A Visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels

cu chi tunnels
Looking down one of the modified-for-tourists sections of the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Plenty of writers like to call the Cu Chi Tunnels "an underground city." But that’s just a facile throwaway phrase that trivializes nearly aspect of life in the Cu Chi Tunnels during a time of war.

Out of every site I’ve visited in my travels so far, I rate this as the most thought-provoking of them all. I can’t even say that I just had fun during my visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. It somehow feels more accurate to say that it was sobering, that it made me better realize what lengths Vietnamese villagers went through during wars against the French and the United States. I mean, people didn’t dig out three levels of tunnels stretching more than 100 miles for fun.

They created the Cu Chi tunnels to survive.

That said, I love mines, caves, tunnels – really, anything underground. And I’ve always wanted to fire an AK-47, which I also got to do at the Cu Chi Tunnels war memorial park near Ho Chi Minh City. It would be very easy to close your eyes to everything the site means -- to keep the experience at superficial level where it’s all about sinking into a foxhole, checking out booby traps and standing on the burned-out shell of an armored tank.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Tourists gleefully pose on a destroyed tank at Cu Chi Tunnels. Strange.

But we were fortunate that our guide from Saigon River Tour had bigger plans. He identified himself by the nickname "Big T." He was the most well-spoken and reflective of all the guides we encountered in Vietnam. I mentioned Big T in an earlier post; to recap, his father served in the South Vietnamese Army. When the United States left Vietnam to the communist government, men like Big T’s father paid the price in labor camps, or worse.

His father’s service, though, made Big T a great guide. Since we were in a small group that day, he had more time than usual to share insights with us.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Slipping into a fox hole at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Big T painted a grim picture of Cu Chi. First, he told us, the tunnels began as a way to fight the French forces in the early 20th century. He explained how the French weren’t even the worst enemy: That was the tunnel conditions themselves. No sunlight, no sanitation, no ventilation. But even that was better than the alternatives on the surface.

And it became even worse in the Cu Chi Tunnels when the villagers fought American forces.

They recycled everything, turning unexploded bombs and bits of shrapnel into their own war material. They expanded the Cu Chi Tunnels. They constructed traps designed to wound rather than kill: Big T explained that a wounded soldier took a few of his comrades out of action to remove him from the area and get treatment.

CU Chi Tunnels AK-47
I couldn’t resist a chance to fire an AK-47 at the CU Chi Tunnels range.

Big T urged us to look around the trees that form a shady canopy over the area. It didn’t look like this during the war, he said. The area was devoid of vegetation from carpet bombing and artillery fire.

And here’s the really interesting insight: Big T told us the villagers who were fighting so hard to stay alive didn’t think of themselves as communists. They just wanted so survive. What he said doesn’t quite square with the propaganda films made about the Cu Chi residents fighting American forces. And why were they fighting if they were far into what was then South Vietnam, and such a short distance from Ho Chi Minh City?

Cu Chi Tunnels
Peaking down an undeveloped area of the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is closer to what it would’ve been like during wartime.

On the other hand, it’s also hard to believe that people living a largely agrarian existence were really fighting for political ideologies. Is it more likely they were just propaganda tools? Probably so. Like so many things in Vietnam, I’ll have to do more reading to try finding the answers to my questions. It should help square what I heard from Big T and what I learned during a semester-long course about the Vietnam War when I was in high school.

Of course, every person’s view of the Cu Chi Tunnels will skew according to their background.

As an American, I’ve grown up with movies about the Vietnam War. I never really imagined having the chance to look at the war from this angle.

Cu Chi Tunnels booby trap
A booby trap on display at the Cu Chi Tunnels. It’s hard not to admire the ingenuity even while understanding the aftermath.

Speaking of angles, imagine what a guy who’s 6’2 has to do to get around in the Cu Chi Tunnels. I spent a lot of time folded in half. And we’re mostly in the cleaned-up section that allows easier movement. This is the luxury hotel section, even when we descended to the third level. Fortunately, I’m not claustrophobic – and the dramatic tourist accounts of how "harrowing" it is to get around in the tunnels amuses me. The open sections are in great shape and very clean; we’re not in a combat situation, the lighting is more than sufficient. People get so hyperbolic; I promise, it’s not even that bad in the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels foxhole
Big guy in a little hole – yes, I managed to shimmy all the way into a foxhole … all 6’2 205 of me.

Bottom line, a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels is worth facing your fear of small spaces. It’s worth hearing the other side of a common story. It will make you think – possibly more than many other sites you’ve visited before.

Extra Knowledge for Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels

Skip the two-hour bus ride from Ho Ci Minh City to Cu Chi Tunnels and find a tour operator with a boat. Saigon River Tour was excellent, but you may find others in Ho Chi Minh City. The boat takes half the time and you won’t get jostled by potholes and bad suspension. You’ll probably miss out on a chance to see someone transporting a grandfather clock on a motorbike, though.

Wear long pants and real shoes. (What is it with tourists and flip-flops, anyway?) You’ll have to crawl in the Cu Chi Tunnels, so why get all scraped or sprain an ankle?

Saigon River Tour
Heading to the Cu Chi Tunnels with Big T and the Saigon River Tour crew.

Bring some water. Even in the cooler months, the southern part of Vietnam is warm and humid. I travel with a hydration pack. And so should you, because dehydration can make your vacation suck.

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Thoughts on the North-South Divide in Vietnam

Soldiers on the move in Hanoi. Could be 1961, could be 2013.

Ask people in Ho Chi Minh City, and they’ll sing you the same song about Hanoi in a multitude of keys and time signatures.

"Hanoi is 15 years behind."

"You’ll feel like someone is watching you all the time."

"Watch out for the people. They cheat you."

"They’ll steal from you."

"They’re mean."

We even heard foreigners like us parrot the same lines.

Vietnam culture
Soviet-influenced icons are everywhere – north and south – to remind residents and visitors of Vietnam’s past.

And we didn’t find any of it to be true. Not that we don’t understand – Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) and many of its residents wound up on the wrong side of Vietnam politics when the United States left the country to the communist government in Hanoi. People like Big T, one of our tour guides, still feel the repercussions of a conflict that ended before he was born. His father served in the South Vietnam military and wound up in a labor camp. The labor camps were one of the prices people paid in the aftermath of what Vietnamese people call the American War.

Vietnam culture
Ho Chi Minh City is racing ahead – some say it’s leaving Hanoi behind. See them both and decide for yourself.

Even today, Big T tells us, high-paying government jobs and a shot at upward mobility are off-limits for him and his family. His father made this clear to him at a young age, and gave him some advice: "Don’t worry, and do the best you can. Enjoy your life."

So I understand the root of the bitterness and friction.

As a visitor, though, I have no clue why another traveler would have a harsh word to say about Hanoi and its people.

The traffic is just as bizarre. The street vendors are just as insistent. The prices are just as low.

There are differences, especially if you stay in a central location like the Old Quarter. The streets in that part of Hanoi are even more congested than the larger, wider boulevards in Ho Chi Minh City. But you can also get away easily to areas where you can stroll on the sidewalks without stepping around people and motorbikes.

Vietnam culture
Hanoi’s vibe hit me as more relaxed and more European than Ho Chi Minh City.

And those streets will lead you to some very nice parks and urban lakes. They’ll also take you to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the president’s residence and a multitude of government buildings.

There is a strange vibe in this part of Hanoi, at least for a visiting Westerner. Uniformed soldiers stroll around, and some even carry AK-47 rifles. The presence of Soviet-related images like the hammer and sickle add an aura that’s slightly disquieting for someone who grew up during the Cold War – and never expected it to end.

Vietnam culture
I wonder what Ho Chi Minh would make of his near deification – and what your average Ho Chi Minh City resident thinks of it.

Still, Hanoi is where my attitude changed about Vietnam. When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City from the U.S. (with a brief stop in Tokyo), I had a hard time settling in. I questioned our choice of destinations. The traffic and general mania of Ho Chi Minh City grated on me the entire first day. I started to like it a bit better after a few days.

But Hanoi is where I started to really have fun -- despite constantly getting lost in the warren of Old Quarter streets, where the street names seem to change every 200 feet (This is absolutely true. The names reflect what used to be sold on the streets – and sometimes still do – so they translate into things like Drum Street, Casket Street, Fishcake Street and many others). We started to pronounce the few words we know better. We got away from the areas that cater to foreigners, and spoke with and ate with people who have no part of the tourism trade.

Vietnam culture
Ho Chi Minh City has much of its own “peoples’ revolution” imagery.

In Hanoi, we met a few local people through running the Song Hong footrace. They’re now our Facebook friends, and they shared their thoughts about how things work in Vietnam.

Don’t take any of this as a knock against Ho Chi Minh City. We met plenty of friendly residents.

Here’s something interesting: Not a single Hanoi resident said a bad thing about Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe it’s easy to be magnanimous when your family wound up on the winning side of a conflict that continues to define the country -- when you have the upper hand and the opportunities. The biggest difference I noticed is that some Ho Chi Minh City residents still call it Saigon; not a single Hanoi resident, however, used "Saigon."

There might already be some change in progress: Ho Chi Minh City local Elly Thuy Nguyen still pokes fun at Hanoi in her handy and funny eBook, My Saigon: The Local Guide to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam … but with a sly, ironic tone that says "I really don’t believe everything I’m writing."

I hope Nguyen isn’t alone in her attitude. And that the future holds an equal chance for everyone in Vietnam – no matter what choices previous generations made.

Until that happens, visit Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Then decide for yourself.


British Airways Adds Extra Flight to Phoenix Sky Harbor

Sky Harbor needs more than a daily flight from London to make Arizona a major air travel player.

British Airways will increase the number of flights from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to London Heathrow Airport from six a week to daily.

Phoenix city officials are aflutter about the extra flight, which starts Dec. 5.

“Intercontinental flights are huge contributors to the success of our Phoenix airport system, our city’s economy and our region’s overall economic future,” says Mayor Greg Stanton in a press release. The same release claims that British Airways flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor put $100 million into the local economy.

Even if we take that figure at face value (and I’m skeptical), let’s curb our enthusiasm: The mayor’s overstatement of economic impact belies typical Phoenix thinking – measuring success against its own past rather than against cities of similar size.

If I were the mayor, this would be my quote.

“This is a minuscule step in the right direction. The Valley of the Sun is far too populous an area to be served by only one airline that connects us to but one intercontinental destination. It’s an embarrassment that residents need to stop in other cities to reach international centers for business and leisure travel. Phoenix Sky Harbor must connect to the world – for commerce and for tourism – if we are to grow beyond being the nation’s largest small town.”

The press release includes a quote from David Cavazos, city manager: “My goal is to continue to gain additional international routes, while ensuring that this British Airways flight remains successful.”

I hope that’s in his annual review with measurable expectations of success. In my time here, Phoenix Sky Harbor has done a pitiful job of being “international” in anything more than name (remember the Lufthansa service to Frankfurt? R.I.P.). Of course, Cavazos says “international,” which could mean more routes in North and Central America. Big deal.

This extra British Airways flight is nice. But those charged with pursuing new routes and airlines should be cautious about patting themselves on the back before Phoenix Sky Harbor connects non-stop – at a minimum! – to Asia, Oceania and continental Europe.


Arizona Pols: Courting the Electorate Via Spam

No, this is NOT the District 9 I live in!

For Arizona political hopefuls like Martin Sepulveda, kissing babies and shaking hands is passe. The power of the Internet and the telephone allow them to spread their names without effort.

And, too often, without consent.

If a guy like ex-Chandler city council member Martin Sepulveda, who hopes to win the Ninth Congressional District seat, knocks at my door -- it’s easy enough to ignore. Not so if he robo-calls to a handy list of phone numbers.

Or if he buys my e-mail address and spams my inbox. On the other hand, it says a lot about a congressional contender’s character when he sends you a grammatically challenged, hyperbolic screed full of some of the most egregious abuse of upper-case letters on record (Note to Mr. Sepulveda – hire a decent copywriter before it’s too late. And please, be smart enough not to throw the word "tyranny" around without regard for its meaning.).

It also sends other messages that voters shouldn’t overlook: "My politicking trumps your privacy. I play dirty. I will do anything to take and hold a seat."

As if Arizona politics isn’t already crawling with that sort of behavior.

This post is my vehicle to shed light on people like Sepulveda, my scarlet "S" (yes, as in SPAMMER) that will show who sends unsolicited campaign messages to an electorate that didn’t consent. This list is non-partisan and open to submissions (so if you get one that I haven’t listed, forward it to me at wanderingjustin at hotmail dot com).

If you are a politician and your name is on this list, fear not. You can win your way off. Just e-mail a signed denouncement of the use of unsolicited e-mails and robocalls for political campaigning, along with your pledge not to use such tactics. I will strike your name through on this list, and post your denouncement (with signature redacted). That’s it.

Here’s where the list starts:

Martin Sepulveda – Running for Arizona CD9 seat


Why Phoenix Can’t Be More Like Chicago

chicago bean
You'll never see anything like this in Phoenix.

In July, I dropped into Chicago for a four-day visit. Overall, I was underwhelmed. Some cool architecture, yes. But the city marinates in self-importance over its fading foodie scene. The pedestrians, cyclists and drivers are by and large savages. I’d much rather visit Portland, Seattle or Vancouver.

But -- Chicago has some terrific public spaces. I was puzzled. The last few years have been an economic disaster, and we’re only starting to poke through to better times. So where did Chicago get the scrilla to keep its public works projects afloat through lean times?

Through a city sales tax of more than 10 percent.

Interesting. This could never happen here in Arizona, where the city sales taxes hover around 2 percent, give or take depending on the municipality.

An outdoor concert venue - too visionary for small minds.

I’m not upset about not having to shell out another 8 percent per purchase (especially since an intern who’s from Chicago points out that at least half of the Windy City’s sales tax props up graft and corruption).

But you know, a 5 percent sales tax that’s effectively used wouldn’t bother me a bit. The first things I’d like to see? Improved bike lanes, quality city gyms, better parks, functional water fountains along the well-travelled canals, for starters. You know – stuff to make the city more liveable, to make people healthier and more active.

Why can’t this happen here? Because there are too many regressive bomb throwers like Sal DiCiccio, perhaps the most stunted person to ever sit on the dais for the Phoenix City Council.

DiCiccio’s notion of leading is to squawk "cut spending!" like a stuttering parrot. Somehow, I started receiving his "newsletters," which are little more than angsty screeds portraying him as a crusader for the little guy. I never signed up for this; I suspect his staff tapped into city data to find an audience upon which to push his small-time agenda.

Let’s look at some recent subject lines:
Your kids’ milk money pays for raises
Taxpayers misled: Food Tax for pay raises
Your Water Bill: Going UP -- You Can Stop It!
Expected Smears on Reformers
Phoenix can Lead Nation/Unions Stop Jobs
Phoenix Spending ‘ripe for abuse’
Union takeover – Phx City Hall

How sad. Not a single idea for how Phoenix can do more for its residents (nor any idea how to write better than amateurish hack level, but that’s another story). It’s all panicky demonizing and fear mongering. No inspiration, no original thinking. No innovation. DiCiccio equates good governance simply with spending less and taxing less -- and offering fat tax breaks to pet projects in the hope of a fleeting boost in low-paying jobs.

Improving city services? Offering amenities that truly world-class cities enjoy? Forget about it.

Sure, our current tax dollars could go further. Trimming here and there? Never a bad idea. But when that and squalling about unions is all a self-proclaimed leader can do, your city is in bad hands.

I’ve always wondered why Chicagoans who move to Phoenix constantly pine for their former city (well, during the winter months, at least).

Hmm, maybe the answer is the Sal DiCiccio mentality.


Phoenix Councilman Supplies Info About Residents to Special-Interest Group

Sal DiCiccio, a member of the Phoenix city council, has convinced me of something – that he’s funnelling information about residents to an outside organization to further his political agenda. Here’s how he did it:

Back in August, something strange popped into my e-mail box: a newsletter from Councilman DiCiccio.

I never signed up for it. I don’t even live in his district. I chalked it up as an anomaly until I got a newsletter from a few days later. I also didn’t sign up for its newsletter.

DiCiccio and, it turns out, have a common goal – opposing the Phoenix Park Board plan to charge for parking at less than 20 percent of the city’s trailheads.

City Staff Members Look Into E-Mail Mystery

On Sept. 8, I decided to ask city officials about what was happening: I contacted David Urbinato, parks department spokesman. He passed my e-mail to Toni Maccarone, the city’s spokeswoman. Here’s what she wrote to me:

" -- we did quite a bit of research, and the answer that we came up with is what we thought.  We do not share our city news list with anyone.  We’re sorry, but we are not sure how you got on these other lists. When I asked Councilman DiCiccio’s Chief of Staff Hal DeKeyser about it, he said that you may have been added to the Councilman’s list in a number of different ways because they have a separate, outside list that they maintain, and they add people’s e-mails from a variety of different sources."

Maccarone suggested I talk to DeKeyser. I know him – he is a former Scottsdale Tribune editor. I joined the paper as a reporter just after DeKeyser was effectively exiled to the then even-more-bustling (if you count retirees in golf carts as bustling) West Valley. There, he served as publisher of a flock of chicken-dinner publications like the West Valley View.

I decided to let things unfold a bit before talking to him.

I’m pretty sure DiCiccio had access to my information since I signed up for the phoenixnews e-newsletter. I registered using a personal address, not the one posted here at

Slip-Up Reveals the Connection

On Sept. 17, I got the break I hoped for: I received a newsletter from both DiCiccio and – and the content was exactly the same: every subject line, every sentence, every idea. Identical.

To me, this is a major sign – likely outright proof – that Diciccio or someone working for him provided my e-mail information to

Both parties were stupid, arrogant or a radioactive combination of both.

Local Media is Watching

A reporter at The Arizona Republic also confirmed that the paper is curious about ties between DiCiccio and The reporter said interview requests for the website were not answered – and that DeKeyser denied any ties to the organization. Someone is lying. And the reporter has no motive.

Since the curiously similar e-mail blasts, I’ve continued getting DiCiccio’s Glenn Beck-ish squawking for the entertainment value. In his alternate reality, he is the only guy looking out for the little people of the impovershed Arcadia and Ahwatukee neighborhoods (someone has to make sure families there can afford the payments on their fleet of SUVs). In that alternate reality, it’s also OK to sign people up for e-mail lists against their will and to funnel their information to outside organizations that are not accountable or even willing to be interviewed by media.

It doesn’t seem the city has a policy governing how it handles residents’ e-mail addresses. So DiCiccio will probably escape censure from city officials. But I’m hoping he’ll answer for this and every other act of ethical dyslexia at the ballot box.

So what do you think? Does it look like DiCiccio or one of his staff members provided e-mail to addresses to If so, do you find that dirty pool?