Saigon and Cu Chi Tunnels by Waterway

The Cu Chi Tunnels is a favorite tourist site for many international travelers. I have been few times, and each time, I return with a new story, discover a lesser known point of interest, and find a new way to experience the Saigon River and Cu Chi via its waterways.

One of Vietnam’s most famous war memorials the, Cu Chi Tunnels is where visitors come to experience what life was like for revolutionary soldiers fighting in the jungle. The tunnels allowed the Vietnamese guerillas to control a large rural area only 30 to 40km from the former Sài gòn. At its height, the tunnel system stretched from the economic hub to the Cambodian border.

All travelers go by road to Cu Chi, we will take a half day excursion by waterway to the famous tunnels, which stretched for over 200 km and became legendary during the 1960s when they played a vital part in the American War.

My friend Nhan and I had trouble deciding between a morning and afternoon trip, but we opted finally to take the tour in the morning. At 8 am, we joined 8 people with our tour guide on the waterway journey from Bach Dang Pier in HCM City to the Cu Chi Tunnels on Sunday.

The new way to visit the tunnels is very convenient, taking just 1 hour and 15 minutes to get from Ho Chi Minh City, with NO traffic jams! You can admire the perspective of the HCMC skyline as you cruise upstream on the new yacht.

Binh Duong Province is on the right hand side and Ho Chi Minh City on the left as we cruise up the frontier and I am always amazed that just a few minutes from Bustling Saigon, there lies a peaceful countryside and amazing life in the world of water. That is why I understand why Vietnam is the country of “Dat Nuoc” (land and water).

The yacht cruise is a new development on Saigon River, as local business seeks to develop new products to attract travelers to HCMC and encourage them to stay longer. Our yacht was new and comfortable, and had an on board toilet. The uniformed captain welcomed us on board with a smile, and we had a safe feeling on our river adventure. Our guide Chung was a friendly young lady (like most Vietnamese women), and she served us fresh water and fruits. With her excellent English, she guided everyone through the safety regulations and overview of the trip.

We were also informed that the favorite trips are Saigon – My Tho and Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta, and Saigon to the Can Gio biosphere and to Cu Chi Tunnels. Other tours include cruises from Saigon to Siem Reap, Cambodia or you may go the reverse way.

Chung explained that many businessmen prefer the privacy of the cruise, as well as a sunset cocktail or dinner aboard ship.

After some conversations with the tour guide and tour members, we arrived at the Ben Dinh Pier near the Cu Chi Tunnels. Then we stepped into a jungle of banyan trees and took a short walk to the iron triangle of Cu Chi. We had plenty of time to explore the tunnel system and watch a video about them, which included commentary from former soldiers to help visitors better understand the history.

There are two sections of tunnels to open visitors, at Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. The latter are in original condition, while the Ben Duoc tunnels have been recreated for tourists and visitors. The network, parts of which were several levels deep, included innumerable trap doors, specially constructed living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories, field hospitals, command centres and kitchens. Also, an impressive temple was built to honor martyrs at Ben Duoc.

Upon request, travelers can meet living Viet Cong veterans, many of whom are ready and willing to tell their stories to the world. Yet on the surface, Cu Chi is like every other rural district in Vietnam. Women chat over mounds of vegetables at the local market. Young men lounge in the dusty open fronted restaurant.

Today, it is hard to believe that this area, part of which is just 30 km far from downtown Ho Chi Minh city, occupies some of the most heavily bombed land in the history of warfare. This area was a “free bombing” zone, which allowed the US army to bomb at any time and anywhere they suspected enemy activity.

The secret of the Cu Chi lies underground. Beginning in the late 1940s, resistance fighters dug a series of tunnels into the rust colored earth of Cu Chi to allow them to evade French army patrols. The old tunnel network was renewed and enlarged when the National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency began around 1960.

Within a few years, the tunnel system became the lifeline of NLF operations, snaking all the way from Saigon to the Cambodia border. The attacks that rocked the southern Vietnamese Capital during the Tet Offensive were launched from Cu Chi.

In a bid to break local community ties with NLF forces, the southern regime launched its strategic hamlets program in 1963. Government forces destroyed villages in suspected pro communist areas, and relocated the people to their controlled, fortified

Instead of isolating the people from NLF influences, the program had the opposite effect, strengthening sympathy for the communists. Thanks to the tunnels, the NLF had access to the strategic hamlets anyway. To try to regain control of the Iron Triangle, as the region was known, the Americans built a larger base camp at Cu Chi.

Only after several months of unexplained sniper attacks did they discover that their camps lay directly on the top of an intricate network of NLF tunnels. Thousands of Americans, Australians and southern Vietnamese ground troops descended on the Iron Triangle to try and seize control of this strategic area.

Unable to find the tunnels, they decided instead to try and cut off the NLF supply routes. They eradicated and burned villages and destroyed paddy fields. This area was doused with chemicals and set ablaze with napalm. Yet despite the devastation above ground, many NFL fighters survived, tucked away deep inside their earth fortress.

“Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels was a memorable experience. In the pouring rain, we walked around the site where battles were fought and so many lives were lost.
Venturing into the claustrophobic dark tunnels was something I will never
forget.” a tour member told to me after the trip.

“It was the blind leading the blind into the darkness of those narrow tunnels, relying on the feel of the walls as we were hunched over double. Ten minutes underground
felt like much, much longer. It was a relief to come back to ground level, but
also gave me a huge sense of appreciation for the amazing survival techniques
that the Vietnamese used in this dark period of their history.”

Malcolm and Fran Surman, working for the UK Embassy in Bangkok said “Of all the wonderful places that we were taken to I think that Cu Chi tunnels made the greatest impact as we came to realize the awful conditions that were endured by those who want their freedom.”

Also as part of the tour, we arrived at Bach Dang, in time for lunch, and we walked to the impressive bonsai garden (Vuon Kieng) on the bank of Saigon River.

As all the tourists headed back to the city and their next adventure, they all agreed that a tour of this area is a “must do” for anyone visiting Vietnam. We are happy to help others experience this unique destination.

This article is copywrited and provided by Mr. Pham Ha who is an award-winning CEO and founder of Luxury Travel Ltd (, the first luxury travel and tour operator in the Mekong region. He is also a travel guru, tourism speaker, travel writer, consultant and a leading designer of luxury tourism industry training programs.

Luxury Travel Ltd. has won numerous travel awards including the most recent The Guide Awards 2013: “ The Leading Specialist in The Art of Travel With Luxurious and Private Service