Cu Chi is the kind of excursion people often go on when first arriving in Vietnam, and never again. Ian Wills explores a deeper side of the experience, aided by a quirky itinerary courtesy of Grasshopper Adventures. Photos by Kyle Phanroy

 

Living in Ho Chi Minh City has its ups and downs. The sheer density of people and traffic can become exhausting after a while — so when the opportunity to get away from the daily grind for a day occurred I jumped at the chance.

 

Grasshopper Adventures is a specialist tour company that since 2004 has been arranging trips across Asia, from half a day to several weeks. The adventure I was to go on would be a day trip: first via speedboat, then mountain bike, then on foot around one of Vietnam’s most important historical sites — all before heading back to Ho Chi Minh City by minivan. Quite an impressive itinerary.

 

Promising Beginnings

 

 

I jump out of bed at 6.30am, raring to go. A quick shower and a xe om ride later, I arrive at 7.15am at the Les Rives boat terminal and am ushered onto our waiting speed boat, bobbing on the Saigon River. Fruit, baguettes and coffee are handed out as we speed along at an exhilarating pace, with our driver expertly negotiating the waves and patches of shrubbery floating on the surface of the river.

 

After cruising for close to one-and-a-half hours, with everyone seemingly having their sea legs intact, we arrive at the Ben Duoc branch of the tunnels. This is the moment Kyle and I depart from the remaining group — who set off to see the more accessible tunnels — and set off on what is supposed to be a comfortable 30km zigzagging bike ride to the lesser-known Ben Dinh Cu Chi Tunnels.

 

While we’re told the road ahead is mostly flat, we’re also given a warning that chickens may be trying to cross — so keep vigilant. I start by alighting a pristine mountain bike and taking a short amble around the car park, reacquainting myself with pedals and gears while Kyle meets his xe om driver — it’s easier to take photos from the back of motorbike. Our guide is ultra-fit. His name is An and he is charm personified. As we head off, I am advised to keep a few metres behind in case any wildlife decides to cross our path.

 

Plantations and Factories

 

 

After riding for just a couple of kilometres — it somehow feels like more — we arrive at our first stop: a rubber plantation. An informs us of how the sap is gathered from the trees and protected from the rain. The trees are not native to Vietnam but were brought over from the Amazon during the French colonial era. The plantation stretches as far as the eyes can see, and it seems almost unreal that we are still close to the newly industrialised parts of Ho Chi Minh City.

 

As we continue on our journey, the heat starts affecting my desperately pale complexion. Our next rest stop is a welcome respite. The rice paper factory is yet another reminder of Vietnam’s still strong links to its agrarian roots. As the workers get on with their business, An gives us a thoroughly informed presentation of each stage of rice paper production: from soaking the rice to drying it in sheets in the sun, to cutting appropriate shapes for delivery to the next part of the chain. When it’s time to go, I last about 200 metres before I decide my aching body has had enough.

 

The Water Buffalo

 

 

I ask how many of the 30 kilometres we have covered already. I’m dismayed at the answer — a mere 8. Kyle, having plenty of photos in the bag already, generously offers to take over cycling duties as I collapse — water bottle in hand — onto the back of the motorbike.

 

A further 7km down more flat dirt tracks we arrive at our mid-ride break, after just over an hour-and-a-half in the saddle between us. We are presented with cold water, bananas, watermelon, a variety of nuts and coffee-infused biscuits to replace our spent fuel and prepare us for the next part of our journey. I generously allow Kyle to ride the next 3km to the water buffalo, while I fall or rather clamber into the luxury of the awaiting minivan.

 

Arriving at the paddy field about 15 minutes later, we are greeted by a magnificent water buffalo — who we are assured is a gentle soul. Kyle, back in intrepid photographer mode, walks out into the wetlands to get up close and personal. I watch from the sidelines, taking in the enormity of the place.

 

After having ridden 8km myself, and Kyle relieving me for 7km, we both decide the second half of our journey to the tunnels would be best served on the more direct paved roads, via minivan. Looking at the state of us, especially me, our guide immediately agrees.

 

The Tunnels

 

 

No visit to Vietnam would be complete without a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, networks of underground passageways dating back to 1948 that were used by pro-Union forces. After recovering in the van, we embark on a leisurely walking tour as our guide shows us the various bunkers and tunnels — both original and widened for larger tourists. It is inspiring to see the ingenuity that can be brought by need.

 

Our guide gives us the full lowdown on how the tunnels were layered and interconnected, even designed with natural air conditioning. There are also bunkers for surgeries on injured combatants, and specialist underground meeting rooms to discuss strategy. We are given a measured account of how the network progressed and developed through time. There is an electric display to show in simple terms how the system worked, which our guide assiduously takes us through.

 

After our exhaustive look around the complex — including a taste of locally produced tapioca, and a wander through the inevitable tourist stalls selling everything from bullets on necklaces to fake Zippos — we head away from the highlight of our trip.

 

A short ride in the minivan takes us to a well-known local restaurant. We order enough food to feed 10, let alone three. The eatery earns its reputation due to its delicious beef dishes, morning glory and vegetable options.

 

Running slightly ahead of time, we have the perfect opportunity to talk more with our guide, An. Kyle asks the pertinent question as to what percentage of tourists on these trips are avid cyclists, and how many are people trying it out for the first time in a while like me. The answer: 80 percent for the avid cyclist.

 

Two days after turning 41, I was made to feel every one of those years and accept that I had been living in denial about my own level of personal fitness. I mean, how hard can riding a bike be? It’s something I did a lot of in the first half of my life. Surely getting back on couldn’t be that difficult? I soon found out I couldn’t be more wrong.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the tour and got some truly fascinating insights despite eight years already in Vietnam, I would certainly have benefitted from recognising my own level of fitness. I’d recommend this style of adventure tour without reservation — as long as you go into it with a keen sense of self-awareness.

 

For more information on the kinds of hand-crafted specialist tours offered by Grasshopper, visit grasshopperadventures.com

 

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