseeing in any country, almost every point of interest seems to be undergoing renovation/refurbishment/preservation/construction when I finally go to see it in person. So Notre Dame Vietnam was not surprisingly under construction and blocked off to visitors… though it was still open for services and if I was so inclined to endure the religious spiels I could have gone in at appointed hours and legitimately said a little prayer for friends and family. But I didn’t so here’s my shout out to the gang — wishing you all health and happiness and good times ahead.

When I arrived at the tourist office, I was far too early; they weren’t even open yet and so I wandered about snapping a few pics of the area. Here is yet another example of my kinship to Homer Simpson – we both have had our images appropriated for Asian advertisements. While Homer J. thought he was the inspiration for Mr. Sparkle, there is little doubt in my mind that I’m the basis for Mr. Phat’s Dumpling House.

What can I say?  Strange things are afoot at the Saigon Circle Ks.

As 7:30 rolled around, my guide Tony introduced himself and our driver for the day, Mr. Minh (“The city is named after him!” Tony would say). It was a 15 passenger large mini-bus and I assumed we’d be making a variety of stops at hotels in District 1 (pickups and drop offs were included in this district… my AirBNB was in District 3 so that’s why I hoofed it downtown). I chatted with Tony. I’m always impressed with folks who can speak multiple languages and so when there is a bit of a breakdown in understanding I try and be understanding. I also try and break down my wording to smaller conceptual words that might be more common vocabulary. I always think of my brother telling me a story during his studies in Japan. I’m sure I’ve written about this before but what the hell? It bears repeating. Steve’s a Classical Japanese literature scholar and therefore knows Classical Japanese. When a neighbor’s burglar alarm kept going off night after night, Steve finally decided to call the local prefecture’s police station at 3 am. Unable to find the Japanese words for “burglar alarm” he tried to explain that there was “a noise when the bad people come.” The police, thinking they were speaking to a three year old because of the rudimentary Japanese words, praised Steve for being a good boy and speaking so well! Steve was trying to be polite but really just wanted the bleeping beeping by burglar alarm turned off!

Anyway, whenever we ran into language barriers, I tried to “thing explainer” it by restating my questions or comments with smaller conceptual English words. As my Vietnamese is nonexistent it seemed easier than Tony trying to use small Vietnamese words to make me understand! I’m embarrassed at my lack of language skills but…

I gathered Tony also has a coffee kiosk and a restaurant, the latter called GUSTO! He opened it with his Italian teacher named Franco. Franco brought a dough machine from Italy to make bread, pastas, etc… and they’ve been so successful that they expanded into another district. They therefore needed more dough machines. They sent their machine to china and within a week, three exact knock off copies were delivered. His point was that China is great at copying! They are however a problem for Vietnam because they want all the sea islands… same for Japan. And there are rising tensions. I was aware of the island disputes but didn’t realize Vietnam and others were also laying claims. It’s gonna be a tough 21st Century… an odd thing to think about when the horrors of war still show their scars not just here in Vietnam but everywhere.

Getting back to the tour itself, it turned out we only made one stop to pick up a couple from Australia — Tom was a Melbourne fire fighter and his partner Kate was a British ex-pat who’d lived in Australia since 2008. They were delightful tour companions… and a good thing too as with only three guests and two guides, it could’ve been really awkward. As it was, it made for a virtual private tour of the places we visited.

And what places we went. What places we saw.


On the first 40-50 KM drive out to Cu Chi, Tony gave us a bit of background. Here are a few bullet points I scribbled down. Take note: while a great guy, I sometimes wasn’t sure if Tony was pulling my leg, as when he said HCMC was named after the driver… or that we’d be going by motorbike not motorcoach… or that when we cruised the waters it was Kate’s job to capture 4 crocodiles for us to ride back to shore. Most were obvious “jokes” but there’s a danger to an overly jokey tour guide — you begin to question the validity of some of the facts and figures. And while Tony’s English was pretty good, we would occasionally stumble into miscommunications and misunderstandings of what was asked/what was said. So most of this is probably true and accurate but then again is anything ever true and accurate?

Anyway, here goes:

  • Saigon is still what the locals call the town. It’s been that way for time immemorial and only changed to Ho Chi Minh City after the reunification celebrations of the 1970s.
  • The Mekong River goes through seven or eight countries and in Vietnam it winds us way to various sections wherein the river takes on a local name even though it’s part and parcel of the Mekong (such as the Saigon River in HCMC).
  • There were two million people in 1970s Saigon; there are nine million now… although maybe that’s how many scooters are on the roads. I wasn’t entirely sure at that stage.
  • Vietnam is in its rainy season and thus is a low for tourism. The rains are good for farmers though as they’re getting ready to harvest their rice crops at the end of August; they’ll do a second harvest at the end of December.
  • We passed the reunification palace, rechristened in the 1970s. Prior to that time it was the Nodoro (check spelling), a large place the French built during the colonial times to serve as Administrative HQ for “Indochina.”
  • 54 cultures intermix Vietnam. The majority of mixtures are up north, while South Vietnam is mostly French and American with just a few other influences.
  • When I mentioned I was off to run a marathon a bit more northeast, tong told me Danang is very beautiful; he said it’s the dream of many Vietnamese to move to and/or retire to DaNang.
  • As we passed another church, Tong said that Vietnam today (or maybe just Saigon?) is 35% catholic. Pre 1975, the majority (75%) were Buddhist. Today, that number has dropped to 50%, with the majority of the shift to Catholicism. Then there’s 10% Hindu and 5% is I think he said Cal Dai? I hadn’t heard of that one so I’ll need to google it.
  • It’s a $29 bus ticket to Cambodia, a did hour ride. Alternatively, it’s a 20 hour boat ride using the putt-puttering craft we took on the Mekong River later on the day.


Traffic headed in to Saigon was a standing gridlock with scooters flying here there and everywhere jockeying for a few inches of forward progress. It was “traffic-light-to-traffic-light” standstill. But as we were headed out of the city, we had a lot less stop and go… but plenty of ducking and weaving scooters. Once outside the city limits and into the countryside, rice paddies stretched far and wide, factories cropped up, and roadways became more pothole off-road than highway smooth.

I dressed in jeans under the rationale that if we were going to be traipsing through he countryside I wanted to have a bit more protection from bugs and brush. But man is it hot. And humid! I finally cracked the figurative language to describe what it’s like — it’s like trying to breathe through a wet sponge. And walking around, it’s as if you are wearing a Dave Letterman sponge suit. Still, there was a strategy for jeans … but it was a flawed strategy. I think there may have been an alternate take from Princess Bride that warned me of this–

You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – the most famous of which is “never wear jeans when involved in a land tour in Asia” – but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line”! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha…


A rest stop at a tchotchkes factory provided the worst superhero duo imaginable…


The Cu Chi Tunnels were amazing and clever and terrifying and sad and wasteful and a gamut of emotions, most of which dovetailed with the belief that war is hell.

In order to evade bombing runs and deforestation clearings, the VC dig an elaborate underground city that would make an ant colony jealous over its ingenuity. Because of their nutritional shortcomings, the VC were generally smaller in build than the GIs who fought them. Thus the Tunnels were designed to be tight fits for the locals and downright impenetrable to the bigger frame and broader shoulders of the US forces. Some Tunnels were built to be large enough to entice US enlisted men but then they’d narrow of head into a booby trap, ensnaring or killing any unwanted intruders. The horrors of war were cheerfully demonstrated in a Colonial Williamsburg style exhibit, uniformed soldiers using bamboo sticks to trigger various booby traps. I didn’t take photos… nor did I take a lot otherwise as it was a bizarre sensation to be touring a war zone/death trap.

I did shimmy into an access hole. It’s something one does here and it was assuredly a tight squeeze. I can’t imagine trying to maneuver from there… nor what it was like as a US GI on a mission to survive Cu Chi.

At the war remnants museum there was a photo of this area promoting Vietnam at peace…

I couldn’t bring myself to smile gaily as I rose through the tunnel.  I wouldn’t say it was fun but it was educational. And it felt important.

We explored a few other points of interest in the park. Found a bat hanging out in one of the Tunnels I was able to squeeze my body down into.

There’s also a tunnel, slightly expanded from its day, that runs 100 meters and lets you crawl through for simulated experience of Cu Chi life underground. There were exits every 20 meters and I was pretty sure my claustrophobia and just general creep factor would kick in.  And yet, I was able to shimmy, crawl, slide, and scrape my way through. That the VC endured and thrived in these Tunnels was astonishing. The Tunnels were originally employed in the 40s and then expanded in the 60s with the arrival of “US advisors.”

I scraped my arms and in crab walking, squatting, and clawing my way through my quads and back were killing me… and that was just 100 meters! My shirt and jeans were soaked with perspiration and I felt like a human sponge.


While we walked through the jungle, adding to the surreal unease of living history tourism, the gunrange firing echoed through the trees. At the end of the road, it seemed like I should spend the 550,000 dong for ten bullets.

Still not sure how I feel about having fired a machine gun in the Vietnam jungle “for fun.” But when in Vietnam….

I’m not sure even what to write here. It was a bizarre experience. Tom and Kate said I “must be comfortable around guns, seeing as how [I’m] an American…”. This is how we are perceived. I told them my story about the one time I went to a gun range. I was running late and the two exceedingly pretty girls I was meeting were already there and getting trained/instructed. The guy behind the counter took one look at me and made the choice any guy would’ve given two hot girls standing before him. He said, “you’re a guy, you’all be fine.” He then turned his attention back to the ladies. Safety first, kids! Unless pretty girls are there – then it’s every man for himself!

I wish the Aussies had gotten a better pic of me (I got great ones of them if I do say so myself) but when I made one Black and white it looked ok-ish. I never like how I look anyway so whatever.


On the way out of the park, a kiosk selling souvenirs and wares had samples of “snake wine.” Tony told us it was a local thing, that the snake venom is poisonous for a year but after that it’s safe. It has quite a kick and supposedly then various medicinal purposes – strength, long life, a cure for aches and pains, etc.

It was quite literally snake oil.

But recalling my rules of travel, I gulped a not-even-a-shot-glass sized sample. It tasted like cough medicine that had gone off. I sincerely hope they didn’t mess up their stock.

“Say, Is this snake wine crate the ones with the July 2016 vintage or the August 2016 ones?”

Shrugs. Close enough.


Leaving the park, we set out on a two hour drive to the Mekong River docks for the second half of the day’s tours.

I’ll get to the boats soon enough as I want to group the various ins and outs in one go. Let me first just say a quick word on lunch – it was a massive spread for three people.. especially given that Kate’s a vegetarian. I was a little worried as we started that she couldn’t have much. But as more and more dishes arrived, well, we were just fine. I stuffed myself silly.


I’m not sure how to describe the Mekong River experiences. They were like something out of Apocalypse Now by way of Disney’s Jungle Cruise. The boats were a highlight of the trip and I’ll let the photos speak for themselves as much as possible. I don’t generally shoot video as I’m a particularly poor videographer and editor. Worse even than photojournalist and writer! But I did take a few vids that I think might be worth a quick look so I’ll toss those in as well.


More food, more songs sung, more boats. By the time our bus got us back to Saigon, it had been a full 12 hours.

I bid adieu to my new Aussie friends, promising to forward a few of the photos I snapped of them when their GoPro conked out on them. And as I walked through the night air of Saigon, back to my airbnb to pack for the morning flight to Da Nang, I reflected on lives lost and lives lived, on past and present and future lessons learned and ignored and learned again. I thought of–

For crying out loud, scooter driver! I’m walking here! I’m walking here!

Screw it. I’m having a banh mi from a street vendor.

There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story really is a confession, then so is mine.

–Apocalypse Now (1979)