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Resilient Cu Chi Tunnels of Vietnam

- By Vishwanath Pai M

That morning I left Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam for Cu Chi tunnels which are about 70 km North-West of Ho Chi Minh city. I traveled by an Air Conditioned bus operated by a tour operator. When my Indian friend, a businessman based in Ho Chi Minh, Mr. Ravi  suggested that I visit the place, I was not aware of what it is. He had just told me that those tunnels were used by Vietnamese to fight a war against the US and I knew that in Vietnam war the US was unsuccessful and withdrew in 1973. I had bought a book about Cu Chi tunnels in Ho Chi Minh city. So I started reading it.

Cu Chi is the name of the place and the underground tunnels of Cu Chi are the most complex part of a network that-at the height of the Vietnam war in the mid sixties-stretched from the gates of Saigaon (today Ho Chi Minh City)to the border with Cambodia. These hundreds of kilometers of tunnels connect villages, districts and various VC (Viet Cong) guerrillas support bases. They once consisted of living quarters, do-it-yourself ordnance factories, kitchens with concealed chimneys, hospitals, cleverly designed conical bomb shelters, theatre and movie halls.  These tunnels in Cu Chi were originally dug as hiding places for the Viet Minh, the nationalist guerillas who fought the colonial power, France, in the 1940s and 1950s. As with their successors, the Viet Cong (VC), Communists dominated the independence movement. With the cease fire in 1954 came the agreement between the world powers and Viet Minh at Geneva, Vietnam was provisionally divided into two halves and the Northern half was ruled by the Communists and the southern half was an independent republic set up with generous aid of the Americans based in Saigon. The atrocities of Southern rulers increased on suspected communists in the region and several hundred were killed. So the communists resumed again the guerilla war on the South in 1960. The first thing the VC did was that they started further digging of the already existed tunnels. The army of Republic of South Vietnam supported by America could not sustain the assaults of VC guerillas and in 1965 American army arrived to fight these guerillas. Even the American military with its mighty devices, bombs, intelligence inputs and manpower could not succeed and they pulled out in 1973. The North Vietnamese troops took control of Saigaon in 1975 which was the base of Southern rulers and both parts of Vietnam united.

When I was reading through the book a French student sitting next to me became so curious and requested me to give a brief history of the tunnels. She was studying in Australia; so her English was good and I could converse with her. By the time we were discussing, our guide started addressing us in the bus. The bus was passing through the thick plantation and he said we are nearing the main entrance of tunnel. 

  We reached the tunnel site; after buying the entry ticket our guide took us to a demonstration place which is again a kind of bunker, half underground where the model of Cu Chi tunnel was shown and explained. When the model was shown I was wondering whether “This tunnel with many layers” really existed. But later when I went though the tunnels, saw the traps, entry and exit points of the tunnel, it was really a heroic deed by the Vietnamese.

By the time we came out of the said bunker I had some idea about the tunnel network, which had a few levels of tunneling system. We were just moving and our guide suddenly stopped, smiled at us and asked us to identify an entrance of the tunnel. A few of us looked around, but none of us could succeed, finally he gave a broad smile and lifted the entry door just below his foot. It was covered by some leaves and you could not make out what it was.


Entry point to the tunnel covered by leaves.

The Guide asked “Who wishes to enter through this entry?” Every one in our group looked at the other to see who will be the brave person to enter it. Then a small girl was brave enough to do so. She volunteered to get in and her parents were also supportive of her. When she entered every one of us around clapped at her. No one in our group was ready to enter it because the size of the entrance is smaller than a manhole.


A small girl enters through the tunnel entry.

 

Our guide is a knowledgeable man who showed us some other different entry points and then the real entry into the tunnels, by looking at which I was really scared. You have to crawl and move in the tunnel.

We still moved further and our guide took us to see the different kinds of traps which used to be laid around the area. By looking at I was sure soldiers who were engaged in the war wouldn't have withstood the fight against the Viet Cong for long. They really fell prey to booby traps assembled from scavenged American ordnance duds, traps with pointed bamboo sticks.

"Tell me what that is," our guide asks us, pointing to a termite mound poking from the forest floor. "That's a termite mound," I reply immediately. Wrong! It's a ventilation hole disguised as a termite mound. Our guide replies with a huge laugh. Yes, bamboos and this kind of man made termite mound used to supply air through the tunnels.


Artificial termites mound which as ventilation holes.

“Malaria” our guide said ran rampant throughout the tunnels during the war and the Vietnamese only ventured out of the tunnels under the cover of darkness. Cooking was really a brave task, but the ever-resourceful Vietnamese worked out ways of concealing smoke while cooking meals.



Kitchen Chamber

 

We then visited a bunker which housed different kinds of shells and bombs used during the war by American troops; some weighted even 250 KG but they were unable to destroy the tunnels, said our guide.


Shells used during the war.

I was given a pair of sandals to wear, in an outdoor workshop and I tried put them on our guide gave a broad smile and said sandals of this kind were used to misguide the enemy. While trying to follow the foot steps the enemy will end up going in a reverse direction, what a wonderful idea! These sandals are the flip-flop of actual sandals.

 
Sandals

 

Our guide gave us the description of the size of the tunnels and how the roofing is done to avoid the effect of bombing. The passages of the tunnels neither straight or “snakelike”, but they are to zigzag at angles between 60 and 120 degrees. This was because even if the enemy detected the entrance of the underground tunnel and set off mines or pour chemicals it would not have much effect inside the tunnels.

The dimensions of the communicating passages were not wider than 1.2 meters, not narrower than 0.8 meters, not higher than 1.8 meters, not lower than 0.8 meters. The minimum thickness of the roof was to be 1.5 meters-this was “to avoid vibration caused by the explosions of bombs and shells and the sounds of tanks and other vehicles moving above. The enemy was sitting just above their head.

About all this digging he asked “How was it done?” Many in our group, mostly students, gave different answers about using of machines but again with a broad smile our guide said it was done using hoes and bare hands, it was “amazing”.  Someone in our group asked whether any special material was used in creating these tunnels so that it should not crumble, but our guide answered in negative as the earth in Cu Chi is sticky.

After all this description and question-answer session, "Ready for the tunnel visit?" he teases all of us; initially no takers but I asked how long we have to move inside the tunnel, he said about 30 meters and I can come out, but if I wish I can still continue and come out of some other exit point. After listening “30 meters” many were interested and I also braved to enter it. For the tourists the entrance was made a little bigger and inside the tunnels you had to sit and move and you could not stand at all. Just a few short minutes in the tunnels made me feel too hot. I don’t understand how people could live in them with the heat. Literally hundreds of people lived in the tunnels.


It's me coming out of the tunnel.

 

After getting a big cheer from the guide we proceeded to souvenir shops at the exit point for shopping. While just boarding the bus for my return trip to Ho Chi Minh I offered my tribute to the 45,000 lives lost defending the tunnels.

References: The Tunnels of CUCHI by Tom Mangold & John Penycate

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