One of the best things about a city as sprawling as Ho Chi Minh City, and a country as vast as Vietnam, is that you can swing from ‘adventure tour’ to ‘relaxed museum visit’ in the blink of an eye. Case in point: Cu Chi and the Ruinification Palace.
The Cu Chi Tunnels
SOME HISTORY: during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong built a complex network of tunnels across both North and South Vietnam to avoid bombing by US forces. The tunnels under the Cu Chi district of Saigon were used as military headquarters as well as living facilities for locals, and now they’re available to tour. From above there’s some jungle, an obligatory gift shop and an inexplicable shooting range. The real fun comes when your guide moves some leaf litter, hauls a plank of wood from the ground and shows you… a foot-wide tunnel entrance.
You can climb in, pull the hatch over your head, feel your way into the tunnel proper and then haul yourself out again. I had a sneaky feeling that despite being a similar size to Vietnamese people – or more similar than most Westerners – I would get stuck in the tunnel and die, so I abstained. For scale, a few six foot guys on our tour did get in, but barely.
Next we saw some of the absolutely genius, totally sneaky, every-naughty-child’s-dream-booby-trap booby traps.
Each trap is pretty simple: when stepped on, its spikes impale the victim through various body parts. If I remember my GCSE history, the stress and paranoia of living with the threat of these traps contributed heavily to the ridiculous levels of PTSD troops experienced. I got pretty stressed just looking at them, so hats off to the war veterans in that respect.
As people lived day-to-day in the tunnels, they came up with ingenious ways of hiding their presence, like cooking during the misty early mornings to mask smoke, or putting air vents in tree trunks to disguise them. They did get flooded out – literally – but generally speaking, the Viet Cong one-upped the West for years. Of course, the tunnels themselves helped.
Before you go down into them, the guide warns that if you’re claustrophobic or suffer from high blood pressure, you should stay outside. Whatever, I thought, I‘m almost as small as the Viet Cong and I don’t think I’m that claustrophobic. Let’s go!
Turns out I’m a bit claustrophobic, and not that small.
I don’t have any photos from my brush with suffocation, because I was too busy humming songs to distract myself, checking my brother was still following me and trying not to think about suffocating. The tunnels are roughly the size of an air vent, made of stone, and frequently drop a level or move upwards so you have to haul yourself up or drop down a few feet. I’m five foot one, ish, and I nearly got stuck, so I have no idea how average-sized people managed it. I suspect that tourists over a certain size are bluntly told not to go, because they would genuinely get wedged and there’s just no way to get them out.
We survived, though, with grubby backpacks and a deep respect for the communities who spent years underground. Now, on to something more aesthetically pleasing than some rocks:
The Ruinification Palace
From the outside, the Ruinification Palace, also known as Independence Palace, is basically the 1960s encapsulated in a building. I don’t like that blocky, grey concrete style of architecture at all, probably because there’s a lot of it in Southend and as a child, with drizzle stuck to my neck and a grey sky next to grey buildings filled with grey people, I decided I would leave Southend for warmer lands as soon as possible. Happily, the interior reminded me of The Man from UNCLE and appealed greatly to my unachievable ambition to have a spotless, symmetrical bedroom.
SOME HISTORY: there’s been a palace of sorts on that site since the 19th century, during French occupation, and after a bomb attack in 1962 the building was completely redesigned. The president of South Vietnam lived and worked there until 1975 when Saigon fell to the North and tanks literally rolled through the gates. The president surrendered immediately and the palace has been left as it was then, from the meeting rooms to the underground war bunkers.
My favourite bit is that the top floor of the palace was originally designed as an open space for the president to meditate upon various issues in peace and quiet. He turned it into a party room with a dance floor and space for 100 guests.
I am not wholly unsurprised the South lost the war.