What you first notice are the shacks with some Vietnamese soldiers. Some of them are bent over their weapons, some are standing guard, and some seem like they have just sat down to catch their breath. But on a closer look, you discover that these are dummy soldiers recreating scenes from the Vietnam War. Even as you wonder how they can be so real, you hear gunshots. Close-by stands a queue of tourists looking at arms, ammunition, traps, and weapons on display. In another shack, a movie on the war plays in loop. Some tourists meanwhile gather around a pile of dead leaves. The pile eventually turns out to be the entrance to a complex and elaborate system of tunnels that Cu Chi is known for.
Symbol of the Viet Cong
Cu Chi tunnels, which are a symbol of Viet Cong pride and nothing short of a pilgrimage for the country’s Communist cadre today, were originally built during the late 1940s for defence against French forces. They were reopened and expanded exponentially during the long-standing Vietnam War and ran for miles, connecting villages along the southern border of the country. Viet Cong soldiers used the tunnels as communication and supply routes, meeting points, as well as hiding spots and living quarters. Even as the area above ground was razed by American cluster bombs, the locals lived a normal life inside. Well, almost.
The tunnels are narrow and deep, and were designed in a way that only the slightly-built Vietnamese could manoeuvre inside. It is said that even if an American soldier succeeded in getting into a tunnel, he wouldn’t have come out alive. Not only was there a lack of space, but there were also traps waiting for him. These traps ranged from the famous chair trap, door trap, punji sticks, to more innovative hot oil, snakes, and even fire.
A guide dressed in a military green uniform points towards a pile of leaves and shows us the camouflaged entrance to a tunnel. He animatedly explains how the tunnels were a source of frustration for the Americans, for their bombs never reached here. He then goes on to display the various traps — rolling trap, clipping armpit trap, window trap.
“Nothing is what it looks like in Cu Chi. Deception, after all, was the weapon used extensively in the guerilla warfare of the Viet Cong soldiers, who almost bare-handedly fought the western forces laced with sophisticated arms and ammunition. These tunnels, which ran for miles, were spread across several levels, and served as fortification for the army and a centre for community life. There were marriages, engagements, courting, and even entertainment that happened inside. It was like a town under the ground,” says Quyen Nguyen, a local who I meet at the tour.
Interesting as it may sound, life inside the tunnels was neither romantic, nor easy. Air, food, and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Soldiers would often spend days in the tunnels and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies or take care of their crops. And sometimes, during heavy bombings, they had to stay underground for days on end and lived on only boiled taro and tea. Less than half of those who fought in these tunnels survived.
After listening to these stories it is time to experience the tunnels. The 80-feet-long tunnel has a relatively easy entry — all you need to do is duck your head. In a couple of feet however, the roof begins to cave in, and soon you are squatting and walking at the same time. The natural light begins to fade too. The walls now envelope you completely: there is barely any space to lift your head or move. In another 10 feet or so, you are literally crawling like a baby. The surface is uneven, the walls almost touch you, and the humidity and heat make it hard to keep your cool. The stories of soldiers dying of claustrophobia, snakebites and traps keep ringing in your ears. Most tourists choose to leave the tunnel after the first 30 feet. The more daring ones cannot go beyond 40 feet.
Death, destruction, weapons, traps, warfare, propaganda, sabotage — these words dominate every conversation at Cu Chi.; Some tourists however, seem unaffected — firing bullets at the shooting range and clicking selfies with the dummy soldiers. Unlike most of us, they seem to have already imbibed the tenacious spirit of the Vietnamese, symbolised in the tunnels and their inhabitants.