Day 86: Stories of the Cu Chi Tunnels

I realise it has been a quiet few days on the Blog.

To be honest, I think I should have spent longer in Da Lat and shortened my time in Ho Chi Minh City.

It has been very hot and my enthusiasm for exploring has been diminished.

I decided to leave the city for the day and went down to the Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta.

Cu Chi is about 30 miles outside Ho Chi Minh City, to the Northwest of the city. The tunnels there are part of a national network of tunnels that were initially dug in the 1940s in the resistance battles against French occupation.

The Cu Chi Tunnels have been preserved as part of a historical remembrance of the Vietnam (American) War.

Our guide Tam was keen to provide a little historical context for us, during the journey to Cu Chi.

It was less broad-brushstroke than what I had heard or read on other tours and museum visits during my time in Vietnam.

Tam was born in 1974 and his family fought for the Saigon administration, with the Americans. The majority of people that I have spoken to have not shared their affiliations.

Tyler, who I met in Nha Trang had told me about his Hanoi-born mother being viewed as a traitor by her family for moving South to find work.

No-one, until Tam, had openly talked about their families fighting for the South… and I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the Southern part of the country.

He started by discussing the politics and perceptions of the time. Did people care about politics and support communism?

It sounded good.

Vietnam would have its own country. The Americans had invaded after the French… they looked the same, they sounded the same… more invaders who had come to exploit their country.

The Vietnamese were tired of foreign interference. Ridding the country of an occupying force sounded good.

Plus, under communism, the Vietnamese would have free education, free healthcare and taxes would be low. This sounded rather attractive too.

On top of this… was an added threat… if the country aligned itself to communism, the war would be short. If it supported the US and democracy, the war would be long.

“Most people,” said Tam, “were tired of fighting. They wanted peace.”

He has very early memories of not having enough to eat, even though his grandfather was well paid through serving with the US-supported administration.

“All these promises sounded good,” he said. “Of course, it didn’t work out that way. We pay for education, we pay for healthcare and if the government wants our houses, they take them.”

The 75-mile long complex of tunnels at Củ Chi has been turned into a war memorial park with two different tunnel display sites, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc.

At the Ben Dinh site which we visited tunnel reconstructions and some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate tourists.

As Tam said, Westerners are much larger than Vietnamese people.

Low-power lights have been installed in the tunnels to make traveling through them easier, and the site has displays of the different types of booby traps that were used. 

A hidden man-hole that Viet-Cong fighters could hide in or use as a sniper hole to shoot at US forces.

The network of tunnels not only hid fighters but families too. They lived in these narrow tunnels, where rooms were also hollowed out to provide space for cooking and eating.

It was hot, dusty and smelly.

Tam said there are two seasons in Saigon: hot and hotter. It was deeply unpleasant. The air was stifling even though ventilation shafts were dug, using termite nests as cover.

The weapons used by the Viet-Cong were simple, effective and barbaric.

Tiger traps would trap a man underground, impaled on spikes, snapping closed and hidden allowing another man to fall in.

Other traps, including the Clipping Armpit and Rolling Trap also used spikes and once caught in the trap, it was impossible to get out, without causing further damage.

Par to the complex included a demonstration of recycling… using dropped bombs to create spikes and other weaponry.

I mentioned the cooking earlier. Tam invited us to sample a typical food eaten by the Vietnamese living in these tunnels.

Tree roots were steamed and flavoured with peanut and many people subsisted on this. It actually tastes like sweet potato.

Even if the trees were killed (usually by being cut down), the roots would continue to grow, getting bigger and the food supply remained viable.

When we passed a tank, there was surprise that it had been able to get through the woodland.

“It wasn’t woodland then,” said Tam. “Defoliants had been used and the forest died back. New trees grew and the woodland here now is young growth.

The new trees were of course growing on land treated with Agent Orange.

I did go into one of the tunnels – one that had been enlarged for Westerners so that we didn’t have to lie on our bellies and crawl, as the Viet-Cong would have.

I was bent double. The lighting helped but on going down a dip or around a corner, I was in pitch darkness.

This is a tourist attraction but that sudden loss of light was very disconcerting. I managed 40m underground before the heat and the knowledge that up ahead the tunnels would get narrower drove me out.

Cu Chi is a fascinating place to visit.

One aspect that jars is the invitation to fire AK-47s or M-16s. Having visited the War Remnants Museum and seen the damage that these weapons can inflict, I am uncertain why there is a need to fire them while visiting the Tunnels.

It seemed like a gimmick that completely undermi the messages that have been given across the country and, particularly at the War Remnants Museum, about the horror that Vietnam experienced.

In my view, it trivialises what the country and the people endured.

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