Friday, February 10th
Our Mekong adventure was quite a baptism to the South Vietnamese culture and climate. Day 2 was reserved for touring the Cu Chi tunnels, which are located 43 miles Northwest of Saigon. The drive should only take about an hour, but with the legendary traffic getting in or out of the city, it took us an hour and a half. Part of our delays were stopping in each direction for delicious Vietnamese iced coffees, naturally.
There are two different areas where tourists can see the tunnel complex, or at least small sections of it. Our guide brought us to the Northern side, as it is far less crowded with tour buses and large crowds found on the Southeast side. As I walked in, despite the war occurring before I was born, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of uneasiness – walking into enemy territory. One aspect that was very pleasant was the weather. We were prepared for swaths of mosquitoes and smothering humidity and heat. It was actually breezy and around 78°, albeit humid. A little Off Back Woods (25% deet!) kept the bugs away from us.
I did not study the Vietnam War extensively before the trip. Over the years, I have learned random pieces of information from movies, documentaries, or random late night Wiki reads. Nothing can prepare you for seeing these tunnels in person. It really is incredible to see how extensive and intricate the Cu Chi tunnels became over the course of the war. Our first introduction to the tunnels was an obscure mound of dirt, which appeared to be a nest of some sort. Guess what it is?
The tunnels needed air ventilation. This innocuous looking quasi insect mound was actually a vent for the tunnels below. Air was the main concern for the tunnels, and disguising how and where the air came in and out of the tunnels was one of the most important aspects of survival for the people living within them below.
As we walked along the trail, Lindsay and I were both taken aback when we saw wax figures of Viet Cong soldiers in full uniform. It was jarring to say the least. Imagine walking into a wax museum and being startled, then imagine the wax museum as a historic battlefield in South Vietnam and there are very real looking Viet Cong soldiers staring at you.
There were several stations with short documentary videos being played, but Nguyen mentioned how heavily one sided the films were – so we passed those up. The next station had a map layout of the tunnels, an ant farm looking side view of the tunnels, and of course a shrine to Ho Chi Minh (very common everywhere in Vietnam).
Seeing the side view aspect of the multi levels of the tunnels really put everything in perspective. If level one was compromised by water, gas, or enemy invasion – the soldiers simply scurried further down into the ant hill to level two. There were trap doors, traps with punji sticks, and dead ends to trap enemies. The third level was generally reserved for stores and bunkers of munitions. People could not reside long on the third level below because of the lack of oxygen and ventilation. The fourth level would be for the water wells, which had to be further inland as the war progressed due to Agent Orange being used. The top two levels would have full size meeting rooms for military leaders to discuss strategies. The tunnels were literally an underground city.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the tunnels was the lower level water access areas to the Mekong River. The US Army used helicopters to heavily surveil the areas surrounding the tunnels and any resupply efforts on the Mekong to the Viet Cong hiding in the tunnels. The Viet Cong would actually swim into the river from the lower level of the tunnels, and only surface close enough to use a bamboo stick to breath – making it incredibly hard to cut off the supply lines.
The entrances to the tunnels have been altered to accommodate tourists, making them much taller, wider, and easier to access from above ground. It was still very tight, musky, dark, and uncomfortable. I am claustrophobic. I told myself that I would go see the tunnels from the outside and admire them from above. However, the first one we saw we could visit had wide steps and a tall ceiling inside – so Lindsay and I decided to go for it. After making it down 8-10 steps, the Vietnamese local guide scurried into a dark tunnel about 36 inches high. This was my nightmare. I decided to face my fear and scurry through behind him. Poor Lindsay was behind me, so I was blocking what little light the guide was providing with his flashlight. About 45 seconds later, Lindsay and I both emerged, out of breath and both agreeing that our tunneling days were over.
The original entrances looked like this: roughly a 24″x 18″ opening
And were hidden incredibly well like this (click for video)
From what I’ve read about life inside the tunnels, it was clear that malnutrition, venomous centipedes/insects, and intestinal parasites were extremely common in the tunnel dwellers. Despite all of these possibly fatal issues, they did not just survive, they thrived. The tunnels were essential to North Vietnam defeating South Vietnam in the war.
Along the trail after the tunnel visit sites, there was a replica (which may have been an actual trap during the war because of its location) trap with punji sticks below. The guide showed us how anyone walking in the forest would fall victim to it. The worst part of these traps was their strategic location to clandestine shooting mounds. When an enemy soldier fell victim to the trap, they would wait patiently for other soldiers to come to the aid of the fallen. Once enough people came to their aid, the hidden soldiers in the tunnels would shoot them all very quickly, and rarely leave any witnesses that could point out their location.
Our solution to destroying these tunnels was to bomb them, heavily. The problem with bombing from above was that we were not certain where they were, and that the land where they dug the tunnels had a very strong soil makeup. The soil was mostly clay, and the upper portions of the tunnels were supported with bamboo to prevent caving in when tanks were being driven by the US Army directly above them. Our bombing of the tunnels and use of Agent Orange to defoliate the forest was not only very expensive, but also largely ineffective. Agent Orange was also extraordinarily damaging to future generations of not only Vietnamese people, but also American soldiers who were exposed to it in the battlefields.
I tried going into another wide entranced tunnel, but tweaked a muscle in my back – which sadly ended the tour early for us. However, I would strongly suggest anyone visiting Saigon to visit these tunnels. It is very good that the Vietnamese Government opened the tunnels to the public as an outdoor museum of sorts. I believe it is very important that foreigners see first hand the lengths that the Vietnamese people are willing to go to in order to protect their country from foreign control. Ideally this should help prevent history from repeating itself, especially in Vietnam.