Inside War History: The Cu Chi Tunnels of Saigon

Many people of my generation mostly know the Vietnam War as it was chronicled in the movies. We watched Robin Williams shout, “follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail!” as the upstart radio DJ for the armed forces in Saigon in Good Morning Vietnam. We watched Forrest, Bubba and Lieutenant Dan fight in the Vietnam war while Jenny protested against it in Forrest Gump. Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are among others that come to mind.

forrest apoc

For those born a decade (or more) after the war ended, we relied on history books and the memories from our elders when we got old enough to ask. That is why the opportunity to tour the Cu Chi tunnels and walk inside the walls of history meant so much.

Bal and I stand next to an abandoned tank. Painted on the side it reads, "American M41 tank destroyed by a delay mine in 1970."

Bal and I stand next to an abandoned tank. Painted on the side it reads, “American M41 tank destroyed by a delay mine in 1970.”

The Cu Chi district in Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon), held significance because it was a Viet Cong stronghold during the Vietnam War and was labeled a “free-fire zone” by the US military. A free-fire/free-strike or free-target zone is an area where everyone in the region is deemed hostile and all are seen as legitimate targets by opposing military forces.

The remains of a B52 bomb crater.

The remains of a B52 bomb crater.

During the Vietnam War (roughly 1960-1973 although many say the US was involved since 1955) South Vietnamese forces were backed by American troops and had better supplies and manpower as a result. The communist North Vietnamese known as the Viet Cong had to come up with other ways to survive the war and defend their land. This is where the intricate network of the Cu Chi tunnels comes into play.

Our first meeting place where we sit with other tour groups to watch a propaganda video about the horrors of the Vietnam War. To the left is a map of the tunnels and to the right is a replica model to show the layers of tunnels used for different purposes.

Our first meeting place where we sit with other tour groups to watch a propaganda video about the horrors of the Vietnam War. To the left is a map of the tunnels and to the right is a replica model to show the layers of tunnels.

The topmost layer was used for fighting and surveillance. The next layer down was sleeping quarters, makeshift hospitals and meeting rooms. The lowest levels were used for cooking and washing. The long sticks running up to the surface were ventilation infrastructures, made from bamboo branches.

The top layer was used for fighting and surveillance. The next layer down was sleeping quarters, makeshift hospitals and meeting rooms. The lowest levels were used for cooking and washing. The long sticks running up to the surface were ventilation infrastructures, made from bamboo.

A secret ventilation hole from inside the tunnels. Ventilation holes were covered by mounds of termite hives, providing cover from passing US military.

A secret ventilation hole from inside the tunnels. Ventilation holes were covered by mounds of clay that looked like termite hives, providing cover from passing US military men and their dogs.

Fa draws me a diagram with a rock to illustrate the path of the tunnels and the exit points along border countries.

Our tour guide, Fa, draws me a diagram with a rock to illustrate the path of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that runs the length of the main highway with multiple exit points along border countries.

Here's a better version of Fa's stonework. You can see how the trail runs along the HCM highway. Photo courtesy of activetravelvietnam.com

Here’s a better version of Fa’s stonework. You can see how the trail runs along the HCM highway. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo courtesy of activetravelvietnam.com

The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) actually began tunnel excavations under the town of Cu Chi from as far back as the 1940s, covering over 250km by the time the Vietnam War started. Tunnel construction is estimated to have begun when the French forces attacked the Viet Minh (ICP guerrilla forces) in 1946, igniting a push of resistance against colonial powers.

Considering the Vietnamese were colonized by the French for over 60 years starting from the late 1800s, then further invaded by Japan during World War II, it’s easy to see why they were fed up with invaders on their land.

A replica shows how the Vietnamese began making the tunnels decades before the Vietnam war in attempts to evade French occupiers.

A replica shows how the Vietnamese began making the tunnels decades before the Vietnam War in attempts to evade French occupiers.

Our trip to the Cu Chi tunnels took us about 60km outside of Ho Chi Minh City. There are two tunnel sections open for tourists: The Ben Din tunnel and the Ben Duoc Tunnel. We went to the Ben Dinh site.

Outside bunker/classroom number 2.

Outside bunker/classroom number 2.

Inside classroom number 2.

Inside classroom number 2. There were 5 classrooms in total.

The makeshift kitchen.

a bunker used as a kitchen.

An escape tunnel off of the kitchen in case of bombings in the middle of meal prep.

An escape tunnel off of the kitchen in case of bombings in the middle of meal prep.

One of the dining bunkers where soldiers ate.

One of the dining bunkers where soldiers ate.

The VC used the underground network to move war supplies, house soldiers, hold military meetings, survive US air raids and to implement surprise attacks of their own. The tunnels were infested with scorpions, snakes, ants and other creepy crawlers. Malaria was also rampant in the tunnels and was the second leading cause of death among the VC, next to war injuries.

Bombs and shells from the US Army.

Bombs and shells from the US Army.

Fa demonstrates how the Vietcong soldiers took apart dead bombs from the US Army to make land mines. The stick seen sticking out of the disc would be rolled over by army tanks, detonating the land mine.

Fa demonstrates how the Vietcong soldiers took apart dead bombs from the US Army to make their own weapons. The twig sticking out of the disc would be rolled over by army tanks, detonating the land mine.

A photo of the Vietcong bringing an undetonated bomb to their weapons bunker to make their own tools of defence.

A photo of the Vietcong bringing an undetonated bomb to their weapons bunker to make their own tools of defence.

Sandals made by the Vietnamese from scrap tire rubber.

Sandals made by the Vietnamese from scrap tire rubber.

US soldiers eventually found entrances into the tunnels and sent men in to defeat the enemy. American troops who went into the tunnels were mostly met with booby traps, dead-ends and hand-to-hand combat resulting in death. 

A replica bamboo spike trap to show visitors how the Viet Cong booby-trapped the jungle floor.

A replica bamboo spike trap shows visitors how the Viet Cong booby-trapped the jungle floor.

We have decided to go into the tunnels and are all a little nervous. Exits are set up every 10 meters in case visitors panic.

We have decided to go into the tunnels and are all a little nervous. Exits are set up every 10 meters in case visitors panic. This news is comforting.

Yours truly, about to descend into the Cu Chi tunnel. No big deal.

Yours truly, about to descend into the Cu Chi fighting tunnel. No big deal.

Down in the first phase of the tunnel, these stairs descend into the narrow part that goes on for miles.

Down in the first phase of the tunnel, these stairs descend into the narrow part that goes on for miles.

Inside the tunnel it was narrow, low and humid. It didn't take long to work up a sweat.

Inside the tunnel it was narrow, low and humid. It didn’t take long to work up a sweat.

After surviving the crawl through the tunnel. We're trying to be strong but are shaken nonetheless.

Bal and I after surviving the 10 meter crawl. We were trying to be cool but were shaken nonetheless. Days and months down there  seems unimaginable.

Fa demonstrates how the VC snipers would utilize their exit points while fighting. Shooters would fire at the US soldiers under the cover of leaves, then slide the door back over their head to hide.

Fa demonstrates how the VC snipers would utilize their exit points. Shooters would fire under the cover of leaves, then slide the panel back over their head to hide.

Fa explains how the Vietcong made ridges with the clay-like earth to prevent rain from flowing into the tunnels.

Fa explains how the VC made ridges with the clay-like earth to prevent rain from running into the mouths of the tunnels.

Another shooting point for snipers to pop in and out of between fighting.

Another shooting point for snipers to pop in and out of unseen.

The Vietnamese government have since sanctioned certain sections of the fighting tunnels as tourist destinations for visitors to get a glimpse of how the Viet Cong developed (and to many – perfected) underground guerrilla warfare. The areas of tunnel deemed safe enough for tourists have been enlarged to fit the body types of most tourists, yet still we felt suffocated after crawling for only 10 meters.

"Fish" spike trap, set in murky swamp water for someone to step into.

A “fish” spike trap, set in murky swamp water, waiting for someone to step into.

A rolling spike trap, meant to repeatedly puncture the victim as they fall down.

A rolling spike trap, meant to repeatedly puncture the victim as they fall down into the pit.

Assorted spike traps on display.

Assorted spike traps on display.

Another spike trap, this one set to unhinge and swing at he who opens the door to a house where he is unwelcome.

Another spike trap, this one set to unhinge and swing at he who opens the door to a house where he is unwelcome.

Upon arrival our guide told us not, under any circumstances, to veer off the walking path or into the jungle. One reason was that it was still a jungle (although a heavily-treaded one) and snakes and scorpions were lurking in the quiet corners. Another reason was that there were still VC land mines in the jungle that hadn’t been found yet. Most were detonated during the war and in the years of rebuilding the area, but not all were accounted for. What a way to make sure your guests stay in line! That kept things real for all of us.

Despite the huge sigh of relief when we made it safely back onto the bus, I was thrilled to have had the chance to walk through such an enormous landmark of our time. Next to visiting the demilitarized zone in North Korea, this adventure was one of the best trips through history I have ever taken.

P.S. Happiest of birthdays to my Pops! Next year I’ll be there to celebrate with you :)

5 thoughts on “Inside War History: The Cu Chi Tunnels of Saigon

  1. Those tunnels would have freaked me out but it would have been so cool at the same time! Another great article, dude. If people googled vietnam and your entries came up they’d be really useful and informative.

  2. Karli that small taste of history is so cool to see, great pictures, and well written article.

    Talked to Colie today for his birthday.

    Take care

    Love
    Steve

  3. Wow! Very interesting and educational but highly disturbing. Humans can be so cruel to each other.

  4. Dear Karluchi:
    What an enormous experience–crawling in the tunnels where the Viet Cong defended their homeland. If only mankind could learn from the Viet Nam War but we do not. We just insist upon wars and more wars for what? For greed and industrial/commercial gain by the one per cent. T’was always so, even in the days of the 15th century and on kings. We never learn, it seems. I so admire the Vietnamese who have been tormented for so long by so many but are now survivors who ask only to let them live in peace. Well done!
    love youse a ton and a little bit!
    gramp and nana xxxxxxxxxoooooooooo

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