In south Vietnam: The Cu Chi tunnels and the element of surprise

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The exterior of this entrance to one of the Cu Chi tunnels would have been camouflaged with a trapdoor and foliage over the top, hiding the fact that Viet Cong fighters were underground, waiting to attack American and allied forces during the Vietnam War.  

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the 13th post in the series about our experiences.

It’s disconcerting to hear gunshots from AK-47s in what would otherwise seem to be a peaceful setting among the restored eucalyptus trees in a forest illuminated by dappled sunlight.

But the background soundtrack from an adjacent shooting range was unmistakeable as we approached the entrance to the Cu Chi tunnels near the village of Ben Dinh, just over 30 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, previously known as Saigon.

During the Vietnam War, machine-gun bursts and explosions were likely commonplace here, as the Cu Chi district was a longtime hotbed of Viet Cong activity. In fact, Ben Dinh was the headquarters of the Cu Chi District Party Committee, providing a base for what it called “resistance” to American forces.

While the United States and its allies were attempting to keep South Vietnam from falling to the communists, the resourceful enemy was busy bedeviling the American military from a series of multilevel tunnels that covered more than 150 miles in the Cu Chi district alone. (The similar tunnels at Ben Duoc, about 40 miles from HCMC, are also open to visitors.)

The Cu Chi district was among the most bombed, defoliated, shelled and gassed areas of the war, according to two BBC journalists, Tom Mangold and John Penycate, who teamed to write “The Tunnels of Cu Chi.”

The element of surprise favored the communists, dug in as they were underground, and possessed with a dogged determination to harass American and allied forces. The tunnels also served as an invisible pathway to transport badly needed supplies, ammunition and food down from the north — the route extended almost to the Cambodia border — in relative safety.

The American soldiers (and some Aussies) whose dangerous job it was to enter the underground complex were known as “tunnels rats.” Lightly armed with flashlights, pistols and knives, the “tunnel rats” descended into a zig-zag maze where hand-to-hand combat was likely and their chances of survival seriously compromised.

So well-hidden were the tunnels that a portion traversed beneath where the American Army’s 25th Division was encamped.

Take a moment to consider how close the enemy was already to Saigon, where big-city life continued mostly unbated, for a good part of the war. In the spring of 1975, the communists’ last triumphal leg into the city really wasn’t much distance to cover.

The tunnels, dug out of iron-rich, red laterite clay, are now among the most-visited tourist attractions in southern Vietnam, serving as an example — as the signage and displays underscore — of how guerrilla tenacity eventually prevailed in the face of superior numbers of personnel and firepower.

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A guide demonstrates how a VC fighter could emerge undetected, inflict whatever damage he could, and then descend quickly back into the narrow tunnel he came from.
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When the overhead panel is nearly back in place, it blends in with the leaves and dirt on the forest floor.

I am not suggesting that our visit in any way paralleled what U.S. soldiers encountered, other than that we were in the same location. But it isn’t a giant leap to imagine what a platoon on patrol was up against when confronted by the enemy, who materialized almost ghostlike from camouflaged holes in the ground. Suddenly, the head and an upper torso of a VC fighter would pop up, fire off several rounds and then disappear, literally, back into the earth.

Tourist brochures and guidebooks show photos of visitors undertaking the pop-up experience. On our visit, we declined the opportunity to descend, feet-first, into the ground and close, with arms extended overhead, an earthen- and foliage-loaded wooden panel to blend in with the forest floor. But we did see other tourists doing so.

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The ground could give way at any time, hiding the nasty possibility of sustaining a ghastly injury or being killed by punji stakes. 

The trapdoors hid more than underground entrances. In many cases, punji stakes — lengthy bamboo spikes attached to a variety of shapes such as poles or hammered into revolving cylinders — were lurking below innocent-looking terrain. One wrong step and the ground would give way, the spikes inflicting horrendous wounds, if the instruments didn’t kill soldiers outright.

These unsophisticated but lethal booby traps are on display, as is an American-made M-41 Walker Bulldog light tank, used by South Vietnamese forces, and captured in 1970. Nowadays, the tank is popular with tourists as a photo op, and as an enduring piece of propaganda for the victors. Also nearby is a grass-covered crater, evidence of the relentless American bombing.

The tunnels predate American involvement in Vietnam by several decades. During the French colonial era after World War II, communists had already entered the district in a push to organize rubber plantation workers.

The independence-minded Viet Minh excavated the first tunnels, using them as a way to communicate between villages and to elude French forces. After the French defeat in 1954, there was less need for the tunnels — until the buildup of invading forces in the 1960s.

The somewhat ingenious construction over a 25-year (or so) period also included trapdoors between sections, so that tear gas and smoke could be contained to one section. Likewise, trapdoors could stem possible flooding during the monsoon season.

During the Vietnam War, about 80,000 people lived in the district, though the population now is closer to 350,000, and the area is considered part of greater Ho Chi Minh City.

Be prepared for a tight fit if entering the tunnels. Nearly doubled over in an almost crab-like crouch, we inched along only a small section in the dark. One section required sliding down on our bottoms. We re-emerging up a metal stairway (likely a modern addition) farther down the tunnel.

We weren’t below ground long enough to be uncomfortable in the stagnant air, or to become claustrophobic, but perhaps those who endured long periods underground during the war had to confront those conditions at some point.

Several sections have been re-created — and maybe reimagined — to show how a makeshift hospital operated, where food was cooked and the smoke redirected through distant above-ground vents, where meetings were held, and where fighters worked on ordnance, rested and regrouped for the next battle. The ordnance construction is represented by dummies clad in the black pajamalike clothing that the VC and villagers wore.

Carpet-bombing from American B-52s took out the majority of the tunnels in the late 1960s. The communists paid a high price for their underground lairs, losing more than 10,000 fighters of the approximate 16,000 who lived for stretches of time in the tunnels. That number doesn’t include civilian casualties, which have been estimated to be at least 2,000.

Nearly every tour company in HCMC does a half-day tour to the tunnels exclusively, or a full day paired with other stops. We booked our half-day through the Cinnamon hotel, where we stayed, for $27 each, including pickup and return to our lodging.

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An artist uses eggshells and other materials to fashion a scene at a workshop that employs disabled people.
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The flowing ao dais of these Vietnamese women are comprised of tiny pieces from eggshells.

The tour also included the obligatory shopping opportunity en route to the tunnels at a workshop where many of the employees were disabled. One of the more unique crafts used eggshells to illustrate a scene, such as two Vietnamese women dressed in the traditional ao dai, walking away from the viewer.

Other crafters were making goods composed of lacquerware, and some were cutting shells to extract the mother of pearl material to be used in inlays.

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