It’s hot, humid, and my thighs are burning from being crouched down for so long. I’m deep in a tunnel is barely three feet tall, not allowing me to stand but too rocky to pull myself across. The very few dim lights are flickering, threatening to leave me stranded in the dark, 30 feet underground, in the tunnels used to smuggle troops and supplies by the Viet Cong!! As an American, I am in the middle of the enemy Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam!!
As Christine and I started to entertain the idea of heading to Vietnam, we continuously heard that a must-do activity was crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels near Saigon. These are now abandoned tunnels, but in the 1950’s 60’s and 70’s the guerrilla force, known as the Viet Cong (V.C.), used these thousands of miles of hand dug tunnels in wars against the French and then the Americans. We immediately decided to buy tickets and check it out. Visions of Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and The Green Berets played through my head as we boarded the bus, but in reality, I had no idea what to expect!!
STORIES FROM THE EXPERT!
We were greeted on the bus by a short, older Vietnamese gentleman who introduced himself as Mr. Binh. Our two-hour bus ride was filled with firsthand stories about how Mr. Binh was drawn into the war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam along with their allies, America, and how he helped the Americans search the Cu Chi tunnels for the Viet Cong. By the time we reached the tunnels, we felt like we knew Mr. Binh as a friend and had an understanding of the role he played in the war. Now, for the chance to see the area that was his battleground nearly 45 years before.
The tour started with a 10-minute North Vietnamese government video from the 1960’s about how the local fighters were winning the war for North Vietnam and the evil actions of the U.S. For us, it was interesting to see the war from another perspective. Mr. Binh made it clear he felt it was a video of propaganda and lies that undercut everything he and his troops had fought so hard, and eventually failed, to stop. As soon as the video stopped, our guide took time to point out inaccurate information, then started us on our trip to see this hidden underground fortress.
BOOBY TRAPS AND BOMB CRATERS: THE TOUR BEGINS!!!
Binh’s first stop was at a small clearing in the jungle. He tasked the group with finding the tunnel’s entrance in the ground. Our group shuffled leaves around and tried to find a hatch. Eventually one of our group kicked a small rectangular lid. When I say small, I mean SMALL!!! We were offered the chance to wedge ourselves inside and I took it. The opening was barely wide enough to for me to fit my shoulders through. I crawled in and saw access to a tunnel running by my leg. The crawl area was narrower than the hatch!!! This hatch entrance was used by the Viet Cong to pop up near the Americans or the French, fire a few shots, and then disappear to a new location to fight again. They were champions of the tactical retreat. Fight, and then run away to fight another day.
Next, we continued down the trail to an enormous bomb crater created from a massive explosion in the American’s attempt to blow the Viet Cong up in the tunnels they used to pass unseen beneath the surface. The Americans and South Vietnamese, who built three different bases on top of these tunnels, had no idea how deep they actually went. Even when the bomb created a crater big enough to fit an Olympic sized swimming pool, it still left the tunnels below untouched!!
After the crater, Mr. Binh took us to a very morbid section of the tour, walking us through the VAST array of booby traps the Viet Cong used to kill and maim not only the troops but also their working dogs!!! One such trap was a spinning door covered in grass that dropped the dog onto spikes, known as punji sticks, below.
Another diabolical scene showed several pits large enough to fit a soldier’s leg in and then impale it on punji sticks! Spiked punji sticks were often combined with homemade Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) to inflict more damage. Frequently the goal was only to maim, not to kill, as it took more work to care for the wounded than the dead. Each trap was accompanied by a story from Mr. Binh’s past and a fellow soldier that he had known to fall victim to the device. It was disturbing to see the lengths one human would go to just to hurt another person.
Now, knowing what booby traps awaited above and below for the troops that searched the area, we faced the opportunity to head underground and feel what these guerrilla fighters lived through every day. It was a chance to see first-hand the tunnels that the French and Americans searched for day in and day out for years. These tunnels, though small to move through, housed a MASSIVE amount of resources. They included full-time troop quarters, hospitals, command centers, armories, cafeterias, and even deeper bunkers for air raids. The tunnels were divided into three levels, getting deeper and smaller to defend against infiltration and aerial bombs. Some tunnels even emptied into the river to allow pursued V.C. to enter or exit the tunnels UNDERWATER!!!
CRAWLING THROUGH THE CU CHI TUNNELS!
Finally, it was the moment we signed up for: We were going to start climbing through the tunnels! We walked down the stairs to the first level, just 9 feet underground. The tunnels had all been enlarged to allow “larger” tourists to pass through but this does NOT mean they were roomy!! Maybe three feet tall and two feet wide, it was impossible to stand up, forcing a person to stay in the crouched position. We scooted through the tunnel to the first exit where many of the group climbed the ladder to leave, but Christine and I kept on to the second level, 18 feet below! The tunnel got smaller and darker. The lights that had been installed to make the trek bearable for tourists were spread further and further apart. The heat got thicker yet the mud that made up the path seemed to stay moist. We shuffled on, taking the next drop into the final level of the tunnels!!
Now here we were, nearly 30 feet down. The few lights were very dim and we would need to pass into complete darkness before we could reach the next light. The tunnel was so short, we were forced onto our hands but the floor was covered in jagged rocks, making it painful to crawl so we opted to stay hunched. The air was thick and hard to breathe, and my legs burned from a constant state of being flexed! The lights flickered and I caught my breath as I imagined crawling the rest of the way in pure darkness. It was impossible to imagine V.C. fighters living through the war in these conditions for months on end! It was terrifying to just visit this reality. Just when my legs wanted to give out, I felt the air freshen and cool. We had made it to the end. We walked out through a recreated hospital into the daylight again and met with Mr. Binh.
As our leader gathered the group together, he recounted his story of his first trip through the Cu Chi tunnels while they were still being used by the men he considered his enemy. His eyes looked out to a time that was long gone. He ended the tour with a song he had learned from an American Marine after a long night on a dangerous patrol: “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. He sang in nearly perfect English as we walked us out of the jungle, back to the bus and one by one nearly every member of our group joined him in his song.