Posted by: sharemore1 | October 5, 2012

Crouching in the Cu Chi Tunnels

Moshe and I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels when we were in South Viet Nam last January.

Rules for Cu Chi Tunnels

You can’t say we weren’t warned.  The rules were clearly displayed at the portal to the Cu Chi Tunnels.   People with arthritis, heart and lung diseases or who were drunk, claustrophobic or “of old age” were barred from entering.  The rules surely didn’t apply to adventurous, fit septuagenarians like my husband Moshe and me.

We had traveled 45 miles northwest of Saigon to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong hid during “The American War.”  Before we braved the tunnel ourselves we learned how the Vietnamese used 200 miles of underground passages to defeat the Americans.

Map of Tunnels

Walking around the outdoor exhibit, we saw concealed trap doors that allowed to enemy to appear and disappear at will.   The ventilation holes and tunnel entrances were often near termite mounds, some artificially constructed.  The Viet Cong cooked at night and released the smoke early in the day when it mingled with the morning mist.

Disappearing into the Tunnel

Our guide Tuy pointed out the fiendish booby traps created to ensnare the enemy.  One misstep on the jungle floor could send an unwary soldier crashing into a pit full of barbed metal stakes.  The Viet Cong connected tripwires to grenades hung in the trees and placed foot-piercing bamboo stakes in the ground

Clipping Armpit Trap

The tunnels, some little more than two feet wide and two feet tall, were built in a zigzag pattern to deflect explosions and make a straight line of fire impossible.  Some of these underground passageways had as many as four separate levels.

While the Americans bombed, gassed and defoliated the land above, the Viet Cong traveled underground, moving people and supplies from one village to another, once even burrowing under an American army base.  Nationalist guerrillas had originally created the tunnels some 20 years earlier to fight the French.

The tunnels contained everything necessary to survive underground for long periods:  kitchens, field hospitals, munitions factories, a printing press, and workshops where rubber tires were made into sandals.

Rubber Tire Sandals

Many of their supplies came from the detritus of the American soldiers.  The Viet Cong scavenged plastic and steel containers, belts, water bottles, parachutes and gas masks.  They carefully removed TNT from unexploded ordnance and turned Coca-Cola cans into hand grenades.  They even buried a captured M-48 tank in a tunnel and used it as a command center.

The Americans built one of their largest base camps at Cu Chi after they relocated the residents–women, children and old people–and bombed their houses.  The soldiers didn’t realize they had located their site over an extensive network of tunnels.  They would secure the perimeter, only to find themselves attacked from within. The Viet Cong would often steal food and other supplies from the base at night before escaping underground.

When my husband and I finally returned to the demonstration tunnel with the sign forbidding “people of old age” to enter, we were not concerned.  These were special tunnels designed for hefty Westerners, not the separate, smaller ones for Vietnamese tourists.  Nonetheless, when offered a route of 15, 40 or 60 meters long, we chose the shortest one.

A guide led the way as we descended into darkness.   We couldn’t stand up straight, but crouched over in a duck walk, the walls of the tunnel little wider than our shoulders.   We knew there were no rats, fire ants, snakes or booby traps ahead of us.   No wily enemy lay in wait.  Yet the experience was unsettling.  About a third of the way in Moshe’s knees hurt and he wanted to turn around, but I was behind him blocking the way back.  The guide patiently talked us through the tunnel until we climbed into the daylight.

These few minutes in a sanitized tunnel gave us new respect for the Viet Cong, who had lived and worked in poorly ventilated, vermin-filled passages for years during the war.  Yet even I, an anti-war activist, had to acknowledge the bravery of the American soldiers, especially those called “tunnel rats,” who pursued the Viet Cong into their dangerous warrens.   Despite their overwhelming firepower, the Americans could not prevail against a people willing to burrow underground to save their country from foreign invaders.


Responses

  1. Fantastic! I only imagined all this during the war-it sounds amazing to close in on the experience of the Viet Cong. Clever, desperate, determined. I hated that war. Annie

    _____

  2. Fascinating Sharon. The amount of thought and planning that went into the tunnels alone just boggles my mind. People can be incredibly resourceful.

  3. Great! are these in central VN? I think that is where Kate and I saw very similar tunnels….whose name I cannot remember. Surgery on foot today. won’t be the same without you!

  4. Sharon, it’s great to see your post! This is an experience Barry and I shared a couple of years ago, including the mind boggling, quick foray into a tunnel. Quite an experience for the eyes and the imagination! You captured the experience perfectly. Laura

  5. So glad to be able to read about your adventures again. This is fascinating. Thank you for sharing.

  6. And of course the tunnels were left over from the war with the French! Did our military think of this?? What a vivid description!


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