The Cu Chi Tunnels. The only thing you absolute must do the next time you are in Vietnam.
When I first learned about the Vietnam war, in a gargantuan windowless bunker of a Midwestern High School, sitting in neat rows under harsh fluorescent lights, the conflict seemed pretty simple: The United States military was deployed in a ‘policing action’ to aid and abet the beleaguered democratic South Vietnamese against the rabid encroachment of North Vietnam specifically and Communism in general. The going had been tough.
“Squirrely, them Viet Cong,” spat out my US History teacher/varsity wrestling coach.“Always disappearing and reappearing. Like ghosts.”
He delivered this ‘fact’ in a kind of scratchy low tone, guttural, like he had been there. For all we knew, he had. He sure seemed a tough old bastard. All the varsity wrestlers were scared of him, so of course us normal kids were terrified, because those wrestlers, they were a motley bunch, all a bit twisted and it would take a mighty man, a real surviver to scare that lot.*
Only later did it surface to the consciousness of my post-adolescent mind that the northern vietnamese really were disappearing and reappearing, and this was because they really lived deep underground in tunnels, had miles and miles of them underground, a regular ant colony.
Of course, when I heard this, I kind of just dismissed it, after an obligatory, “Cool,” because the test had already passed and I was moving into the part of my life where I was only really concerned about potentially usable information, you know, for the daily. Still, in the brief space that this information held my attention, I did manage to picture these tunnels as spacious, well-lit affairs, like corridors in the Starship Enterprise, complete with sliding doors, maybe not fully electric but generously equipped.
How else could a large number of people tolerate to live underground in a war zone if it weren’t in relative comfort? I thought.
Enter real life. Enter the Cu Chi Tunnels.
The Cu Chi tunnels are a system of tunnels 220 kilometers in length located north and a little east of Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon), strategic to the Communist North’s push south for a number of reasons, not the least of which as the terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Saigon River and Highway 1, the major North South artery of the country.
These tunnels are glorified gopher holes. Seriously. They were designed to accommodate a Vietnamese-sized human, which I have to tell you, on average is pretty damn little. Slender shoulders, slight-waist, no taller than an average pre-pubescent American boy. You wouldn’t find any Midwestern, cornfed humans fitting into these suckers. This ain’t the Starship Enterprise. These are tiny, dark spaces with blind alleys, booby traps, pits, spikes, ambush rooms, and all manner of claustrophobic calamity.
And the Communist Vietnamese lived down there. Not for an afternoon, not to escape an American air raid for an evening or a single night…No. They lived continuously underground in these burrows for 8 years, from 1965-1973.
These Cu Chi tunnels were ingenious. They had multiple levels, multiple functions and all manner of safeguards and engineering feats to help them stay intact. When the Saigon River was poisoned, they dug underground wells for fresh water. In their underground kitchen chambers they put filters along ventilation shafts to catch smoke so that when it finally did emerge it would hang and waft low to the ground. Noticeable—you’d assume—in broad daylight, but they only cooked at dawn and dusk, when the fog settled over the ground. Living quarters were deeper underground and had wedge shaped ceilings, approximating an arch, that made them all but impervious to bombing. Entrances and exits were roughly the size of legal pad, and ventilation shaft outlets were made to look like termite mounds, thus avoiding US suspicions. Inside, ambush rooms, false detours and other booby traps were placed along the upper level tunnels to deter any enemy combatant brave enough to go wriggling through the tunnels after them. All these and more helped the Communist Vietnamese survive, literally like rats, through the high-point of what they call ‘The War with the Americans’.
This place blew my mind.
At the end of the visit you are offered a chance to crawl through a winding 150 meters of modified Cu Chi tunnel. The entire length is broken up into 25 meter segments, each with an escape ladder up to the surface should one start to feel panicky. The early segments have been widened to accommodate fat tourists, but as you progress, the tunnels grow narrower and narrower. It’s terrifying.
If you are unsure as to the lengths a human being will go to stay alive, this place will enlighten you.
Nothing like I imagined.
This is why I travel.
*Ironically, he was the first teacher I ever had who up and died in the middle of the school year. Not in front of us, mind you, but died nonetheless. This was shortly after the unit on Vietnam, I believe.