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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 :)