Cu Chi Tunnels – Vietnam (08.11.15)
The Cu Chi Tunnels are many things: a symbol of the people of Vietnam’s resilience, an incredible feat of engineering, an extraordinary tourist attraction and a reminder of how 40 years ago, swathes of Vietnamese refugees, escaping the post war fall out, took to the high seas, in similar fashion to the Syrians escaping to Greece today.
While the Americans were lobbing over seven million tons of bombs between 1957-1975 (twice the amount dropped in the World War II over Europe and Asia) the tunnels were one of Northern Vietnam’s most effective guerrilla warfare weapons.
Dug in the 1940s, often by hand, during the war of independence against French colonial authority, the vast underground network grew to cover hundreds of kilometres. By the 1970s, when the full force of the US military had established itself in Southern Vietnam in support of the non-communist regime, the network of underground tunnels extended for thousands of miles. One of the most complex and effectively used sections was underneath the Cu Chi jungle district. From there, the Viet Cong (VC) communist guerrilla troops launched devastating military sorties into the heart of US military areas. Covering a distance of over 250km the Cu Chi network ran from the very outskirts of Saigon to the Cambodian border.
So effective were the tunnels in allowing VC troops to conduct guerrilla warfare tactics that the US tried to take the war underground, training South Vietnam forces (‘tunnel rats’) to navigate the underground network. Booby traps, bamboo spike pits and baking hot tunnel mazes notwithstanding.
When twenty years ago my wife and I first visited the Tunnels as a tourist (two decades after the war had finished) I was transfixed. We was escorted down into the underground maze by a veteran VC soldier, who, having experienced the Tunnels first hand during the war, brought their stories to life, proudly explaining how the fighters organised, moved, hid and lived underground. It was rather like being shown around Nelsen Mandela’s Robbin Island by one of today’s ex-inmate guides.
As many a Nomadic Thoughts’ client has discovered over the years, both the above ground and below ground war memorials at Cu Chi are as humbling as they are extraordinary. Just this week my Nomadic Thoughts travel colleague Caroline Findlay de Concha returned from an extended trip through Indochina to regale us with stories of the VC Tunnels.
Visitors are welcomed to two sections of the tunnel network at Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc, approximately an hour’s drive from central Saigon (Ho Chi Ming City). Above ground the relics of helicopters, tanks, bomb craters, A4 sized tunnel entrances, camouflage and AK47 rifle ranges set the scene for what happened during the war in the surrounding jungle.
Below ground, stooping and often on hands and knees, you are taken through newly expanded tunnels that link numerous trapdoors, false turns and passages to weapons factories, storage rooms, living areas, command rooms, kitchens and even field hospitals. Even now, as a visitor tourist attraction you need to keep your wits about you, as sinister bamboo spike pits await around many a corner.
So effective were the VC at manoeuvring through the tunnels from one area to another – appearing like ghosts one minute and disappearing the next – that it became almost impossible for the US military to engage in combat with their enemy. As a result, the Tunnels of Cu Chi were reported to have been ‘the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated areas in the history of warfare’.
This will ring a bell with anyone presently trying to escape from the worst regions of modern day Syria. Like the ‘Vietnamese boat people’ of yesteryear – after the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong, at the end of the American War (Chiến tranh Việt Nam) – wave after wave of Syrian refugees are risking all to escape by boat to western Europe.