91. Underground at Cu Chi

A tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels gives insight into how the North Vietnamese Army won its war against the South and its American allies.

A large shop markets sun hats and a wide range of other souvenirs at the Cu Chi Tunnels. (JGA photo)

One moment, my friend is standing in front of me. I blink, and he is gone.

I shuffle over to the place I last saw David Blair and find only reddish-gray clay covered by fallen leaves.  It is if the earth has swallowed him up.

Moments later, the ground moves and a trap door springs suddenly open. Like a jack-in-the-box, Blair pops out with a big smile. “It’s dark down there!” he exclaims.

We are in The Twilight Zone, foreign intruders at Vietnam’s notorious Cu Chi Tunnels.

Cu Chi is one of those places where fact dwarfs legend. From the mid-1960s to mid-‘70s — the darkest years of the conflict that Americans call the “Vietnam War” and Vietnamese remember as the “American War” — the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) built a veritable subterranean city from which its troops harassed U.S. forces allied to South Vietnam. Indeed, many historians today credit the impregnability of Cu Chi as the single most important reason why North Vietnam controlled the struggle.

Tour guide Alex, a former history teacher, lectures on the subterranean network. (JGA photo)

Nocturnal lifestyle

The market village of Cu Chi — located about 39 km (24 miles) from the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon — was here long before the tunnels were built. And the tunnels are not only at Cu Chi; a complex labyrinth of interlinked burrows was constructed across the country. But here they were within shouting distance of South Vietnam’s capital city, a mere stone’s throw from an American air base.

The tunnels were much more than hiding places and supply routes. They were also living quarters, with kitchens, hospitals, communications centers and weapons caches. In their nocturnal lifestyle, emerging only at night, communist forces suffered almost unthinkable conditions. Fresh air and water were hard to come by; malaria and dysentery took nearly as many lives as battle wounds. It was taken for granted that they would share the warrens with snakes, spiders, scorpions and rats.

Today the Cu Chi tunnels are one of the most popular attractions for visitors to Ho Chi Minh City. More than 120 km (75 miles) of passages have been preserved by Vietnam’s government as a war memorial park. At two different exhibit sites, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc, tour guides encourage exploration of restored sections of the original tunnel system. The varmints are gone (or so one would hope), but the scale of the excavations remains the same, typically about 2 feet wide and barely 3 feet high. It’s not a place for claustrophobes.

A craft worker fashions pieces of cracked duck eggs into works of art. (JGA photo)

‘Like a Buddha’

David Blair is a friend from my home state of Oregon, a retired Congressional staffer who studied the Vietnam War both as a university student and a professional politico.

He and I pay a modest US $20 apiece to Joyous Travel to join a half-day bus tour to the tunnels, beginning at 7:30 a.m. Our group’s guide, a former high-school history teacher who calls hímelf Alex, tells a few too many bad jokes and repeats them twice too often. At least he speaks good English and makes an effort to be entertaining. Those two qualities are not guaranteed in Vietnamese tour guides.

Alex regularly references the city of Saigon, noting that “Ho Chi Minh City” is preferred only by migrants from the more affirmedly communist north. He speaks in hushed tones about the two postwar decades when Vietnam was closed to outside influence, and raves in glowing terms about former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s role in reestablishing relations between the countries in the ‘90s. “Bill Clinton is like a Buddha to us here!” Alex exclaims.

The drive northwest should require no more than an hour, but rush-hour traffic extends our travel. Then we make a lengthy rest stop at a roadside craft center. We turn blind eyes to giant red ants rallying their forces on a clothesline, instead focusing on artisans who demonstrate skills with broken duck-egg mosaic tiles and mother-of-pearl. David finds a work in lacquer that seems to bring to life the enchanting sway of Vietnamese hips clad in sensual ao dai dresses. It will soon adorn a wall in his Oregon home.

David Blair slides into a woodland trap door that provides a hidden entrance to the tunnels at Cu Chi. (JGA photo)

Deep cover

Arriving at the Ben Duoc tunnel, our tourist brigade — men and women mostly in their 20s and 30s, from Australia and various European countries — is ushered through turnstiles and down a woodland path. Alex shows us charts and maps that describe troop movement during the war, and indicates an underground conference chamber (now a video room) where such campaigns as the 1968 Tết Offensive were planned.

As we hit the trail, he warns us to be cautious around toxic foliage, and points out booby traps that might have been lethal to unsuspecting soldiers. A pit of sharpened bamboo punji sticks is especially chilling. A rusted-out American tank hints at a rapid abandonment.

The highlight is exploring the tunnels themselves. Not as young, as slender nor as athletic as my friend, I merely glimpse into the subterranean realm. He needs no encouragement to proceed through some 100 meters (325 feet) on his own. David describes the tunnel as a one-lane crawl space that, even for him, is a bit daunting.

We hear gunfire, and it’s getting closer. But we’re not in the line of fire: A controlled shooting range enables tourists to fire a variety of automatic weapons. Ammunition is sold by the bullet, and we are both more interested in exploring the merchandise at a large souvenir shop, and in enjoying cold beers as we wait for the rest of our party.

David and John rest upon the gunbarrel of an American tank abandoned at Cu Chi. (JGA photo)

Tunnel rats

Throughout the war, U.S. armed forces made it a priority to seek out and destroy the Viet Cong tunnels, but with only minimal success. An elite squad of volunteer “tunnel rats” — armed only with handguns, knives, flashlights and string — stealthily crept through the catacombs to discover secret caches of weapons and strategic documents. After the Tết Offensive, relentless bombing missions heavily damaged some sections of the tunnels.

But Cu Chi remained a thorn in the Americans’ side until the eventual U.S. withdrawal in 1973. The incredible network of tunnels, intertwined with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, enabled the North Vietnamese Army to discreetly move troops and supplies south from Hanoi, leading to the fall of Saigon in 1975.

David and I are back in Saigon by around 2:30 p.m. It’s a long “half day,” but as we are both history enthusiasts, it’s a worthwhile one. And we are grateful we won’t be sharing our living quarters with snakes and scorpions.

Barely large enough for a frying pan, this tiny hole offers discreet access to a huge tunnel system. (JGA photo)
A Dutch tourist at the Cu Chi Tunnels disappears into a rabbit hole. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

One thought on “91. Underground at Cu Chi

  1. Fascinating look at our past. I am so thankful to have kept my student deferment and landed a job in a draft-exempt vocation.

    Like

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