One of Ho Chi Minh City’s most famous sights is the Cu Chi Tunnels. First dug in the 1940s to help the local Vietnamese fight French forces, the tunnels played a pivotal role in the Viet Cong (VC) defeat of US and allied troops during the Vietnam-American War in the 1960s. When we arrived at the site we were shown a black-and-white video that recalled a propaganda news reel from WWII and then taken out for the tour. This kicked off with a demonstration of how the VC would access the hidden tunnels. An army-green clad gentleman lifted a well-concealed lid from a small hole in the ground, dropped in quickly and lowered the lid. It was eerie to watch the lid slowly come back up. We were allowed to try if we wanted; I just barely fit.
The underground network was vast, at one time stretching all the way from Saigon to the Cambodian border and comprising more than 250 kilometers of tunnels. Underground rooms consisted of sleeping and dining quarters, kitchens, hospitals, command centers and weapons factories. The tenacious VC lived in the tunnels for weeks and months at a time. They constructed air holes to look like termite mounds and kitchen vents that released the smoke many meters from the tunnel site. All the digging was done by hand and the soil was carried away to protect the secret entrances.
Then it was time to go in. The tunnels open to tourists have been enlarged – and presumably swept for snakes – but still felt claustrophobic. I made the mistake of leaving my backpack on and it rubbed against the ceiling the whole way. We passed through 50 meters of tunnel that twisted, turned and dropped further below the ground. The curves in the path were marked with small red lights and the drops were lit with a torch to keep you from breaking your neck. But beyond that you are completely encompassed in darkness. I would have missed the exit had the guide not called out to me. Coming up the stairs I was flooded with relief. It was maybe a five minute crawl, but that was enough. I can’t believe people lived down there!
During wartime, the tunnels were entered through trapdoors camouflaged with grass, leaves and branches. Some of these entrances were booby-trapped. The examples on display conjure up horrifying images of soldiers being impaled or losing a foot on the terrible spikes. I read that the Americans tried using German shepherds to sniff out the traps, but the VC cleverly started using American soap and uniforms to confound the poor dogs.
The Cu Chi area was aggressively bombed during the war, and while the jungle surrounding the tunnel complex has been reforested, the ground is still pocked with craters. A shooting range lets visitors get a feel for the weaponry of the time – AK47s, rifles and machine guns. It was disconcerting to hear the gunfire while touring the site. We didn’t participate as the bullets were quite expensive and the sound was deafening.
Lightening the mood, at least for me, were the bevy of domesticated animals just hanging around the complex, totally unperturbed by the gun blasts.
Would you have gone in the tunnels?