Day 8 – Ho Chi Minh City/Train to Hue

Cramped / Day 8 of 64 / 17 May

We started our last day in HCMC at 7am. While Sam was still sleeping, I went for a morning walk around our neighbourhood. Even at 7am the city was bustling. We were headed to the Cu Chi Tunnels [Địa đạo Củ Chitoday and our pick up was at 7.45am. We booked our tour of the tunnels via our hotel for 7 USD/9 SGD each, and it included a pick up to the rather far Cu Chi district.

We were first brought to a handicraft store that sold goods made by victims of Agent Orange. After a short 20 minute stop there, we were on our way to the tunnels. We arrived at the tunnels shortly after 10am and paid the tunnel admission fee of 110000 VND/6 SGD per person.

Victims of Agent Orange creating eggshell art.

Cu Chi district is located 50km north-west of HCMC. It hosts the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, and the district is known to the Vietnamese as “iron land”. Both, because the land there is as hard as iron, and because the people there had wills of iron during the Vietnamese war. During the war, the people of Cu Chi lived underground. Hiding in tunnels in the day and only surfacing in the night. This way of life lasted ten years.

Sam descending down a tunnel as the Viet Cong would’ve during the Vietnam War.

The tunnels were originally built in 1948, during the French Indochina wars. The local people dug tunnels, with each family digging their own tunnel system. When connected together, the systems were only 48km long. It was a simple system. The tunnels then were only used to conceal documents and weapons. They were not yet suitable for use in combat.

After the French Indochina wars, the villagers were more experienced. They expanded the tunnel system to as many as six other villages. By 1967, during the Vietnam war, the entire network was already 250km long. The system became complicated, and the Viet Cong relied heavily on maps and their own mastery of the tunnels to navigate it. Our guide, Nim, called the network a “labyrinth”.

The Vietnam War iteration of the tunnels comprised three levels of depth: 3m, 6m, and 10m. Some of the rooms located on the “first” level were the dining rooms, meeting rooms, and kitchens. The deeper levels were mostly used as “bomb shelters”, as most American bombs were only able to create craters up to 3m in depth.

The tour was very comprehensive. The guides were well versed in their history of the tunnels, as well as its many booby traps. We also had a chance to fire an AK47, the gun that was used widely by the Viet Cong. It wasn’t cheap, at 600000 VND/35 SGD for a mere ten bullets. It was worth it though; with the AK47 definitely beating the SAR21 and the M16 in terms of “gun-feel”.

A door trap that would’ve seriously injured any South Vietnamese soldier trying to force their way into a Viet Cong home.

PEW PEW PEW.

For the last part of the tour, we had the chance to crawl through the tunnels ourselves. Visitors can try negotiating a 150m stretch of the tunnels to experience for themselves the impossible conditions that the Viet Cong fought in. The tunnels are everything you’d expect: hot, humid, and narrow. Add gunfire and panic into the mix, and I have no idea how the Viet Cong managed to live, much less fight, in these tunnels.

Smol tunnel, big people.

With our tunnel tour over, we were brought to a restaurant for us to have our lunch. We finally got to try some Vietnamese spring rolls. After lunch, the bus headed back to HCMC, and we decided to alight at the second stop, Ben Thanh market. From the market, it was a short walk back to our hotel.

At the hotel, we showered and packed our bags, ready to head to Saigon Railway Station [Ga Sài Gòn] for our train to Hue. Since we were still early, we strolled towards Bitexco Tower. Along the way, we decided to explore an alleyway and we discovered a small restaurant. We had a light dinner there and walked back to the hotel to grab our bags. We reached Saigon Railway Station at 6.45pm, but our train to Hue was only due to depart at 7.45pm. So, we had some fast food while waiting for our train.

Cam On Saigon, we’re bound for Hue now.

Buying tickets for Vietnamese trains is really simple. We used Baolau to purchase tickets for our train to Hue (VNR SE4, baolau.com, 1034500 VND/60 SGD/pax). We were able to select our preferred beds in our sleeper car. Once you pay, the site will email you an e-boarding pass. And although there is a small and almost negligible fee, it beats the trouble of having to negotiate the language barrier prevalent in Vietnamese railway stations.

Saigon Railway Station is small, but trains to all parts of Vietnam call here. The Saigon-Hanoi route is especially popular with both locals and tourists.

At 7.30pm we boarded our train: SE4 overnight train from HCMC to Hue. We were in Coach 6, a six-bed soft-sleeper wagon. The train was comfortable and luxurious: the cabins were air-conditioned, the beds were soft and comfy, and there was a canteen car where you could have a meal just like in a restaurant. Every few minutes, food carts rolled down the corridors.

Boarding overnight train SE4. Departing Ho Chi Minh City at 1945 and arriving in Hue at 1526+1.

The sleeper cabins are fully air-conditioned and have toilets on both ends.

Inside our cabin was a Vietnamese family. We were on the lower bunks, and the three of them were on the beds above us. We started talking to one of the family members. His name was Phuc Anh. He was born in Dien Bien Phu City, but he and his family now lived in Hanoi. He and his family were now headed back to Hanoi after a trip to HCMC to visit other family members. When he heard we would be in Hanoi, he offered to show us around! He even typed us a note with some recommendations for our time in Hanoi. As we were exchanging contact information (i.e. Facebook), he told us to add him first as he didn’t have an internet connection. So, we lent him our WiFi connection, and he gave us some bread and cooling tea as thanks! We’ll have plenty of time to get to know more about Phuc Anh and his family: this train crawls at only 80km/h, and we only arrive in Hue at 3pm tomorrow.

Thank you Phuc Anh and family for making our ride a homely and enjoyable one!

– Ryan

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