Day 59 | Below ground at Cu Chi Tunnels and high in the sky at Bitexco Financial Tower

We started the day with a half day tour of Cu Chi tunnels, a Viet Cong guerrilla hideout outside of Saigon, with our friend Luc. Afterwards, we stuffed ourselves with more vegetarian banh mi from My Banh Mi and enjoyed a 360 degree view of Saigon above the Bitexco Financial Tower. We ended the night with an indulgent dinner at Opera, the Park Hyatt’s Italian restaurant.

We met up with Luc at the lobby of the Park Hyatt. We were picked up by the tour van soon after 8am and joined seven other tourists. Our guide Thong, who also goes by Slim Jim, was entertaining throughout the van ride and tour. He was clear from the beginning that as a young man he enlisted in the reserve forces on the side of South Vietnam and the US. He warned us that the Cu Chi tunnels tourist attraction would be full of government propaganda and factual impossibilities in support of North Vietnam.

Halfway through the ride we made a pit stop at a handicrafts workshop. The workshop featured crafts made by victims of Agent Orange. We did not buy anything but was interested in seeing how the artisans prepared traditional lacquerware. This man uses eggshells as part of his piece.

Lacquerware artisan

When we got to Cu Chi tunnels site Ben Duoc, the first thing we wanted to try was to squeeze into these camouflaged tunnel entrances. I went first.

Then we convinced Luc, who is at least a foot taller than me, to also get in there.

While we understand it’s a war site, you have to admit it was set up as an elaborate jungle gym.

Good morning Vietnam!

We learned about the lives of the Cu Chi guerrillas – farmers by day, soldiers by night – who sabotaged the South Vietnamese from their own soil. They were homegrown heroes to the North Vietnamese and these guerillas, both men and women, were often central to their propaganda campaigns.

Pondering an ambush

We found another one (of many) tanks in Vietnam that Maurice posed with.

Soviet tanks, very sturdy

Slim Jim then walked us through the sample booby traps created by the Cu Chi guerrillas. This was our favorite part of the tour, so gruesome and yet so creative.

Here’s the seesaw trap in action.

A Cu Chi trap

Slim Jim also demonstrated a swinging trap that you hang onto the ceiling above a door frame. If an American GI were to walk into a house and see a spiked trap swing off the ceiling towards his face and chest, the first thing he would do is to shield himself with his rifle. However, the trap has a hinge with a secondary plate of spikes which would strike the man at lower part of his body. As Slim Jim puts it, “Then no more babies, he will have to go to Bangkok and be a ladyboy, make lots of money there.”

Throughout the Ben Duoc site you could hear gun shots. We walked closer to the noise as Slim Jim explained to us the menu of different types of guns we could shoot. Maurice and I were not interested. Luc however chose two different machine guns and one rifle to shoot. A couple other guys from our group also took turns at this unique jungle shooting range.

Then we faced the ultimate challenge at Ben Duoc, we were going to crawl through 100m of underground tunnels. Half of our group of ten declined crawling through the tunnels. I’ll note that these “king size” tunnels have been enlarged to fit Westerners, the original tunnels would be too small for almost all of the tourists here. Nevertheless, the three of us struggled! Including me, the smallest of the group.

It was a typical hot, humid day in Southern Vietnam and we were sweating hard and breathing heavy in the cramped tunnels. I completely underestimated how long it would take to squat walk through 100m!

We finally made it out by listening to Slim Jim’s guidance from above and just gritting our teeth.

Afterwards we relaxed a picnic tent to have some tea and tapioca root aka cassava, a cheap local food eaten by the Cu Chi guerrillas.

Eating tapioca

Before we could leave Ben Duoc, we all watched a propaganda film from the 1960s lauding the achievements of the Cu Chi guerrillas. The facts were obviously exaggerated, I don’t know how a group of farmers could use their rusty old rifles to shoot down dozens of American fighter jets…

Propaganda shed

We loaded onto the van back to downtown Saigon. We asked Slim Jim to drop us off at the Notre Dame Cathedral. We wanted to beeline for My Banh Mi, located right across the street. We were craving their banh mi since we went there last night for dinner.

My Banh Mi part deux

A quirky old man wearing a torn T-shirt came up to our table to talk to us. Appearances can certainly be deceiving. He was a 75-year old ex-New York investment banker who lived all around the world. Like me he is also Shanghainese by origin, so we had a lot to talk about. Turns out he’s the father of the celebrity chef Bobby Chinn who owns this casual restaurant. Bobby Chinn hosts the Discovery Channel show Planet Food and since he travels around so much, he asked his father to keep an eye out on his only restaurant left in Saigon – he shuttered his other fine dining restaurants in the city. His father ordered us a salad on the house so we could try it out.

Then we walked Luc back to his hotel. He grabbed his luggage and caught a cab to the airport. We were on our own for the rest of our short trip in Saigon.

First order of business we went to a shopping mall near our hotel so that we could find new sunglasses for Maurice. He lost them when we arrived in Saigon. However we couldn’t find any pairs suitable. We went to the mall’s food court to have a fruit shakes.

Then around 5:30pm, we walked to the Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest building in Saigon that looks like a lotus bud with a tambourine stuck through the side.

Bitexco Tower

We bought tickets and rode the elevator up to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor.

Saigon Sky Deck

Through the glass walls, we had a 360 degree view of the city below us.

Panoramic views

We saw the motorbikes and cars go by.

We watched the sun set.

Sun setting over Saigon

Same area thirty minutes later.

Lights up

As the evening sets in, the city streets are aglow.

Traffic all aglow

Greeted by our flashy color-changing building from two nights ago.

Light up building

We walked back to our hotel when it was still quite early in the evening. For once during our entire trip, we felt motivated to use the hotel’s gym. The gym was very nice but my workout killed me, it’s been too long since we’ve done any strenuous cardio or strength – does running through the airport with our luggage count?

Then we had a very late dinner at Opera, our hotel’s Italian restaurant. Since we were in Vietnam, our first instinct was to choose the hotel’s Vietnamese restaurant, however, there weren’t many vegetarian options and I scoffed at the idea of paying $14 for a bowl of vegetable noodle soup.

We shared some appetizers.

Fancy dinner at the Park Hyatt

Then lingered for a long time over our pizza and pasta entrees. Then the restaurant’s dessert sampler.

Dinner at Opera restaurant

After that was done, we almost had to roll ourselves back up the elevator to our rooms. If we barely fit into Cu Chi tunnels this morning, we certainly couldn’t now.

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