Plenty of writers like to call the Cu Chi TunnelsÂ "an underground city." But that’s just a facile throwaway phrase that trivializes nearly aspect of life in the Cu Chi Tunnels during a time of war.
Out of every site I’ve visited in my travels so far, I rate this as the most thought-provoking of them all. I can’t even say that I just had fun during my visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. It somehow feels more accurate to say that it was sobering, that it made me better realize what lengths Vietnamese villagers went through during wars against the French and the United States. I mean, people didn’t dig out three levels of tunnels stretching more than 100 miles for fun.
They created the Cu Chi tunnels to survive.
That said, I love mines, caves, tunnels – really, anything underground. And I’ve always wanted to fire an AK-47, which I also got to do at the Cu Chi Tunnels war memorial park near Ho Chi Minh City. It would be very easy to close your eyes to everything the site means -- to keep the experience at superficial level where it’s all about sinking into a foxhole, checking out booby traps and standing on the burned-out shell of an armored tank.
But we were fortunate that our guide from Saigon River Tour had bigger plans. He identified himself by the nickname "Big T." He was the most well-spoken and reflective of all the guides we encountered in Vietnam. I mentioned Big T in an earlier post; to recap, his father served in the South Vietnamese Army. When the United States left Vietnam to the communist government, men like Big T’s father paid the price in labor camps, or worse.
His father’s service, though, made Big T a great guide. Since we were in a small group that day, he had more time than usual to share insights with us.
Big T painted a grim picture of Cu Chi. First, he told us, the tunnels began as a way to fight the French forces in the early 20th century. He explained how the French weren’t even the worst enemy: That was the tunnel conditions themselves. No sunlight, no sanitation, no ventilation. But even that was better than the alternatives on the surface.
And it became even worse in the Cu Chi Tunnels when the villagers fought American forces.
They recycled everything, turning unexploded bombs and bits of shrapnel into their own war material. They expanded the Cu Chi Tunnels. They constructed traps designed to wound rather than kill: Big T explained that a wounded soldier took a few of his comrades out of action to remove him from the area and get treatment.
Big T urged us to look around the trees that form a shady canopy over the area. It didn’t look like this during the war, he said. The area was devoid of vegetation from carpet bombing and artillery fire.
And here’s the really interesting insight: Big T told us the villagers who were fighting so hard to stay alive didn’t think of themselves as communists. They just wanted so survive. What he said doesn’t quite square with the propaganda films made about the Cu Chi residents fighting American forces. And why were they fighting if they were far into what was then South Vietnam, and such a short distance from Ho Chi Minh City?
On the other hand, it’s also hard to believe that people living a largely agrarian existence were really fighting for political ideologies. Is it more likely they were just propaganda tools? Probably so. Like so many things in Vietnam, I’ll have to do more reading to try finding the answers to my questions. It should help square what I heard from Big T and what I learned during a semester-long course about the Vietnam War when I was in high school.
Of course, every person’s view of the Cu Chi Tunnels will skew according to their background.
As an American, I’ve grown up with movies about the Vietnam War. I never really imagined having the chance to look at the war from this angle.
Speaking of angles, imagine what a guy who’s 6’2 has to do to get around in the Cu Chi Tunnels. I spent a lot of time folded in half. And we’re mostly in the cleaned-up section that allows easier movement. This is the luxury hotel section, even when we descended to the third level. Fortunately, I’m not claustrophobic – and the dramatic tourist accounts of how "harrowing" it is to get around in the tunnels amuses me. The open sections are in great shape and very clean; we’re not in a combat situation, the lighting is more than sufficient. People get so hyperbolic; I promise, it’s not even that bad in the tunnels.
Bottom line, a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels is worth facing your fear of small spaces. It’s worth hearing the other side of a common story. It will make you think – possibly more than many other sites you’ve visited before.
Extra Knowledge for Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels
Skip the two-hour bus ride from Ho Ci Minh City to Cu Chi Tunnels and find a tour operator with a boat. Saigon River Tour was excellent, but you may find others in Ho Chi Minh City. The boat takes half the time and you won’t get jostled by potholes and bad suspension. You’ll probably miss out on a chance to see someone transporting a grandfather clock on a motorbike, though.
Wear long pants and real shoes. (What is it with tourists and flip-flops, anyway?) You’ll have to crawl in the Cu Chi Tunnels, so why get all scraped or sprain an ankle?
Bring some water. Even in the cooler months, the southern part of Vietnam is warm and humid. I travel with a hydration pack. And so should you, because dehydration can make your vacation suck.
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