We took a bus out of Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong during the war as a place to live, supply system, weapons storage, hospitals and of course, a place to hide when things got really nasty.
Our guide was the wonderful Pham Van Hai – probably our best local guide on the entire trip. Hai had impeccable English (a result of his time served in the South Vietnamese Army alongside American soldiers during the Vietnam War). Since he had fought alongside the Americans, he spent several years at a re-education camp after the war ended. He also clearly had been on the wrong end of a bit of action in the war: a few of his fingers were missing. Despite seeing the horrors, he had an incredibly smutty sense of humour. Hai briefed us about the tunnels after we had sat through a short propaganda video:
People lived in the tunnels, and cooked in them. Smoke coming from a vent in the tunnels would have given them away, so it was cooled through a series of chambers so that there was no visible smoke released to the ground level. Invisibility was paramount. The entrances to the tunnels were also almost impossible to see. Here’s one hatch pushed up by a guide from below:
I also had a go at getting into the tunnels, but was too big (Around the shoulders, thank you!) to get into the tunnels. So during the war, the trapdoors also acted as a friend-or-foe filer: tall Westerners couldn’t get in but small, malnourised Vietnamese could:
Despite near-seismic bombing raids by the USAF, the tunnels were not destroyed and were a big factor in the military success of the communists. We walked around one part of the forest unaware of what we were walking past, until it was pointed out that the massive area (about the size of several tennis courts and about 20 feet deep) was a bomb crater. Some of the bombs were on display nearby:
The tunnel dwellers were able to survive by digging deeper. When they emerged into the moonscape that remained, they took the dud bombs and repurposed them to make IEDs, which were then used to knock out tanks, like this one:
Enemy infantry were targeted with hit-and-run attacks, and also hunting traps redesigned to trap humans, such as Punji traps – pit traps made with bamboo spears. The famous booby traps set by the Viet Cong were intended to cause as much distraction as possible. A wounded soldier, went the logic, was much better than a dead one. A wounded soldier would waste more enemy resources than a dead one. Punji trap spears were often smeared with faeces to promote infection and hospitalisation.
Conditions in the tunnels were hard – malaria and other diseases were rife, and the inhabitants subsisted on meagre rations. We had a short break to try the alternative to rice in the Viet Cong diet: tapioca root. As someone who has only ever had tapioca granules for pudding, this was novel! It was served to us with tea and a small bowl of sugar for dipping.
We had a chance to travel through a section of the tunnels. This section had had its width doubled for tourists, then doubled again. Even so, I felt a little claustrophobic – I couldn’t turn around in the tunnel.
The tunnels were ingenious. It’s hard to imagine how the US could possibly have won the Vietnam War after seeing the thought and dedication that had gone into these tunnels, traps and other surprises – a microcosm of the resistance against them.