Ho Chi Minh City: Through the Tunnels of Cu Chi

For our excursion on this, our last full day in Ho Chi Minh City, Francis and I wanted to see one of the more fascinating relics of the Viet Nam War.  We had made new friends with a new performer who had come on board the ship.  He is a mindreader from the UK named Kennedy.  We invited him to join us.  I got the sense that Kennedy was not very up on his Viet Nam War history.  Not many people from the UK are, they had little involvement. We took the shuttle from the ship to the heart of HCMC and arranged with a taxi-driver and an older guy who promised to guide us to the site.  It would cost us VND1.5million (approx. US$71.50)

The dark story of Cu Chi

70km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City lies one of the eeriest of Viet Nam war relics, the tunnels of Cu Chi.  I had heard of these tunnels from my dad, and seen footage in documentaries of the war.  The current Vietnamese government describes them as, “…the holy revolutionary base of Military Region Committee Saigon-Gia Dinh High Command of Cu Chi District Party Committee and all Cu Chi People, where was also a versatile battle formation to front enemy and to contribute significantly to task of enemy fighting and national unity.” [sic] During the war, the US had deforested this region due to heavy Viet Cong infiltration.  This prompted the people of Cu Chi to build a vast underground network of tunnels, hospitals, workshops, living quarters, and other amenities of life and war.  The tunnels were built on three different levels, like those of the naked mole rats that you might see at the zoo.  The deepest tunnels were dug to protect them from the B52 Bombers payloads which would penetrate deeply into the earth.

Where did Francis go?

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Our guide demonstrates the tunnel hatch.

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With some leaves, our guide is gone.

Our introduction to the tunnels was our guide showing us one of the many hidden tunnel entrances.  Small hatches were cut from wood and placed in the ground.  When covered with leaves, you would never that they were there.  He demonstrated by jumping down in the hole, placing leaves on the hatch lid, raising it over his head, and lowering down in the tunnel entrance.  He was gone.  He then offered to let us try it.  Well, I am a bit claustrophobic, Kennedy is apparently more so; But, Francis gave it a try.  As Francis lowered himself down and sealed the hatch to disappear, our guide said, “Bye, bye person. We sit on hatch now.”  He was a very cheery guy who appears to enjoy his job a lot.  He asked if any of us had fathers who fought in the war, I was not shy to say yes.  He very quickly shook my hand and said, “We are friends now.  No more war.  You like me, I like you.  We are friends.”  I do believe he honestly meant it.  It is in the past, just as the American Revolution is the past and we now have a friendly relationship with Britain.

Check out video of Francis disappearing into the tunnel.

A sticking point

More terrifying than knowing that a heavily armed Gorilla force living under the ground beneath your feet, were the numerous traps that they developed to injury, maim, and kill the American troops.  These ghastly devices appear to be more from the medieval period than the 1960s.  In one design, a large rotating door built into the ground covered a deep pit with sharpened bamboo spikes almost a metre long.  When an unsuspecting American Trooper would step on this, it would spin, casting him into the pit to be impaled upon the spikes. Other traps that might be hidden in the ground include names like:

“The Sticking Trap” - a device that when stepped on, quickly dropped, and forced several spears into the Troopers leg.

“The Sticking Trap” – a device that when stepped on, quickly dropped, and forced several spears into the Troopers leg.

“The Rolling Trap”- was a series of spears on two rolling drums. When a trooper would step on branches placed above to disguise it, he would fall through the spinning wheels, like a log through a chipper-shredder.

“The Rolling Trap”– was a series of spears on two rolling drums. When a trooper would step on branches placed above to disguise it, he would fall through the spinning wheels, like a log through a chipper-shredder.

“The Folding Chair Trap”- was an amazingly intelligent and simple device made out of American canvas folding chairs. Placed into a pit with the canvas stretched, when a Trooper would step into the device on the canvas, it would cause the chair to fold, driving spikes into the leg.

“The Folding Chair Trap”– was an amazingly intelligent and simple device made out of American canvas folding chairs. Placed into a pit with the canvas stretched, when a Trooper would step into the device on the canvas, it would cause the chair to fold, driving spikes into the leg.

“The Fishing Trap”- was easy to get into, hard to get out. Stepping into would not necessarily cause harm, as the spikes were facing at a downward angle, but trying to get out would drive those spikes into the leg.

“The Fishing Trap”– was easy to get into, hard to get out. Stepping into would not necessarily cause harm, as the spikes were facing at a downward angle, but trying to get out would drive those spikes into the leg.

A termite mound hiding ventilation holes for the tunnels below.

A termite mound hiding ventilation holes for the tunnels below.

Now keep in mind, the whole time that we are looking at these ghastly devices, we are hearing heavy gun fire nearby.  That only adds to the drama of the site.  Our guide continued to show us how they designed sniper nests, and disguised ventilation shafts as termite mounds.  How a kitchen might be in one location, by the smoke was sent out several hundred metres away via a long tube and let out of the side of a termite hill.  The only word to use in accurately describing the design of this system is ingenious.  The thought that went into every aspect is amazing, and it is easy to see why this network was so deadly to our men. The Gorillas found ways of using and reusing everything that could get.  Shoes were made out of old tires, rice paper made out or rice porridge, tapioca root was boiled for nutrition, unexploded US bombs were cut open and the gun powder used to make land-mines, everything had a purpose and a reuse purpose.

Bang, bang, bang!

I mentioned the sound of gun fire, and that is no joke.  The Vietnamese Tourism Commission has really thought of everything and built a National Sport Firing Range here, and for about VND35,000 (US$1.50) military personnel will sell you bullets for a wide range of calibers, from an AK47 or M16 to an M60.  They will then escort you down to the range, put your bullets into a cartridge, load it into the weapon of your choosing and let you fire.  The guns are all locked down for safety.

So, did I fire any of the weapons?  Not a chance in hell.  I looked at them, and saw the condition they were in.  I was not taking the chance.  I have seen what happens when one of these things backfires, and I did not plan on finding out first hand.  I just did not trust their maintenance. The more fun part was watching Kennedy’s face when the guns were fired, especially the M60.  Another Brit was taking the tour with us and was eager to fire the big gun.  When that thing went off, I thought we were going to have to peel Kennedy out of a tree.  He was a bit jumpy.  While we waited for others to fire the gun, Francis and I sat down and enjoyed a light lunch we had brought of Bahn Mi and some pastry.  Before we knew, it was time for us to continue our tour.  I was probably not fully prepared for what I would do next.

Down the rabbit’s hole

The Tunnels of Cu Chi were so small that most American Troopers were too big to even attempt to enter them.  For this reason, we employed several ways to track them.  One was to use dogs.  The Viet Cong found a way to combat that.  When American soldiers were killed, they would take their clothes and other articles from them.  When American dogs were getting close, they would use the American clothing to plug up entrances.  The dogs would smell Americans, not Viet Cong, and move on.

The other way was to use small American soldiers to go down into the tunnels.  Many of these soldiers were Latino and Puerto Rican, because of their size.  Needless to say, these men had incredible guts to do this.  So, I decided to do something that you will not catch me doing again anytime soon.

Our guide showed an enlarged opening, and then indicated the exit a few metres away.  He went over a list of people who were not allowed to attempt going through the tunnel below.  I asked how tall it was, he indicated a bit higher than it actually was, but had he told me the real height, I would not have attempted it.  Kennedy took a few steps down and looked at the tunnel opening and quickly came back up.  Francis looked at it and came up.  I asked what he thought, he told me that I could do it.  It was mind over matter.  He would go through with me.  He knew I wanted to do it, but I was rather scared at the thought.

I am fairly claustrophobic, and by “fairly” I mean VERY!  But this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  I was also thinking that this was an enlarged tunnel for tourists.  It may have been slightly enlarged, but not by much.  I was doing this.  I climbed down in the hole.  The guide and the other Brits had already headed through.  Lights built into the tunnel walls lit the way.  I looked at Francis.  “Are you ok?” he asked.  “Yup!”  I stepped down into the tunnel opening.  I was going to go first.  This way I knew the guide was in front of me, and Francis would be behind me.  I would be safe.  In my mind I knew, if I got stuck, if I began to panic: stop, lay down, close my eyes, and picture a large open space and tell Francis I needed help getting out.  That was my back up plan if I couldn’t do it.

I took a deep breath, crouched down and started walking through.  I was OK, and then I got to another drop in tunnel depth.  Deep breath, I can do this.  I continued down the deeper tunnel.  I could hear the guide in front of me, “Hello my friend, are you ok?”  I was starting to breath harder and I could feel my anxiety building.  I kept moving.  It felt like the walls were moving in on me with every step I took.  The tunnel then took a turn and then wound around a bend.  I felt my back push against the roof of the tunnel.  I was getting more tense and anxious. “You are almost through my friend,” our guide yelled back.  That may have been the fact, but it felt like I had an eternity yet to go.  I could finally see the guide, crouched down on the tunnel floor.  “Are you ok, my friend?  Are you ready to get out,” asked our guide with a slight bit of a chuckle.  “I’m ready to get out!” I demanded in almost complete panic.  He laughed and said, “OK, go out that way,” indicating the exit.

I quickly made my way up the ladder, handed my camera to Kennedy and made my exit. I made it through, I did it.  The best part, I filmed the entire ordeal.  I have complete proof that I did it.  I faced my fear and pushed through it.  I was pretty damn proud of myself, and still am.  I will say that my adrenaline was pumping pretty high, my heart rate was way up, I was sweating bullets and breathing heavy, but MAN, what an experience.

Check out the video I took going through the tunnel by clicking HERE.

After completing the tunnel, our guide escorted us over to a hut where they prepared for us some boiled tapioca root and tea.  Francis tried it, I did not due to health safety reasons.

Back through the looking glass

Our tour was over, and it was time for us to make our way back to the city.  Riding in our cab through the back country and small towns was almost as much an adventure as the tunnels.  Crossing over the line, swerving to miss oncoming trucks, speeding past scooters carrying families of four, it just never stopped.  We finally reached the Tax Trade Centre, where our shuttle to the ship was waiting.  We boarded and made our way back.  It was a full day in just a few hours, and a day I will not soon forget.

Although we would not leave dock until 3pm the next day, we opted to stay at the ship, rather than rushing into town and back.  So, we treated it as though we had two full days at sea.  It allowed us to relax a bit from the amazing adventures in HCMC and the rest of Viet Nam.  Our next stop would be Sihanoukville, Cambodia.  I could not wait.

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