Most tourists arriving in Hồ Chí Minh City are encouraged to head off to the Củ Chi tunnels, many of course in the dark about their true purpose or history apart from maybe a loose understanding that they are related to the war years.
I even read recently that U.S. media giant CNN has acknowledged the 120km-long restored tunnel system, which was part of a national network and essential to the revolutionary soldiers during the French and American wars, as one of the world’s top underground tourist attractions.
But what the normal blurbs and facts do not inform you is that the area, located around 60km from Hồ Chí Minh City, is one of the most peaceful and beautiful places in this part of the country.
I recall my fellow Scot Greig and I decided to embark on our first-ever bike trip to the tunnels two years ago.
He made his way from District 5 to pick me up for our epic journey into the unknown.
We had both never ridden a motorbike before moving to Việt Nam but there was only one way to learn, and we were confident enough to give it a go.
Armed with our smartphone maps, we hit the road and only made a few wrong turns to find the tunnels, as there were no huge signposts leading the way to the Củ Chi tunnels in the eponymous district.
Or maybe they were in Vietnamese, not that we noticed.
The traffic was not actually as bad as we had thought but we did see a guy with a broken leg with blood gushing out on the way home.
It was a scorcher of a day with cool winds flowing through our hair, well that is if we had any.
Once we arrived unscathed, we were not sure where to go.
But instead of asking, we went on our merry way in search of adventure.
Who needs a tour guide?
We walked for about half an hour and had to turn back.
Of course we had gone the complete wrong way, not noticing you had to nip through some trees to find the hidden entrance.
Who likes easy things?
We watched some videos about the tunnels, which have been preserved for tourists, before heading to see them for real.
The first time you go down is a bit daunting, but once you have popped your cherry, the rest are a breeze, as long as you can fit through them, that is.
Beer bellies need not apply.
Of course the tunnels were much smaller back in the day; they have been extended to fit tourist frames.
I cannot even imagine the discomfort of the soldiers or villagers cramped underground.
I suppose when your life is on the line, you do what you have to do.
We headed towards one bunker area but were stopped by the guy who obviously thought we were Americans.
Maybe some spots are off-limits to certain nationalities.
Despite our best attempts at Russian accents, he wouldn’t relent.
Maybe next time we can sneak a look to see what we missed out on.
Probably nothing and he was leading a different tour but my vivid imagination likes to think different.
So we did our usual touristy snapshots of half in half out the tunnels, among the ones that if you went down you may never come back or get stuck in.
It amazes you that teams of soldiers could live down them for long periods of time.
There were hospitals, living spaces, supplies, meeting rooms, kitchens, everything you could think of was stored downstairs unnoticed by U.S. soldiers who would cover the area on their tanks and falling prey to booby traps and false holes.
Okay the actual tunnels themselves are why tourists head to this area on the outskirts of Hồ Chí Minh City but the thing I took out of was the sanctuary feel of the whole place.
It is so peaceful and of course being in Việt Nam, friendly.
Walking around the vast area is great exercise and taking in the green spots there is good for the soul.
I love the vast green spaces and lakes.
It is such a beautifully quiet spot where teams of Vietnamese get out their packed lunches and some drinks, and enjoy some relaxing time with friends, chatting away and having a great time.
There is an area designed for food but some of the guys we met had brought their own.
I think of all the places I have been to in Hồ Chí Minh City, this has to be the best.
It made all the more special as we went there on our own, not cramped on some tour bus.
Freedom of the road and all that stuff.
The complex is so huge you can walk forever and never tire.
People are always talking about city escapes in this or that resort but this location is virtually for free if you are willing to get on your bike and go for it.
Alternatively, the bus tours will hardly see you break the bank.
If the peaceful surroundings make you a little sleepy, you can always head for some shooting to wake up with a bang.
There is a shooting range at the very back of the complex, although it is tough to find if you are on your own, where you can fire off some rounds of an M16 or AK-47 assault rifle.
The latter is the more popular due to its power.
It is good fun and highly recommended.
Visiting the tunnels, I am sure it is a very humbling experience to pampered tourists who have experienced pretty harm-free lives.
No matter which country they are from, surely their visit as well as being enjoyable will enable them to respect the Vietnamese people who were forced to fight and live large parts of their lives underground so that they could live again.
By DEREK MILROY