The Vietnam war left behind paged of history, radical defense systems and war strategies that was wholly the invention of the Vietnamese. The singular conception of all these put together is what remains today as the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. These tunnels that cover the length of a whole city under the was literally, a ground breaking strategy drawn out by the nation’s Military during the French occupation in the 1940s. But it was the 1960s Vietnamese war with USA that elongated these underground structures into a networked system used extensively by the army for defense, shelter and army forces. Weapons, goods, documents detailing US military strategies and of course heaps of people resided in the bottom of these germ infested tunnels till the war reached an end.
Although the war itself happened outside in broad daylight, Cu Chi forms the biggest piece of memory left behind from it. Today it is a bustling site for tourists who are held at awe by the genius handiwork of the Vietnamese who hand but only hands and small tools to create this confounding underground system. Whilst all the bombings echoed in the distance, the people of Cu Chi continued their lives beneath the soil where they were held safe with the promise of food rations, sleep, and the most important thing they needed – buffer time before planning a counter attack. Although the conditions weren’t ideal and deteriorating health was a common worry, there were almost 10,000 people who lived and died in these tunnels, making it a monumental space.
There are two locations from where these post-war sites are accessible to the public. The first tunnel is called Ben Duoc and the second is called Ben Dinh The most widely accessed tunnel is the Ben Dinh which is roughly a 2 hour travel from the city of Saigon. Getting there shouldn’t be a concern at all as many active tourist group packages are found in teeming numbers. Both sites have an ample number of public bus, taxi and even speedboat services plying to the site and back. Getting there can be an inexpensive affair of a mere 5 dollars and the entry to the tunnel is also found to be light on the wallet.
When you reach the site, you would have reached a walking track in middle of a clearing with twigs and leaves heaved in strays and piles across the ground. Tourists crowd around looking about, but beyond the trees and the pathways there is no sign of any secret underground passage way. ‘So, where is the tunnel?’ you might think. Look again, you might just be standing right on it!
Well even if that isn’t true, on a windy autumn day when the tunnel entrance is shut, its close to impossible to spot it. That is because these tunnel openings are found to be brilliantly designed trapdoors that camouflage with the ground, lying incognito to escape the enemy eyes. But beneath the ground, shrouded by the sounds of the wind and the birds lies a tunnel track measuring almost 250 kilometers in length.
The Ben Duoc tunnel tour is about 60 minutes long. But right after that, there is a nearby temple which exists as a part of the same site. As Ben Duoc lies near a prominent water body, there are many attractive restaurants on the river which is also linked to the same place. This site offers up to four tunnel segments for you to clamber into, crawl through and explore. In fact, it is quite a task for the big-boned to squeeze themselves into these tunnels (it is generally prohibited by the guides if that is the case). The insides of the tunnel are quite breath catching, displaying human hand design and will to survive. But while taking an appreciating view of all of it, a bug spray in your bag will go a long way, most definitely till the end of the tunnel!
Ben Dinh is the more crowded, commercialized tunnel site. Most mapped out tours and and tour packages have opted for this as this site is home to the large number of redesigned tunnels. But even the Ben Dinh can foster many bats and mosquitoes, so stick to the bug spray in any case, even if these tunnels seem wider and more welcoming.
As far as claustrophobia goes, yes, each tunnel is lowly built as one would anticipate. So if you’re afraid of cramped spaces, this trip isn’t designed for you. But the good news is that the stoop roofs and the cramped passages only extend for 40 meters or so. Beyond that are semi structures and sub-tunnels which were thankfully reworked on to give tourists a better view of things. This is widely prominent in the Ben Dinh. This tunnel network has been worked into, creating bigger cavities in the existing structure to facilitate display of the various booby traps and war weapons used. There are also models depicting how the tunnel was housed by people. Also for the most significant improvement that made the tunnels more viable by tourists, one must thank electricity! Unlike in the war days, where the enemy troops could not see five feet beyond their footsteps, the tunnels are now lit up with low voltage lighting so as to make the passage ways clearer without reducing their maze-like feel.
In order to enhance the tourist appeal of the site even further, more number of shops selling local souvenir, traditional goods and war memorabilia are set up at the end of the walking track. Food and drink stalls that line the entrance may seem a little out of place in this war site ridden by disease, deaths and battle. But you will thank their presence when the half a day long tedious trip is over. An added bonus of the trip are the samples of boiled tapioca one can to conclude your trip.
The tunnels have unspoken words of tenacity and survival determination displayed by the Vietnamese, etched along their historic passageways. Despite braving diseases and rampant illnesses like malaria (which the second most prominent cause of death after death by war) the people, we come to understand, meticulously forged the tunnels with bare hands, disregarding disease and fighting for survival.