Friday, March 18, 2011

Going Underground: The Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels  should have been included in my post about Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon as it's a day trip most people do from there, but it was such an experience I thought it warranted its own post. 

The Cu Chi Tunnels are the site of one of the most infamous battlegrounds of the Vietnam War. During the War, the villagers in the area supported the Viet Cong. With America ramping up attempts to neutralize them, these simple peasant folk dug themselves away from the enemy into a complex warren of underground tunnels in which they lived in and ambushed the Americans from. Tunnels just like these...

And they dug this extensive network of tunnels ranging from 3 meters to 20 meters under the ground from as early as the late 1940′s until the early 1970′s using just these simple village tools...

And by 1965 there were 250km worth of tunnels! Amazing.

Now I'm not particularly a war history lover, but you can not visit this place and be bowled over by the ingenuity and determination of the guerrillas and sympathizers that occupied these tunnels.

No matter how much agent orange or bombs were dropped on this place, their ability to confound GIs and thwart American attacks time and time again thanks to these tunnels,survival instinct and pure cunning is incredible.

On your tour of the complex, they show you how the locals slipped in and out of the tunnel and yes you can have a go yourself (as illustrated by me below). Though today most of us would be less slipping, more squeezing as the tunnels originally could be as small as 80cm wide and 80cm high.

And without leaving so much of a trace...

And then you are able to gawp at the very simply made yet cunning booby traps that were set around the complex, made from bamboo and shrapnel collected from US weaponry found in the area.

Imagine running along thinking you were about to attack and then falling into one of these...

 Or any one of these...

or having this swing into you from a tree...

When I saw these things in the context of the Cu Chi Tunnels I began to understand why the Vietnam War took such a severe psychological toll on so many U.S. veterans. I'd be having nightmares for the rest of my life!

There is a little simulated workshop where you get to see the reenactment of how the people made their weapons, plus a shooting range where you can try your hand at shooting off a round from a AK 47 or M 16. It's loud and I couldn't imagine what is must be like being surrounded by that noise all the time!

I opted for having a go at grinding the rice grain instead!

And finally you get to actually get down on your haunches and make it through a stretch of tunnel. I was thankful that the tunnels have been widened today. It's a dark, sweaty and close experience with escape routes out in case you can't handle it. Much needed as you can see from my ghost like appearance after just a few minutes inside!

In my view, these people were incredible. They are heroes just for surviving and protecting everything they know in these conditions. People gave birth, got married, honeymooned, lived and died here amid the heat, foul smells, bats, rats, snakes, scorpions and fire ants. Sometimes they stayed below ground for weeks on end.

At least 12,000 Vietnamese guerrillas and sympathizers are thought to have died in the area. But not without putting up a damn good fight.

One word of warning, if you do visit Cu Chi Tunnels, try to avoid being ferried around by a tour operator in large groups. To really enjoy the experience, book a tour with someone like Innoviet Travel, where the maximum number you will share this experience with will be 8 and they will take you to a set of tunnels which are not overrun with tourists.

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