On a big television screen in the visitor’s center the Vietnam War plays on: B-52s drop bombs, villagers run for cover but, outside, it is easy to forget that this was what writers Tom Mangold and John Penycate called “the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated, and generally devastated area in the history of warfare.”
This is the site of the Cu Chi tunnels, a network of underground tunnels located in the Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, that are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Cu Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tet Offensive in 1968(Source: Wikipedia).
Now rubber and eucalyptus trees have been allowed to grow again and the area looks like any other tranquil forest. Originally carved out of the clayish, red earth by the Viet Ninh against the French in the late 1940s it was re-excavated by the Viet Cong (VC) guerillas in the late 1960s. The locals dug these tunnels with hand tools, filling reed baskets and dumping the dirt in bomb craters. The web-like Cu Chi tunnels, 30 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, allowed the VC to control a huge slice of the rural area, almost up to the Cambodian border. Some of the tunnels even ran under the U.S. military base. It stretched over 150 miles, allowing the VC to communicate between different pockets of their territory that were separated by the South Vietnamese and American bases, and wage an unrelenting guerilla war. The Vietcong would execute hit-and-run raids and simply melt away in their subterranean world. The original tunnels were quite narrow and have been widened for tourists now.
We start by seeing a black and white propaganda film in a large briefing room, with a very one-sided account of the Vietnam War. Our guide Thung first explains the layout using a model of the Cu Chi tunnels—a three-level ingeniously planned underground maze, with meeting rooms, hospitals, bedrooms, kitchens, and even cavernous rooms for staging political plays! The tunnels were built using bare hands, tiny hoes, and wicker baskets by farmers who would hide these implements and pretend to work in the fields.
We see underground kitchens. Our guide explains how the chimneys were several meters away, and had flat vents, so that the smoke just diffused gently, instead of a plume. How did the soldiers breathe? Bamboo poles were stuck through the ground into the tunnels to provide air and were disguised as termite mounds from the top. There are camouflaged trap doors all over the grounds—the Vietcong even used to hide the openings in pig pens so that they would not be discovered.
Our guide suddenly parts the leaf litter, and opens a miniscule, camouflaged wooden hatch. He is of small build, like the Vietnamese usually are, and in the blink of a second, he does a pencil dive into the small trapdoor that leads to the tunnels. My daughter follows his example, but I am wary and choose to avoid getting stuck! No wonder the United States had “tunnel rats”—a special force selected for their small size and bravery—whose job was to enter these tunnels and flush out the Viet Cong. Armed with just a torch and a pistol, these tunnel rats played a deadly game of hide and seek, where many met their end, either from deadly booby traps or grenades or even vipers and scorpions. The Americans sprayed chemical defoliants aerially, and ignited the vegetation with napalm and gasoline. But the tropical air reacted with the intense heat to cause cloudbursts. When the Americans used German shepherd dogs to ferret out the trapdoors, the VC started washing with American soap and putting on captured Americans’ uniforms to confuse the dogs.
There are workshops with models which show how the VC lived. They made their weapons and land mines using recycled metal from bomb shrapnel in a most dangerous procedure. Their very rudimentary but durable footwear was made from strips of old rubber tyre treads and inner tubes. There is an unnerving section devoted to the different traps used by the VC—the tiger trap has a hinged trapdoor that flips up and throws the person into a bed of bamboo spikes, tipped with poison, and a rack of nails that fits into a door frame.
The war experience is made more real by the snack that we are served here: boiled tapioca and a mixture of peanuts, sugar, salt, and sesame seeds. The Viet Cong subsisted on this kind of bland food for months. There is a souvenir shop with war memorabilia: planes and toy tanks from Coco Cola cans, dog tags and jewellery from bullet shells, and fake Zippo lighters (copies of those carried by American GIs) with messages carved on them. The ultimate touch in a kind of combat theme park: Our guide takes us to the shooting range and says, “$1 for 10 bullets—you can choose an AK 47 or a American M-16!” We move away, choosing to finish our experience here by actually crawling into a tunnel. My daughter crawls behind the guide in army fatigues; there are escape exits every 20 metres if you change your mind. She reaches the end of the tunnel and says, “How did they even spend a couple of hours here?”
War tourism is not confined to the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. Another very popular tour is to the DMZ or the De-Militarized Zone on the 17th parallel, extending from the Laotian Border to the South China Sea. It’s a bleak terrain with barbed wire and napalm-burnt ground. The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City has grisly images, photos of war crimes, deformed fetuses in glass jars, and mock prisons. There were losses on both sides and the war was never over for many—some were maimed, others suffered from post-traumatic stress disorders. But most of the locals are not interested in the War—it makes sense because more than half of the population was born after the Vietnam war. But the Vietnamese have also realized that there’s money to be made from painful memories … and maybe that’s not such a bad thing for a country trying to heal.
The author is a Japanese language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai, India
FACT FILE FOR CU CHI TUNNELS:
How to get there: Fly to Bangkok and take a flight by Vietnam Air to Ho Chi Minh City. From Ho Chi Minh City drive down forty kilometres to the Cu Chi Tunnels or take a guided tour.
Where to stay: Hotel Movenpick 253, Nguyen Van Troi Street, Ho Chi Minh City. Visit http://www.moevenpick-hotels.com
When to go: The dry months of December to April is the best time to visit the Cu Chi tunnels.
Local Currency: The Vietnamese Dong.