The Cu Chi Tunnels are a network of underground tunnels, carved out by hand, located 55 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). About a two hours' drive from the former South Vietnam capital, Cu Chi Tunnels today comprise a popular Saigon tourist destination that provides visitors with an evocative look at Vietnam War history.
No grimy, insect-ridden hellholes here; the Vietnamese government has cleaned the place up and set up numerous exhibits around the site, not to mention a well-stocked souvenir shop and a firing range where visitors can fire automatic weapons for about a dollar a bullet.
Cu Chi Tunnels - a Brief Background
In the Sixties and Seventies, Cu Chi was part of hotly contested territory during the Vietnam War. Cu Chi was a point in the "Iron Triangle", a 60 square mile area in the Binh Duong province of Vietnam whose residents sympathized with the Viet Cong, or Communist rebels in the South.
Cu Chi also functioned as an important depot in the "Ho Chi Minh Trail", through which supplies and troops filtered from Communist North Vietnam to rebels in American-allied South Vietnam. The U.S. military top brass recognized the importance of the Cu Chi Tunnels and tried several times to flush the tunnels out.
Operation Crimp in 1966 attempted to bomb the Viet Cong out of their position, but many parts of the tunnel network were bomb-proof. Booby-traps in the tunnels scared off the 8,000 American and allied soldiers on the ground at Cu Chi. The tunnels' innovative engineering meant that grenades and poison gas couldn't flush out or trap the Viet Cong inside the tunnels.
Operation Cedar Falls in 1967 increased the troop complement to 30,000, including "tunnel rats", or specialists trained in tunnel warfare (see image above). "Tunnel rats" had no fancy equipment - at most, they'd be equipped with a .45 pistol, a knife, and a flashlight.
Carpet bombing and tunnel rat infiltration succeeded up to a certain point, but the local guerrilla units simply melted into the jungles, taking back Cu Chi when U.S. operations in the area had ceased.
Secret to Cu Chi Tunnels' Success
What made Cu Chi Tunnels so successful as a base of operations? Chalk it up to the tunnels' brilliant engineering: borne out of trial and error, as well as the hard work of the Viet Cong, who carved the tunnels out by hand with simple picks and shovels.
At its heyday, the tunnel network stretched over 75 miles underground, reaching as far as the border of Cambodia. The tunnels were eked out by hand, at a rate of five to six feet a day.
The tunnel network contained hospitals, living quarters, kitchens, bomb shelters, theaters, and weapons factories.
Smoke from kitchens and weapons factories were built with long multi-chambered chimneys that would disperse the smoke from fires, preventing any revealing plumes from being seen by enemy forces.
Ground-level air vents were disguised as anthills or termite mounds.
Quietly burrowing right under the U.S. forces' feet, the tunnels provided safe hiding places and invisible hatchways through which Viet Cong could strike at a moment's notice, and vanish just as quickly as they appeared.
Cu Chi Tunnels' Lethal Surprises
U.S. soldiers who tried to infiltrate the tunnels faced multiple challenges: the cramped tunnels were too small for most American servicemen (though just right for the slim, short Vietnamese), and the passageways bristled with stinging insects and lethal booby traps.
Tripwires would detonate mines or grenades; pits swung open to impale soldiers on sharpened bamboo punji stakes.
The surrounding countryside was littered with improvised mines, jeopardizing American forces on the ground. The source of these mines? The American forces themselves.
Bombs and other weapons used by American forces were collected by Viet Cong and brought to Cu Chi's underground smithies, where they were converted into mines, rocket launchers, and other weapons. In short, the Americans were giving the Viet Cong free weaponry to be used against themselves!
Cu Chi Tunnels - Cleaned up for Tourists
The war was over by 1975; the Communist North eventually took the South in one push, and the tunnels were subsequently cleaned up as a war memorial.
Today, Vietnamese tourists come to commemorate their dead and remember the struggle, while loads of Western tourists come to explore the tunnels for themselves.
Some tunnels have been enlarged for the sake of bulkier Westerners. These tunnels are sprayed and cleaned regularly, so visitors don't get bitten by vermin or blinded by dust.
The only hazard down there is claustrophobia - even the enlarged version is a tight duck-walk, and it's an immense relief to make it up the metal staircase that leads aboveground.
Cu Chi Tunnels' Disguised Entrances
The tunnels open to tourists are just a tiny fraction of the Cu Chi network at its peak; most of the tunnels have collapsed from disuse, so the tourist site features one enlarged tunnel and a few bolt-holes for demonstration purposes.
The bolt-hole shown above demonstrates the tunnels' small size and high stealth factor. The holes and tunnels fit the slim, compact frame of most Vietnamese, and exclude the tall, stocky frames common among American servicemen.
A Cu Chi guide demonstrates how to enter and shut the hole - the guide enters feet first, holds the lid high above his head (left), and bends at the knee so the rest of his body can slide into the opening (center).
Once his whole body is inside, the guide then slides the lid into place (right), leaving almost nothing on the surface that indicates the location of the hole.
For American servicemen in the area during the Vietnam War, it must have felt like being attacked by ghosts.
Cu Chi Tunnels' Ampitheater and Propaganda
Cu Chi Tunnel exhibits are clumped into a few key groups.
The amphitheater is normally the first stop on the tour - tourists are escorted into a hollowed-out pit in the ground, covered with a camouflaged roof, and shown a diagram of the Cu Chi Tunnels, as well as a black-and-white propaganda video made in the 1970s.
Visitors are then escorted by guides to check out other practical demonstrations of Cu Chi Tunnels' tools of war.
Cu Chi Tunnels' Exhibits
One underground pavilion showcases the different types of traps laid by Viet Cong to ensnare American troops in the area. The traps are laid out against a painted backdrop showing U.S. soldiers in the throes of agony. The examples shown in the pavilion are quite ingenious (if cruel), ranging from simple bear traps to door traps that swing down on victims unlucky enough to open the wrong door.
Another pavilion covers a diorama depicting a typical Viet Cong weapons factory. Unexploded U.S. bombs and other captured weapons were brought to these factories, where they were fashioned into mines, grenades, and other weapons that could be used against American forces in Vietnam.
Out in the open, visitors can see tunnels and tunnel openings in action; examples of captured American weaponry (including masses of unexploded bombs, and most spectacularly, a decommissioned Sherman tank); and a demonstration of a pit trap in action, its bottom lined with sharpened punji stakes.
Cu Chi Souvenir Shop... and Firing Range
At the end of the trail, a substantially-stocked souvenir shop awaits thirsty visitors, selling food, drink, and tokens of the trip.
You can purchase a copy of the propaganda video they showed you at the amphitheater (if one viewing wasn't enough for you), or buy mementoes including (but not limited to) lighters salvaged from American servicemen, embossed with division insignias and hard-ass mottoes ("I know I'm going to heaven because I've already been to hell: Vietnam").
If souvenirs are not your thing, you can spend your money instead on ammunition for the nearby firing range. No charge for firing your choice of weapon, but the ammo doesn't come cheap.
Cu Chi Tunnels: Transportation, Entrance Fees
Visits to Cu Chi Tunnels can be arranged with a number of tour agencies operating out of Ho Chi Minh City.
The Sinh Tourist offers a half-day Cu Chi Tunnels tour with pick-up and drop-off from their office at De Tham Street on District One.
The tour package includes a tour guide, who will escort your group around the exhibit and provide some context to what you're seeing. The tour is best seen as part of a group; the exhibits are not designed to be seen by travelers walking about on their own, and you'll need a knowledgeable guide to explain each display.
The admission fee is not included in the tour package. Adults need to pay an entrance fee of upon reaching the site.
The tour takes three hours from start to finish - not including transport to the site and back, but including a trip to a Handicap Handicrafts outlet, where living victims of the war create artworks for export.