Located a mere hour outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s ingeniously-designed Cu Chi Tunnels are a poignant reminder of a terrible time.
By Carter Hammett
It’s sometimes difficult to reconcile the intellectual impact of a story with its emotional reality. That was the prevailing emotion as I stood marvelling at the ingenuity of the Cu Chi tunnels, 70 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City.
Growing up with stories of the Vietnam War—“the American War” as Vietnamese call it—flickering away on the TV set, the country seemed a million miles away. I was just too young and self-involved to grasp the gravity of the situation. Even in my teens when I started working in kitchens and meeting so-called “boat people” who travelled literally around the world to bravely start new lives in a new culture, their stories were difficult to grasp. I remember one diligent dishwasher named Xu Ha who could only shake her head and repeat, “very bad, very bad” when I asked her about “home.” Then she’d go back to work.
Now, years later standing before the entrance of Ben Dinh—following a very long, poorly-made propaganda trash-flick that’s part of the tour—you begin to get a sense of just how devastating things actually were and how necessary these tunnels were for survival.
Originally built over a quarter-century during the French occupation in the 1940s, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a 250-kilometer-long network of interconnected passageways that plunge to seven metres in depth and run all the way to the Cambodian border. They become fascinating upon learning how sophisticated the design is, even more so when you realize how rudimentary the tools that were used to build them.
These snaking underground tunnels became a pragmatic hallmark during a literal underground resistance movement. The networks were so tight, it was virtually impossible for broad-shouldered soldiers to squeeze into some of the more narrow channels. But what’s really astounding is how the locals managed to incorporate kitchens, sleeping areas, meeting rooms, hospitals and detours into the network. One tunnel even managed to snake its way under a U.S. military base. Air vents are literally incorporated into the roots of trees. The tunnels also played host to weddings, marriages, births.
A rather shocking element is seeing the large array of booby traps and torture devices used by the Viet Cong. A misplaced foot might see a soldier plunging into an underground pit and impaled on spiked traps.
There are two areas open to the public: Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. The latter is the most frequently visited of the two and visitors are allowed to enter the 50m-long chamber and experience the skill required to move through these tiny spaces. Measuring 80cm wide and 1.2m high, the unlit tunnel is definitely not for the claustrophobic.
Ben Duoc, meanwhile has somewhat larger tunnels that are still a tight fit (note to self: start skipping those morning glory muffins for breakfast). The innards reveal a hospital, bunkers and a historic command center where the 1968 Tet Offensive was partially conceived. I could have done without the dummies outfitted in military garb though.
Even with access to only these two areas, it’s easy to see why exasperated military personnel claimed this was the most devastated area during the war.
Don’t forget to check out the mammoth Ben Duoc Temple of Martyr and Shrine, completed in 1993 to memorialize the Vietnamese killed at Cu Chi. There’s also a nine-storey tower and garden in the front.
Ideally this would be a fine place for contemplation and reflection, however, the sounds of rapid-fire gunshots shatter any idea of that. In a rather morbid twist, there’s actually a gun range included at the site where visitors can fire AK47s and other guns for a buck-a-bullet. And while the site is invisible to the eye, the sounds are so jarring, it runs the risk of tilting the whole meaning and experience of the visit from memorial towards amusement park.
That said, the Cu Chi Tunnels along with the moving War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City—including its poignant tribute to photojournalists who died covering the war—are both staggering in their impact, and devastating tributes to the resilience of the Vietnamese people and the terrible time they endured.
If you go:
Day Trips Around Ho Chi Minh City: https://www.urbanadventures.com/ho-chi-minh-city-tour-cu-chi#nav-section1