I’m not normally one who looks for active tours, let alone actually doing them. The last time my body saw the inside of a gym or indeed perspired due to physical exercise was a very, very long time ago. I really wanted to see the Cu Chi Tunnels during my time in Ho Chi Minh City, but shied away from making a booking with an ordinary operator in fear of actually being mistaken for a sardine packed in a can on its way to market, which is generally how these average tours are put together. Large numbers of tourists all shoved into a coach for the long road to the tunnels, a whirlwind tour of the site, tricked into buying an old bullet from the gift shop, and back on the coach to the city.
Having come across the Indotrek itineraries which showed to give the traveler much more freedom, room to breathe and above all, have the opportunity to see the tunnels properly and see some of the surrounding countryside, I decided to go for it. My mind certainly rejoiced at this but my aforementioned inner slob was in full-on protest, though easily bribed with the promise of a beer at the end of it all.
Real local interactions
The day started early and in a spacious premium van, we made our way to the outskirts of the city, some 20 kilometers away from the tunnels. We were certainly off to a good start as I suddenly realized the absence of endless beeping of city motorbikes and the lack of people around me. Nothing but lush-green tropical countryside and sleepy villages. Lakes and ponds screaming for your attention as they flaunt their sparkling surfaces against a perfectly blue sky. In the distance, local folk attending to their rice fields donning the iconic Vietnamese conical hats, bobbing up and down as they plucked the precious grain from the earth. The setting was perfect for a day on two wheels.
While winding along the narrow country paths, our guide helped us to understand the local area a bit more by explaining what crops are grown, what produce is shipped off to the city and what people get up to after finishing their chores for the day. These words were anchored in our minds when seeing the wide seraphic smiles and welcoming warmth of the locals along the way. Towards the end of the cycle tour, we had to cross a river using a local ferry. This point in the itinerary particularly stands out in my mind as the related emotions of an epiphany coursed through my veins. The natural scenery that the river is blessed with is breathtaking. It was like something out of a travel magazine. Many a time have I seen these stunning photographs in popular publications, only to stand by the belief that they simply have to be photoshopped. Nowhere is that perfectly beautiful. It just can’t be! Well, the wild, undisturbed, natural beauty of this river, has put a stop to such modern beliefs. Such places do exist, and I am forever grateful for experiencing that moment.
surprisingly quiet rural trails with stops along the way
By this point in the day, my coach-potato spirit actually began to warm to such activities. It was nowhere near as tiring as I had previously thought. The bikes were all adjusted to everyone’s height accordingly, making the pedaling that much easier. The pace at which our friendly and professional guide was going, was also a ‘one-size-fits-all’. No one lagged behind and no one was overly exhausted. Dare I think that this could possibly be the start of a new-found interest?
The author enjoying the ride
We reached the Cu Chi Tunnels. Finally, I got to see the place I wanted to visit for such a long time. All the books, stories and televised documentaries in the world aren’t enough to truly see what the environment was like with your very own eyes. Crouching down as far as you can and tiptoeing along the narrowest of dark tunnels with hardly any air to breathe, only for a few short minutes, was unendurable. How those brave fighters did it for so long and how they must have felt, can only be imagined. The Cu Chi Tunnels is an area that most definitely is a place of incredible history, which shows you first-hand just how much the Viet Cong were a force to be reckoned with.
The team on a local ferry crossing.
Our day ended on a much-needed culinary high. Lunch, or a feast rather, was laid out for us at a restaurant right along the river. Bite-sized pork ribs in a dark rich sauce, steamed chicken with lemongrass and ginger, the famous fresh spring rolls with shrimps, fried fish cakes with garlic and coriander, a massive bowl of hearty vegetable soup and, of course, glorious steamed white rice served piping hot. I couldn’t help at think of the ladies in the fields at that moment, that I could very possibly be about to tuck in to the rice they had harvested themselves earlier in the day. Unlikely, but a delightful thought nonetheless.
This wasn’t just a day on a bike. This wasn’t just an average trip to some old tunnels. This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill tour. This was a day that managed to get me out of the city, see real natural beauty, witness true warmth and hospitality from real local people and understand a small part of Vietnam’s history and the turbulent times she went through, only to come out on top. These are things that the people of this country have been doing for generations. So, when in ‘Nam, do as the Viets.
Written by Chris Eckett