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Cu Chi Tunnels – No Laughing Matter

Let’s get one thing straight: the Vietnam War was not very funny. Not at all. So it was a little surprising to find the tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels to be so bereft of gravitas.

The tunnel system became enormous from the 1950s through to the 1970s, stretching for an estimated 250km. The protection, camouflage and communication and storage offered by these cramped subterranean spaces was central to the success of the Viet Cong in their battle against what the Vietnamese still powerfully call “American imperialist aggression”. But they were also deadly places for the Vietnamese regardless of bullets and bombs, with malaria being the second largest cause of death after battle wounds, not to mention other parasitic sickness and encounters with deadly snakes and spiders. Certainly no picnic.

As a tourist destination now however, a picnic is precisely what it is.

We joined our tour from our hostel, and after a two hour bus journey, punctuated only by a comedy stand-up routine from our guide which consisted of jokes about the difference between Vietnamese and Western cultures (and virtually no information about the tunnels) we arrived at the gates amid the rubber plantations. Here, our first port of call was the “Weapons Room”, where cases of war-era US guns and bazookas were there to be photographed from every angle by some rather over-excited men who should have known better.

Next was a weird propaganda film about how young girls killed soldiers, which it’s probably best to gloss over. “My family this way!” said one of the funnier guides at the end, and everyone laughed with relief…particularly the Americans, I suspect.

We then entered what was a crater filled wasteland after the American carpet bombing campaigns which has now grown back to be what it once may have been. Our guide (somewhat ironically called Cong, or was it Kong?) kept the jokes flowing: “These barracks, they are fake. Vietnam war is like game of hide and seek – it so funny if barracks really there. It would be like, hi, here I am. Bang bang! All dead! Hahahaha! Just put here for Westerners. You wanna fire gun?”

Meanwhile, the hoards (with us among them) descended upon the mock ups of gruesome booby traps, presented with a smile by Cong/Kong. You had to hand it to him for trying hard. “The Vietnamese soldiers dig these at night. The Americans come, fall in. They dead. Everyone get a medal. Ha ha!”

We stopped at hole after hole (some we even got into like some sort of bizarre turn taking sport) and heard snippets of information about them in stereo from various other guides around. Meanwhile, Cong/Kong kept the tone light and uninformative as usual, concentrating on how Vietnamese marriage ceremonies are different from Western ones and how black is an unlucky colour for the Vietnamese. I expect the Viet Cong talked about those things in the long bomb and disease-filled hours in the tiny smelly tunnels.

But things were taking a more realistic and evocative turn, as we could hear, not too far away, the distinctive and rather terrifying sound of machine gun fire. Had a lost GI suddenly found his way back to the battlefield after all these years? Was the end of the war a massive propaganda lie? No. It’s just a bit more Viet-Disney, and you can go and fire a real war-era gun.

We politely declined the chance to discharge a weapon that had probably killed a few people in its time, and had a surprisingly cheap corn snack. Then, after telling us a joke about how he likes to vomit after drinking, and how his grandmother had enormous breasts, Cong/Kong showed us how to grind. This was getting bizarre.

Finally, after more misplaced hilarity than we could really handle, we were shoved down into some actual tunnels (“These are fake! Made for fat Westerners. Hahahaha!”) It was, thinking of the history of the place, the most revealing experience, as we clamboured on our hands and knees through baking tunnels, safe but aware that our claustrophobia was both a widened and a chosen experience. Sweating and happy to have only spent a few minutes down there, we were glad to get out. As we dusted ourselves down with the sound of tourist gunfire in our ear, this at least was a tiny feeling of how terrifying it must have been here, not too long ago. Perhaps someone should tell the younger generation of tour guides that this sort of empathy is what we fat Westerners should be offered. It certainly doesn’t work as stand-up.

Howler monkeys in the trees of the Madidi

It’s A Jungle Out There


Rurrenabaque is full of travel agencies offering tours to the Bolivian jungle in the relatively untouched and pristine Parque Nacional Madidi. Of course, just getting to Rurrenabaque had been a crazy and terrifying experience in itself, but we knew that when we arrived we wanted to visit the jungle with help from a community based eco-lodge. After some shopping around, we decided to visit San Miguel del Bala Ecolodge, on the banks of the River Beni, 40 minutes upstream from Rurrenabaque. So, the morning after our plane landed, we were taken to the riverside where we plonked ourselves and our belongings on a riverboat and enjoyed a leisurely motorised voyage to the first lodge. Our trip deeper into the park, two hours upstream, would be the day after.

The first excursion was a pre-lunch visit to a canyon, where Sando, our guide for the first day, worried me with references to bats and worried Helen with references to spiders. But we were in the jungle now, so armed with wellies and a sense that we might tackle our fears, we hopped back in the boat for a short ride to the canyon. Needless to say, we both had our moments…

The previous days storms had left the water through the small canyon pretty deep.

Helen wasn´t keen on these (as big as a saucer)

I wasn´t keen when the bats flew past our ears, squeaking.

These were the blighters!

After a delicious lunch of stewed catfish fresh from the river (the food throughout the trip was excellent, cooked fresh each time with local ingredients) it was time to go to the first of our two cabins on the tour. A five minute hike uphill took us to where we were to be the only inhabitants of a five cabin site. Built out of materials from the surrounding area, the cabin was basic but clean and comfy, with fine mesh for windows to keep out the bugs. It was here that our guide for the rest of the trip, the diminutive and cheerful Simon, came to collect us for a walk to the community of San Miguel.

It was about a fifteen minute walk to the village, but in that time Simon was determined to show us that he was a genuine man of the forest. Thus it was that during one of his slightly halting explanations about flora and fauna, he chopped open a small coconut-type seed, fished out a little white grub, and suggested we might like a tasty smack. Having minutes earlier accepted some of the seed’s flesh to taste, it was clear that he meant this delicacy to be a live one! We watched him demonstrate eating a grub and eventually plucked up the courage to do the same (although Helen quickly spat hers out). There wasn’t much wriggling on the creature’s part thankfully, but the popping sensation when chewing was pretty disgusting. Meanwhile, the vague taste of coconut was masked by the knowledge that you’d just eaten a pretty ugly live larvae. Laughing at our sensibilities – he no doubt likes to do this to all of his tourists – Simon then went about extracting and pocketing a good handful of grubs. They taste great on the barbecue apparently…


Bush Tucker Challenge (Paul wins)

They did taste slightly better done this way. Maybe a bit of chilli sauce would have helped?



The trip around the community of San Miguel was great. People were friendly and apparently very resourceful, children were funny and playful, and nobody asked anything of us. Had this been in many of the parts of Peru we visited, it’s likely that the people may have been armed with tourist goods for us to buy, competing with each other as they did so. Here though, the community are the tour company. They built the lodges, they work in them, the money and benefits are shared. So, after drinking freshly squeezed sugar cane juice from the village press, trying more grubs on a kebab, watching a lady expertly weave a bag from a couple of palm leaves and watching kids play whilst Simon chatted to his friends, it was time to return to the lodge where dinner and a night in the jungle awaited.


Day two meant a move to the second lodge, further upstream. On the way we were treated to views of a capybara (sort of giant guinea pig) and a caiman by the waterside. How Simon or the boatmen spotted these was beyond us.

Set in a clearing in much more dense and tropical forest, the second lodge felt far more isolated, made even more so by the fact that once again we were the only guests. Over the next two days, this was our base for guided walks in the untouched forest, fishing on the river (rather unsuccessfully) and eating the delicious food.

The second lodge at San Miguel del Bala

In the forest we walked in silence, stopping every thirty paces or so for Simon to listen and try to spot animals and birds. After an early run in with an enormous group of wild pigs, we were happy to mainly see wildlife above us in the trees. Macaws, parakeets, hummingbirds and woodpeckers were amongst the abundant bird life, but the sight of families of Howler Monkeys was the highlight. Hearing their Jurassic Park roar in the morning was also spectacular.


Howler monkeys in the trees of the Madidi

Ocelot tracks in the mud.

A teenage boy from the community at San Miguel, fishing with nets in the Rio Beni.

Many of the plants and fungi in the jungle had medicinal qualities. Apparently, this one is good for healing haemorrhages!

At night, the bugs were king. Lights really needed to be out as soon as possible after dark as gigantic moths as big as plates and screaming cicadas hammered at the mesh windows, desperate to knock themselves out on the dull electric light. Ants threatened to wage war on your skin (the locals were even pretty scared of some of them) and enormous but apparently harmless spiders scuttled across the roof beams. Despite the merciful lack of mosquitos, the nets over the beds were quite a comfort as the forests insects blared out their nightly cacophony.

The guides were scared of some of the caterpillars...


Hello! I´m a cicada!

On the final day, after Simon had done a bit of handicraft and made us some jungle jewellery, we jumped back into the raft and headed back to Rurrenabaque, stopping on the way to cram the boat full of people catching a lift from San Miguel. With old ladies and children squatting in the stern, a large rainstorm gave us a drenching to see us off. Looking up at the grey skies we were happy that we had one more night for it to disperse before we again attempted to tackle the flight home – probably the scariest part of an other-worldly jungle experience.

Simon (left) making jewellery from seeds.