It’s a surreal, slightly chilling, and humbling experience. About a 1.5 hours’ drive from downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, lie the Cu Chi Tunnels. Originally built during the anti-French resistance war, this multi-level tunnel system was further developed during the Vietnam War (interestingly and unsurprisingly referred to as the ‘American War’ within Vietnam). The tunnels in just this area alone at one time sprawled over 250 km and were dug completely using small, hand-held shovels that look like gardening tools. Today, the tunnels can be visited and even crawled through, if you are interested in a more vivid experience.
Perhaps you’ve crawled through tunnels before. But don’t underestimate Cu Chi. These tunnels were literally a lifeline for local villagers and Viet Cong guerrillas. While their initial creation was intentional but very small-scale (to connect one home to another, underground), the tunnels expanded to an almost unfathomable level of intricacy and were extended well beyond this region. The tunnels were designed for protection and evolved to become full villages, equipped with living quarters, meeting rooms, areas to store weapons, rooms to sew uniforms or camouflage clothing, emergency medical care ‘hospital’ rooms, even kitchens. The system could withstand explosions (to a degree) and still provide air ventilation (to a degree). Some rooms were built very deep into the system, to protect especially the very young and the very old.
The locals became highly adept at building and concealing deadly traps for foreign soldiers who tried to enter the tunnels. One trap was the tunnels themselves – they were incredibly narrow and low, built as such knowing that lithe Vietnamese soldiers could relatively easily pass, but Westerners with generally larger body build would often not be able to fit into the openings or would quickly become stuck. Nearly invisible trap doors were created in the ground above that would unceremoniously tumble invaders into the tunnels (and most likely onto a deadly set of spikes). Other crudely built but quite clever traps (perhaps to detonate a grenade or let loose a box of scorpions) also lined the tunnels.
Of course, the tunnels were not a fail-proof guarantee of survival. Disease and insect infestations were rampant at times (I even came across a horrifyingly giant centipede while there), and supplies were challenging to obtain, at best. B-52s eventually ‘carpet-bombed’ the area to the point where multiple portions of the tunnels collapsed.
I definitely recommend setting aside a morning or afternoon to pay a visit, even though it has clearly been set up in its current incarnation as a tourist destination. All tour companies offer group and sometimes private tours (this is Vietnam – even private tours are reasonably priced, and I ALWAYS recommend opting for this, if possible). Or you can probably hire a driver for the day to bring you there and back.
Your experience will begin with a brief explanation of the tunnels and a propaganda-style ‘documentary’. You can enter and crawl through the highly claustrophobic (albeit now slightly widened and dimly lit) tunnels to get a feel for what is was like. You may want to skip this if you have a particularly challenged back and/or knees (although even with both of these, I made it through – so it might be worth a shot!).
You will walk by mounds of dirt that look like simply anthills or termite mounds. As they say, looks can be deceiving! Ingeniously, dirt that was dug out to create the tunnels was ‘hidden’ and repurposed to create these natural-appearing mounds that disguised air ventilation shafts made of bamboo.
Outdoor exhibits showcase an original tank, various weapons and traps used during the war, a recreated sewing room, and a demonstration of how incredibly heavy and sturdy shoes were created out of tires.
One feature of a visit to the tunnels is a nearby firing range, where for a few extra dollars, you can try your hand at shooting assault rifles and such – if that’s your thing. I’m not a gun person – but even if you are, I think you’ll find that hearing gunshots not so far away, while you make your way through the jungle, will chill you to the bone. Maybe for a moment, it will make you second-guess where you actually are (and when). Even my local guide, Hai, who has conducted this tour hundreds of times, jumped every time he heard gunfire during our visit.
On the outskirts of the memorial park, you can also observe a local woman making traditional rice paper used to wrap the justifiably famous Vietnamese summer rolls. Within seconds, pancakes are set and laid out to dry. This demonstration seems a bit token and slightly irrelevant, given these specific surroundings – but it is an interesting ritual to observe, nonetheless.
On our way out, we passed the inevitable gift shop. And while I almost never stop at these, I couldn’t help but take a few shots of a colorful and apparently quite rare display of traditional, conical non la hats set out to dry. Hai, who had become my unofficial photo ‘spotter’ by this time, excitedly joined me in capturing a few images. He had not seen a display like this in months. This also seemed a slightly frivolous indulgence in the context of the tunnels – but an appreciated bit of levity at that moment.
Regardless how you feel about the Vietnam (or American, depending on your perspective) War, it is difficult to walk away from these tunnels unaffected. I will leave any political commentary to others with much greater expertise than me, and simply say that I was deeply impressed by this compelling example of the power of community and sheer will to survive.