Dug mainly by hand, work on the tunnels first began during the resistance to French occupation in the late 1940s then continued on a much larger scale in the 1960s and 1970s.
The subterranean passages allowed the guerrilla army to control large swathes of rural South Vietnam and strike strategically important targets at will before disappearing seemingly by magic.
In heavily bombed areas like Cu Chi, about 70km west of Saigon, entire villages of people reportedly spent most of their lives in underground communities – only coming out at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops and kill American troops.
The tunnels had living quarters, kitchens, toilets, wells, meeting rooms, bomb shelters, classrooms and even large entertainment chambers for music and films.
Meanwhile, the entrances were camouflaged and rigged with booby traps, including spiked pits or tripwires attached to grenades or boxes of scorpions which would fall on the victims’ heads.
Hidden trapdoors in the tunnels led to even lower levels – up to 14m deep – providing escape and supply routes. When the Americans tried to flush the Viet Cong out with gas the trapdoors were closed and when the Americans flooded the tunnels with water the trapdoors were opened to allow the water to flush out into the Saigon River.
The Viet Cong were even able cook underground undetected by filtering the smoke from their fires through a series of chambers that exited far away under termite mounds, and they would only do it once a day when the puffs would be indistinguishable from the morning fog.
It took years for the Americans to realise the true scale and strategic importance of the tunnels and even then attempts to destroy them – including carpet bombing with tonnes of explosives and defoliants and the deployment of specially trained troops dubbed “tunnel rats” – were largely unsuccessful.
However, the tunnels were both a sanctuary and a hell. They provided protection as the bombs, napalm and toxic chemicals rained down from the Americans’ B52s but sickness and malnutrition were rife in the terrifying insect and vermin infested darkness. Thousands died of illnesses, especially malaria.
The Cu Chi network – estimated to consist of about 200km of tunnels between Saigon and the Cambodian border – was especially crucial in the planning and execution of the massive Tet Offensive in 1968 that effectively broke the American government’s will to continue the war.
After the conflict officially ended in 1975 the Vietnamese government decided to preserve some of the tunnels at Cu Chi as a memorial. The area is now one of the most visited tourist attractions around Saigon with tours giving hundreds each day some insight into this important facet of the Vietnam war.
I went with a group of backpackers – mostly British and Americans – on a tour booked through my hostel. It cost 100,000 dong ($A5) plus another 90,000 dong ($A4) for the entrance fee and took about two hours on the bus each way.
Once we arrived at the memorial the first stop was to watch an old black and white propaganda flick railing against the Americans who indiscriminately bombed “local women, children, livestock and poultry, trees, land and even Buddha statues” and profiling the brave “American killer heroes” – apparently mainly little girls and women – who each slaughtered the GIs in their “hundreds”.
Then our guide Chi led us through the forest along wide dirt paths pointing out various exhibits: a cramped “spider hole” like the ones in which the guerrillas would sit and wait for the enemy, a display of spiked pit trap devices backed by a colourful mural depicting them in action, a wrecked American M41 tank and a roofed bunker housing a group of mannequins recycling unexploded bombs into new weapons.
We had lunch nearby a gun range which offered the opportunity to blast off a few rounds from M16s, M60s and AK47s for up to 40,000 dong per bullet (about $A2). It was an experience munching on my bahn mi sandwich amidst the sounds of automatic weapons being gleefully emptied at a clay hill. I’d never been that close to gunfire before. It’s very, very loud. “BLAM… BLAM, BLAM, BLAM… DUHDUHDUHDUHDUHDUHDUHDUHDUH. Whoooo!” .
The final exhibit was a recreation of one the tunnels about 30m long and built, with western tourists in mind, a bit larger than the real tunnels; the roof was high enough that you could duck walk crouched down.
Even though there were lights every few metres and exit tunnels regularly running off either side waddling through it was a hot, dirty and claustrophobic experience. At least there weren’t any snakes or spiders.
Visiting the Cu Chi tunnels memorial was genuinely interesting. Yeah, the information presented was one-sided and propaganda-ish, but probably not any more so than the American-produced movies and television shows about the war.
Surely, it’s only by looking at both sides of any story that you can really get any sense of the horrific truth about something like the Vietnam War.