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Light at the end of the tunnel

JAYANTHI RAMESH
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HERITAGE The Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam are a testimony to the grit of the people during testing times

Entrance to a tunnel
Entrance to a tunnel

A tour of Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon) is incomplete without a visit to Cu Chi Tunnels, about 50 km from the city. A bus ride of an hour-and-a-half takes us to the village of Cu Chi, which now has a population of 20,000. We pass through a whole stretch of rubber and eucalyptus trees, and reach a bunker to watch a video presentation of the place's history and the networking that happened.

The tunnels of Cu Chi span around 250 km, built over 25 years, beginning in the late 1940s. The outlets led to the Saigon River, an escape point for the fighting guerrillas. The tunnels were built during the war against the French, and later used during the war against the U.S. The tunnel network became legendary during the 1960s for its role in facilitating the Vietcong's control of a large rural area. The tunnel system stretched from the south Vietnamese capital to the Cambodian border.

A life underground

The red earth in the village helped the peasants dig deep to construct these tunnels. The tunnels were barely two feet in circumference. Wooden planks used for the openings of the tunnels were covered with grass and foliage. The different levels within the tunnels served as living rooms, storage for weapons and food, hospitals, meeting rooms and kitchens. To minimise the smoke coming out of the kitchen, vents were made in layers. Long bamboo shoots were placed at strategic points in the tunnel to ease breathing. These were camouflaged on the top with artificial ant hills. There were also countless trap doors with nails on either side.

The ground on top was so solid that the Americans never realised they were building their camp right above these tunnels, and wondered where they were getting fired from. In spite of large-scale ground operations, they were unable to locate the tunnels. They even sprayed chemicals to drive the inhabitants out of the village.

The Vietcong guerrillas lived in extreme conditions inside the tunnels — availability of food was minimum; they survived mostly on tapioca.

The guerrillas were of all ages, both male and female. The people were small made, and could get in and out of the tunnels very easily. We're given a demonstration by our guide, who removes the lid of a tunnel, and slides in at the blink of an eye!

Interestingly, to enable tourists get a feel of the tunnels, they have been slightly widened for a 120-mt stretch. There are escape routes every 20 mt — for the claustrophobic! Tourists bend down, are on all fours at times, and even crawl. While a few cover 20 mt, others complete the stretch!

A new lease of life

Later, we're taken to a few other bunkers where artisans are working to make footwear out of tyres used by the soldiers. We also get to look at the tools used to dig the tunnel, the utensils, the artilleries, bombs, and a military tank, in a reforested eucalyptus grove. Along the way, we see dummies in guerrilla attire.

At the end of the tour, we're treated to some delicious tapioca and tapioca tea.

While boarding the bus back, we can't help but imagine the sufferings of the innocent peasants, who'd displayed extraordinary tenacity even while facing the deaths of friends and relatives.

JAYANTHI RAMESH

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