“We became so tuned up after a while that when the other person would flick an eyelid up or down, you really knew he was there, in the corner, not even hiding anymore. Just sitting and waiting. They were the ones you never killed. You just backed out and told them up above the tunnel was cold.”
– Tom Mangold, The Tunnels of Cu Chi
After being brought up on war movies by my older brother, (thanks, bro), I knew that even if I were to miss everything else in Vietnam, I would make sure to see the Cu Chi Tunnels.
“The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped to counter the growing American military effort.”
The Cu Chi Tunnels have always held some mystery for me, after seeing so many movies about them and reading so much it was an absolute must for me to see as much as I could with my own eyes. It seemed fitting to book this for my one year anniversary – so one year to the day after I set out from Oslo, Norway, I headed towards Cu Chi, Vietnam to tick off another one of the oldest items on my Bucket List. After being picked up by a friendly Vietnamese dude who motorbiked me through Ho Chi Minh traffic, I boarded the tour bus and was greeted by “Tony”… He preferred we call the city Saigon, but wouldn’t beat you up if you used Ho Chin Minh, it was after all the official name now… He was a funny guy, full of pop quizzes that he NEVER stopped trying to get us to answer. I’m serious. A whole minute of silence from the entire group wouldn’t deter him, he’d relinquish a hint if that happened, and then wait one more minute to see if we would get it ;-D
He took us to the tunnels and showed us everything from the smallest tunnels to the larger live-in tunnels where the Viet Cong would live (cook, sleep, everything). We were also allowed to walk through a part of the tunnel system to get a feel for the cramped space – although it WAS cramped as hell, I suspect this part of the tunnels had been enlarged somewhat. Like Tony said (while patting his stomach): “after the war Vietnamese people can’t even get through the tunnels anymore. Too much food and beer.”
It was an incredible experience for me to see, the tunnels that had been left as they were were insanely tiny. How -anyone- could fit in there is a complete mystery to me… or at least it was until Tony told us a lot of the “soldiers” in the Viet Cong where underaged boys, children of 12-15. Probably not particularly well fed either so, yeah… They would probably fit in there. We quickly understood why the American soldiers had a problem though – because they did. In the beginning they got stuck in the tunnels and literally had to help each other out – which puts you in a precarious position if you’re trying to be quick and nimble to avoid the enemy.
In the end the US resorted to bombing the shit out of the area, not quite grasping that the Viet Cong tunnel system was extremely complex and well designed. They had several layers they could retreat down into, closing off the different “floors” as they went, so the bombing could have little to no effect at all. There were vents poking out of the ground to allow for cooking underground, and sometimes American soldiers could drop grenades down these and cause a lot of damage, but they rarely found them because they were so well hidden.
When the US tried to use dogs to sniff them out, the Viet Cong would keep the clothes of enemy soldiers and put near entrances and vents so
the dogs would smell “Americans” and move on. It’s debated how well this worked, but the theory was there.
We learned how the Vietnamese would bring water from the river to soften the near-concrete-hard earth they were digging the tunnels in – and then dumping the dirt they dug out into the river, so no one would see a mound of dirt and guess where the tunnels where. We learned how they put the entrances next to trees of a specific size range so that tanks would avoid them, because tanks were heavy so they might inadvertently crash through the structurally weaker points. And we learned that you can’t freakin’ spot and entrance to the tunnels unless someone points it out to you, as you can see in my pictures in the gallery below.
It was such a great experience for me, I had such expectations and it still managed not to disappoint.
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