Cu Chi tunnels

(James) On the morning of our tour, we rose early and were collected by a small minibus full of fellow tourists and a guide, each of us hoping fervently that an organised tour wouldn’t prove to be a mistake. As the visit to Cu Chi was an afternoon trip, it had been combined with a stop at the Cao Dai Holy See temple in the morning (setting further alarm bells ringing…) which actually turned out to be quite interesting. Less than 100 years old, the Cao Dai faith incorporates elements from the main religions as well as celebrating non-traditional, latter day saints such as Louis Pasteur, Martin Luther King, and Victor Hugo. Strange, but true! The temple was, it has to be said, pretty gaudy with its candy cane-esque pillars and vibrant murals, but why not – who says religion has to be austere and muted?! We’d arrived in time for the lunchtime prayer (one of four daily sessions) and the hoards of worshippers in different coloured robes (each to reflect the root of Cao Daism they are most influenced by; Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or Taoist) were quite a sight to behold. After a lunch stop, the bus headed off in the direction Cu Chi but on the way, we suddenly pulled off the road and into an area full of what looked like large garages. Our initial scepticism about being taken to some tourist trap to buy kitsch gifts was quickly shelved when we discovered that it was a series of government run workshops, set up to provide working opportunities for the victims of Agent Orange (almost all of whom were born during or after the Vietnam war). Even more surprising was what they were making for the tourist market. Far from being cheap tourist tat, the workers here were producing high-end handmade pieces and most were doing so with seriously deformed limbs as well as other severe physical and mental disabilities. We walked up a production row and watched in amazement as egg shells were burnt (for colouring) before being carved and cut by hand with laser precision (along with mother of pearl) to create complex mosaics, inlaid into hand carved wood and  then lacquered and polished ready for sale. The work was incredibly intricate and the finished product was simply exquisite. We would have loved to have bought something but the prices, unsurprisingly given the man hours involved, were seriously high (and we don’t really have the room either); they seemed to be getting a lot of business from fellow travellers though and quite right too.

We continued on our way and an hour later arrived at the main event. The Cu Chi tunnels are an elaborate tunnel network some 121km long. Built and used by the Viet Cong (VC), the tunnels served as hide-outs, bomb shelters, communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon stores and living quarters for guerrilla fighters. The Cu Chi tunnels were particularly renowned due to their proximity to Saigon, and were the base from which the Tet offensive was launched in 1968 (more on this from Em later). The tunnels were a major thorn in the side of the Americans and one that considerable effort was directed at to eradicate. Massive aerial bombing campaigns targeted Cu Chi turning the lush forest into a crater filled moonscape, but so extensive were the tunnels that they remained operational. The tunnels were incredibly narrow (designed so that westerners could not get into them), dark and dangerous. They were filled with ants, mosquitoes, rats, poisonous snakes, centipedes and spiders and life in the tunnels, with the added problems of stale air, was pretty grim. The Viet Cong would spend their days underground before surfacing at night through tiny, well hidden holes to forage for food, tend to their crops or fight. The Americans even trained specialist soldiers, called ‘tunnel rats’, for tunnel warfare, the idea being  that they would discover and flush out the enemy by going into the tunnels armed with just a pistol, knife, torch and a piece of string. The work was incredibly dangerous; added to all the general dangers in the tunnels, the Viet Cong would set booby traps along the way, and some tunnel rats simply became trapped in particularly narrow sections or dead ends where they were beyond the help of the soldiers just a few metres above. In the end this approach was deemed too dangerous and abandoned.

Today, a preserved section of the tunnels is open to tourists and it was these we had come to see. Our guide was excellent, giving us a real insight into the life of the VC and showing us some of the range of incredibly resourceful but utterly horrific man traps built using household items to target any American GI unfortunate enough to step onto one – they were designed not just to kill but to maim, causing maximum psychological terror amongst the victims’ comrades and generally lowering morale. Whilst talking to us, the guide mentioned that we were actually standing at an entrance to the tunnels; we looked around, perplexed, and eventually found  it (although I think he’d cleared some leaves away with his foot!) It was a minute hatch which, when lifted  away, revealed a tiny space. We each took turns trying to climb down into it; Em made it, I just did (although I almost popped a shoulder doing it) but the much beefier Darren only made it mid way up his thighs – he wouldn’t have made it as a tunnel rat (Em: luckily for him!). What was really shocking was that inside the space beneath the hatch (which allowed you to squat down but left no room for movement), the guide pointed down to a tiny arched gap in the base of the wall not much more than 30cm wide and maybe 20cm at its highest point. This, it turned out was the actual tunnel the VC would get down into (with their weapon). We were at a complete loss. We simply couldn’t for the life of us conceive how anyone could not only fit through it but even get into a position where they could get into it. The hatch a few of us had managed to squeeze through, the guide went on to say, had been specially widened to accommodate westerners – we had noticed that the Vietnamese were diminutive but this was ridiculous!

We continued through the trees and our guide showed us a termite mound that doubled as a ventilation shaft before pointing out an original and unmodified tunnel entry hatch;  this one was so small that it didn’t seem possible that anyone older than about seven years hold would be able to squeeze into – needless to say, nobody even bothered trying. There is one small section of the tunnels that has been widened and is open to the public and it was here we found ourselves next. The guide did warn us that anyone with health problems or any issues with small spaces should give it a miss, which a few in the group did. The rest of us, however, were game (Em: I was having serious doubts, mind you!) The tunnels may have been ‘widened’, but don’t be fooled into thinking they were in any way ‘wide’. Crawling on our hands and knees into the darkness, we edged along scraping our shoulders as we went. After a long twenty metres we reached a exit point where, having been told that the tunnel was about to get smaller, the majority of the group got out. This included Em (too claustrophobic) and Darren (could barely fit in the first section) and, whilst they climbed out and walked to the field hospital (not for treatment), a couple of us chose to continue the rest of the way. At this point the tunnel narrowed and went black, pitch black. We edged our way along, at first on our hands and knees and then lying down on our stomachs and elbows, calling out to reassure the more nervous ones in the group. After a while (it’s really hard to estimate distances when crawling in utter darkness) the tunnel narrowed significantly once more and started to drop away. I won’t lie, I was a tad disconcerted as I called out to let those behind me  know what was ahead (I’d somehow been nominated to go first!). Not only had the tunnel now narrowed, but the height had more than halved and suddenly the only way to continue down the slope was to lie completely flat and shuffle forward using my toes and grabbing the dirt with my fingers. It really was very hot and very, very claustrophobic. After what seemed an age, I arrived at the end of the tunnel and emerged at the field hospital to find Em and Darren waiting for me. I’d only been under ground for maybe 20 minutes and had covered just 70 metres in a widened tunnel so I couldn’t begin to imagine spending all day living in there, carrying a weapon whilst being bombed!

The last thing on our agenda was the gun range, something Darren in particular had been looking forward to, where there was a variety of weapons available for visitors to fire. Obviously there was an AK-47 (the most heavily produced gun in history and weapon of choice for left wing insurgents and guerrillas the world over) but there were also American weapons. Darren could barely contain himself so off he went to pay and soon came back with a pile of ammunition. He was going for it! First he had a go on the AK-47, then the M-16, before very generously insisting (and paying!) for me to fire the M-16 (I’d already fired an AK in Pakistan on a previous visit and I have to say, for what it’s worth, I preferred the M-16.) After this, we were just about ready to go, but clearly the temptation had been too much, for Darren reappeared, half bashful, half giddy schoolboy, wearing a ammo belt over his shoulder – he was going for it on the big M-60 – think Rambo!! Suffice to say it was very loud and could have chopped a forest in half! Em, in the end, decided against firing one, she’d been horrified enough at how loud a real gun was! (Em: and I couldn’t really stomach it after all we’d seen and read about).

With Darren’s ammo belt finished, our day at the tunnels and was over. We’d had an amazing experience, made all the better (and more sobering) by our visit to the exhibitions at the war remnants museum and the work-shops for the victims of Agent Orange, all of which had help put things into perspective and underlined, as if it were needed, what a truly pathetic waste of life, on both sides, the war was.

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5 Responses to “Cu Chi tunnels”

  1. Jess says:

    A great couple of blog entries – I’m always so pleased when I see there is a new entry! Just reading about the tunnels make sme claustraphobic – I had to look out of the window at the Surrey hills throughout! xxx

  2. Jackson says:

    Fascinating country Vietnam right? Looks like it has modernised and relaxed it’s restrictions, even since I was there 10 years ago. Agent orange debacle is so sad. I visited areas in SE Laos which still look like a dessert. the locals there were also still using pieces on unexploded ordinance to build their homes. Have you heard the statistic that Laos is the most bombed country in the world (per Capita)? And it was never even at war!

  3. Mama/Kate says:

    Jackson, I think the word you were looking for is desert,(one s ) rather than some kind of trifle or banoffee pie? To be serious, though, the whole experience must have been pretty traumatic for you guys. Brilliantly written up,as usual. It certainly makes one wonder. ‘War. What is it good for?’

  4. James G says:

    Thanks for all the updates – really enjoying your reflections on Vietnam, though your descriptions of the tunnels practically gave me a panic attack – not sure I’d cope with exploring such a confined space! Sounds a fascinating experience, though.

    Keep enjoying your travels!

    James xx

  5. Marcus says:

    Sounds horrific

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