All through our journey in Vietnam, we had heard a lot of buzz about the famed Cu Chi tunnels. I guess that was one of the main reasons why we were determined to take a look at them when we finally made our way to Ho Chi Minh city. It took a while for us to figure out how to actually get to the tunnels. The advice that we were given was to take a tour because well… That’s what everyone does.
GETTING TO THE CU CHI TUNNELS
Like most of the other tourists, we booked a tour to get to the Cu Chi tunnels. What most people (including us) don’t know is that there are local buses that take you to the Cu Chi tunnels. We were one of the unfortunate ones who learned about this much later. That being said we did enjoy the comfort of an AC bus which was a big respite from the heat. The tour guide was an asset but I think we would have probably figured out everything on our own had we not taken the tour. The tour did make things easier though.
A SLIGHT DIVERSION
Skilled hands at work.
While the tour company says that it will take you to the Cu Chi tunnels, the bus makes a small diversion. The pit stop is at a sort of handicraft workshop. The people working in the workshop are disabled due to the war that ravaged the country before. Many of the younger workers have been unlucky enough to have stepped on a mine that hadn’t been cleared post war.
You can watch how their deft hands work to use egg shells to make beautiful designs. In case you do want to buy the popular pieces you can head over to the store.
THE CU CHI TUNNELS
As you walk into the Cu Chi tunnels you are greeted with an array of guns and bombs.
I’m not sure about the rest of the world but I hadn’t heard about the Cu Chi tunnels before. I do like to do a bit of research before I visit any landmark. That is how I discovered that the Cu Chi tunnels were a network of underground tunnels that were used as a war tactic by the Vietnamese. In fact, these tunnels even served as a base for the Viet Cong during the Tet offensive.
The Cu Chi tunnels are a walk back into history. It gave me a glimpse of how desperately the Vietnamese fought to keep their lands. They did not use brute force though. These people were simple farmers who defended their land as best that they could by using traps and intelligence.
Our guide called everyone together. His loud voice was something that could ring in your ears if you had the misfortune to stand too close to him when he called out. The words ‘My group come here’ definitely were his trademark.
THE FIRST TRAP
That sure looks nasty!
Our first exhibit was a trap. Luckily it was barricaded on all sides or I was certain that I could have blundered right into it. The lush green grass on the rotating piece of wood or steel was deceptive to say the least. It covered a deep pit whose bottom was lined with bamboo spikes. Woe-betide the person who mistook this green part as solid land!
HOLES IN THE GROUND ARE OFTEN OVERLOOKED
Nope! Too small for me!
All too often you tend to overlook holes in the ground. Just look at that tiny one in the ground there. I’m 5’2” and have been called tiny all my life but as you can see… That is just small! This was one of the many entrances that the Vietnamese used to enter the underground network of tunnels. Being small in stature and I assume malnourished due to the war, these people did not have any problem entering and exiting.
Smaller holes also have their own significance. The ones above for example are air vents. Once you have crawled your way through the tunnels you will realize just how important the air vents are. It gets insanely hot in the tunnels. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let’s head off to see the next part of the tour.
THE AMERICAN TANK
The American tank.
This particular tank was destroyed by a delay mine. It is a popular attraction. Most of the tour guides ask the tourists to try and pull the gun down. Some manage some don’t!
Traps… Traps… And still more traps!
After we saw our first trap I thought we were done. In actuality it was just the beginning. Somewhere through our stroll we came to an exhibition of the different kinds of traps that the Vietnamese used to deter visitors. To my over reactive imagination they were extremely gruesome.
Risking their lives to protect others.
The Vietnamese did not have the resources required to make a bomb. One would be forced to wonder how these poor farmers could even think of making one. As I said before, the Vietnamese were rather ingenious people. They collected unexploded bombs and sawed through them for the explosive within. They used water to ensure that the heat caused due to friction did not cause the bomb to explode.
The explosives were then used in their own homemade bombs. It was a time consuming and risky method of making bombs but it was one that they perfected over time.
THE INTERNAL WORKING OF THE CU CHI TUNNELS
The tunnels keep becoming smaller.
We did get a chance to get into the Cu Chi tunnels. Young children aren’t allowed in and people with severe respiratory diseases are advised against getting into the tunnels. At first I wondered why, it was only when I started crawling my way through them that I realized just how claustrophobic the tunnels can be.
At first you don’t really know what to expect. You hunker down onto your haunches and do the frog walk. If you are short enough you would probably be able to walk bent over for a short distance. Then the tunnel gets shorter. By now the people who were on their haunches are on their knees. Those who were on their knees were on their haunches.
The temperature soars outside and the tunnel is hot and stuffy. I don’t really know how the sides of the tunnels are wet. Maybe they have been wetted on purpose. Maybe it is the natural ground water. While the water is intended to cool the ambient temperature (I’m sure it would be far worse without it), the tunnels steam up like a sauna.
At a certain point the tunnel started to get to me. I needed to get out. To escape! So when the tour guide told us that the first exit was up ahead, I was the first out. Shawn followed me out too. A handful of people continued through the whole marked trail.
It is important to understand that the Vietnamese lived underground. Their conditions must have been far worse after Operation Crimp where the US dropped 30 ton loads of explosive on the Cu Chi area. This effectively turned the forest into barren land. Without the forest to shelter the Earth, the ground must have heated up immensely. I can’t even begin to imagine what that was like.
THE MISLEADING SMOKE
Another interesting thing that we learned about the Cu Chi tunnels was the misleading smoke. Despite living underground the Vietnamese still managed to cook. To cook one needed fire. The byproduct of fire is smoke. If the Americans had to find the smoke they would find the Vietnamese.
In order to prevent this, the Vietnamese rigged up and elaborate system of chimneys. By the time the smoke funneled through the chimney system it had almost dissipated. The chimney opened up a good distance away from the underground kitchen.
A TASTE FROM THE PAST
Eating like the Vietnamese
Our tour had almost come to an end. We were then treated to a small meal of tapioca so that we could taste what the Vietnamese in the Cu Chi area would eat. From what I gathered tapioca was easy to grow and since it was a root it wasn’t damaged as easily. While the meal was tasty I can’t imagine eating just tapioca for everyday of my life.
AND SO THE JOURNEY ENDS
A model depicting what the tunnels look like underground.
Our tour of the Cu Chi tunnels was almost over but before we left our guide had a brief snippet of history to share with us. He explained how the Vietnamese viewed the war. They were simple farmers. All they wanted to do was live a peaceful life. When they were not given a chance to do that, they dug tunnels into the Earth so that they could continue to farm in safety.
I really wish war was a figment of our imagination. Until you see with your own eyes the damage that war can do, you never truly understand the life that the people in war zones live. Does the end really justify the means? I’ve said it before and I will say it again.
Travel! Learn that the differences that people see are made differences that made by man.
Travel! The more you do the more you will realize how similar we are.
Travel! It will teach you about yourself and about others.