If the tenacious spirit of the Vietnamese can be symbolised by a place, then few sites could make a stronger case than Cu Chi tunnels. This district of greater Hochiminh city now has a population of about 350,000, but during the American War it had about 80,000 residents. At first glance there is scant evidence today of the vicious fighting, bombing and destruction that convulsed Cu Chi during the war. To see what went on, you have to dig deeper – underground.
The tunnel network of Cu Chi became legendary during the 1960s for its role in facilitating Viet Cong control of a large rural area only 30km to 40km from Hochiminh city. At its peak the tunnel system stretched from the South Vietnamese capital to the Cambodian border; in the district of Cu Chi alone more than 250km of tunnels honeycomb the ground. The network, parts of which were several storeys deep, included countless trapdoors, constructed living areas, storage facilities, weapon factories, field hospitals, command centres and kitchens.
The tunnels facilitated communication and coordination between the VC- controlled enclaves, isolated from each other by South Vietnamese and American land and air operations. They also allowed the VC to mount surprise attacks wherever the tunnels went – even within the perimeters of the US military base at Dong Du – and to disappear suddenly without a trace via hidden trapdoors. After ground operations against the tunnels claimed large numbers of US casualties and proved ineffective, the Americans resorted to massive firepower, eventually turning Cu Chi’s 420 sq km into what BBC journalists Tom Mangold and John Penycate, authors of The Tunnels of Cu Chi, have called ‘the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare’.
Cu Chi has become a place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese school children and Communist Party cadres.
The tunnels of Cu Chi were built over a period of 25 years, beginning sometime in the late 1940s. They were the improvised response of a poorly equipped peasant army to its enemy’s high-tech ordnance, helicopters, artillery, bombers and chemical weapons.
The Viet Minh built the first tunnels in the red earth (soft during the rainy season, rock-hard during dry months) of Cu Chi during the war against the French. The excavations were used mostly for communication between villages and to evade French army sweeps of the area.
When the VC’s National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency began in earnest in around 1960, the old Viet Minh tunnels were repaired and new extensions were excavated. Within a few years the tunnel system assumed enormous strategic importance, and most of Cu Chi district and the nearby area came under VC control. In addition, Cu Chi was used as a base for infiltrating intelligence agents and sabotage teams into Saigon. The audacious attacks in the South Vietnamese capital during the 1968 Tet Offensive were planned and launched from Cu Chi.
In early 1963 the Diem government implemented the Strategic Hamlets Program, under which fortified encampments, surrounded by many rows of sharp bamboo spikes, were built to house people who had been ‘relocated’ from Communist-controlled areas. The first strategic hamlet was in Ben Cat district, next to Cu Chi. However, the VC were able to tunnel into the hamlets and control them from within, so that by the end of 1963 the first showpiece hamlet had been overrun.
Over the years the VC developed simple but effective techniques to make their tunnels difficult to detect or disable. Wooden trapdoors were camouflaged with earth and branches; some were booby-trapped. Hidden underwater entrances from rivers were constructed. To cook they used ‘Dien Bien Phu kitchens’, which exhausted the smoke through vents many metres away from the cooking site. Trapdoors were installed throughout the network to prevent tear gas, smoke or water from moving from one part of the system to another. Some sections were even equipped with electric lighting.
The series of setbacks and defeats suffered by the South Vietnamese forces in the Cu Chi area rendered a complete VC victory by the end of 1965 a distinct possibility. In the early months of that year, the guerrillas boldly held a victory parade in the middle of Cu Chi town. VC strength in and around Cu Chi was one of the reasons the Johnson administration decided to involve US troops in the war.
To deal with the threat posed by VC control of an area so near the South Vietnamese capital, one of the USA’s first actions was to establish a large base camp in Cu Chi district. Unknowingly, they built it right on top of an existing tunnel network. It took months for the 25th Division to figure out why they kept getting shot at in their tents at night.
The US and Australian troops tried a variety of methods to ‘pacify’ the area around Cu Chi, which came to be known as the Iron Triangle. They launched large-scale ground operations involving tens of thousands of troops but failed to locate the tunnels. To deny the VC cover and supplies, rice paddies were defoliated, huge swaths of jungle bulldozed, and villages evacuated and razed. The Americans also sprayed chemical defoliants on the area aerially and a few months later ignited the tinder-dry vegetation with gasoline and napalm. But the intense heat interacted with the wet tropical air in such a way as to create cloudbursts that extinguished the fires. The VC remained safe in their tunnels.
Unable to win this battle with chemicals, the US army began sending men down into the tunnels. These ‘tunnel rats’, who were often involved in underground fire fights, sustained appallingly high casualty rates.
When the Americans began using German shepherd dogs, trained to use their keen sense of smell to locate trapdoors and guerrillas, the VC began washing with American soap, which gave off a scent the canines identified as friendly. Captured US uniforms were put out to confuse the dogs further. Most importantly, the dogs were not able to spot booby traps. So many dogs were killed or maimed that their horrified handlers then refused to send them into the tunnels.
The USA declared Cu Chi a free-strike zone: little authorisation was needed to shoot at anything in the area, random artillery was fired into the area at night and pilots were told to drop unused bombs and napalm there before returning to base. But the VC stayed put. Finally, in the late 1960s, American B-52s carpet-bombed the whole area, destroying most of the tunnels along with everything else around. The gesture was almost symbolic by then because the USA was already on its way out of the war. The tunnels had served their purpose.
The VC guerrillas serving in the tunnels lived in extremely difficult conditions and suffered serious casualties. Only about 6000 of the 16,000 cadres who fought in the tunnels survived the war. Thousands of civilians in the area were also killed. Their tenacity was extraordinary considering the bombings, the claustrophobia of living underground for weeks or months at a time and the deaths of countless friends and comrades.
The villages of Cu Chi have since been presented with numerous honorific awards, decorations and citations by the government and many have been declared ‘heroic villages’. Since 1975 new hamlets have been established and the population of the area has exploded; however, chemical defoliants remain in the soil and water, and crop yields are still poor.
Mangold and Penycate’s Tunnels of Cu Chi is a powerful book documenting the story of the tunnels and the people involved on both sides.
Equal parts Disneyland, Buddhist fantasia, historical homage and national propaganda piece, Dai Nam Theme Park (Lac Canh Dai Nam Van Hien; 0650 351 2660; www.laccanhdainamvanhien.vn; adult/child 100,000/50,000d, zoo adult/child 80,000/50,000d; 8am-6pm) is a fantastically cheesy experience. About 30km from HCMC on Hwy 13, it’s split into four constituent parts sheltered behind giant walls (guarded by life-size model soldiers).
The amusement park ( 8am-6pm) has a serious rollercoaster with corkscrews and loops, a log flume, an indoor snow world and plenty of rides for smaller kids. Most hilarious is the Ngu Lan (Five Unicorns) Palace, a Buddhist take on Disney’s ‘It’s a small world’, where inflatable boats glide through tableaux representing life, death, reincarnation, a descent into hell (a splatterfest of body parts, torture and sadistic demons) and an eventual arrival in nirvana; it’s definitely not suitable for small children. Its counterpart, the Ngu Phung (Five Phoenixes) Palace ‘makes tourists feel like being lost in the heaven’. Each ride is charged separately (20,000d to 80,000d).
Dai Nam’s 12.5-hectare zoo (adult/child 80,000/50,000d) is the only one in the greater HCMC area we’d recommend visiting. The menagerie include tigers, lions, white rhinos and bears. The neighbouring beach (adult/child 100,000/60,000d) has large fresh and saltwater pools and is a good place for cooling off the kids.
Best of all, for Disneyland kitsch on a monumental scale, is the temple complex. Set behind a vast plaza, there are artificial lakes, mountains, walking paths, towers and pagodas. In the mammoth temple every god, goddess and personage of importance in Vietnamese history gets a look in, with Ho Chi Minh taking pride of place.
Local bus 18 runs from Ben Thanh bus station to Dai Nam daily. There’s plenty of car parking on site.
For lacquerware, it’s well worth stopping off at Tuong Binh Hiep en route. This village has been known for producing quality lacquered goods since the early 18th century and you’ll pick up items here for a fraction of the price you’ll spend in HCMC. Tuong Binh Hiep is 5km south of the theme park; if you’re coming from HCMC, turn left immediately after the second set of toll booths onto Ð Le Chi Dan. Various workshops are scattered along this road.
(www.cuchitunnel.org.vn; adult/child 110,000/ 20,000d) Two sections of this remarkable tunnel network (which are enlarged and upgraded versions of the real thing) are open to the public. One is near the village of Ben Dinh and the other is 15km beyond at Ben Duoc. Most tourists visiting the tunnels end up at Ben Dinh, as it’s easier for tour buses to reach.
Visits to both sites usually start with an extremely dated propaganda video before guides in army greens lead small groups through some short sections of tunnel. Even if you wimp out and stay above ground, it’s still an interesting experience.
Both sites have gun ranges attached where you shell out a small fortune to shell up and fire genuine AK47s and machine guns. You pay per bullet so be warned: if you’re firing an automatic weapon, they come out pretty fast.
The most visited of the tunnel sites, this small, renovated section is near the village of Ben Dinh, about 50km from HCMC. In one of the classrooms at the visitors centre a large map shows the extent of the network while another shows cross-section diagrams of the tunnels.
The section of the tunnel system presently open to visitors is a few hundred metres south of the visitors centre. It snakes up and down through various chambers along its 50m length. The tunnels are about 1.2m high and 80cm across, and are unlit. Some travellers find them too claustrophobic for comfort. A knocked-out M-41 tank and a bomb crater are near the exit, which is in a reforested eucalyptus grove.
Be warned that this site tends to get crowded and you can feel like you’re on a tourist conveyor belt most days.
Like Ben Dinh, the tunnels here have been enlarged to accommodate tourists, although they’re still a tight squeeze. Inside the under ground chambers are bunkers, a hospital and a command centre that played a role in the 1968 Tet Offensive. The set pieces include tables, chairs, beds, lights, and dummies outfitted in guerrilla gear.
What Ben Duoc has that Ben Dinh doesn’t is the massive Ben Duoc temple, built in 1993 in memory of the Vietnamese killed at Cu Chi. It’s flanked by a nine-storey tower with a flower garden in front. You’ll only be permitted to enter if you’re dressed appropriately – although temple wear (long trousers etc) may not be conducive to clambering through earthen tunnels.
(Nha Truyen Thong Huyen Cu Chi) The small Cu Chi War History Museum is not actually at the tunnel sites but just off the main highway in the central part of Cu Chi town. Like most similar museums, its displays consist mainly of photographs (some quite graphic) and large chunks of rusting military hardware. The subject is covered much more comprehensively in the War Remnants Museum in HCMC and you’ll see many of the same photos at the tunnels themselves.
(www.wildlifeatrisk.org; adult/child US$5/free; 7.30-11.30am & 1-4.30pm) Just a few kilometres down the road from the tunnels of Ben Dinh, this small centre is dedicated to the protection of wildlife that has been confiscated from owners or illegal traders. Animals here include bears, otters and gibbons. There is an informative display on the rather depressing state of wildlife in Vietnam, including the ‘room of death’ featuring a host of traps and baits. It’s tough to navigate these back roads solo, so talk to a travel agent about incorporating it into a Cu Chi Tunnels trip.
Cu Chi district covers a large area, parts of which are as close as 30km to central HCMC. The Cu Chi War History Museum is closest to the city, while the Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc tunnels are about 50km and 65km, respectively, from central Hochiminh city.
To visit the rescue centre as well as the tunnels, consider hiring a car and driver, a relatively cheap option if shared between a few people. It is hard to find, so make sure your driver knows where to go.
Requiring several changes of bus, it is very difficult to visit by public transport. Tay Ninh buses pass though Cu Chi, but getting from the town of Cu Chi to the tunnels by public transport is tough.
Cu Chi Tunnels Tours
By far the easiest way to get to the tunnels is by guided tour and, as the competition is stiff, prices are exceptionally reasonable. For something different, hop on a boat to the Cu Chi tunnels with Les Rives ; boats depart twice daily, at 7am and 1.15pm, and include hotel pick-up, meals, refreshments, guide and admission fees. The entire trip takes five hours.
Exotissimo (08-3827 2911; www.exotissimo.com; 64 Ð Dong Du; per 1/2/3/4 people 3,110,000/3,900,000/4,600,000/6,200,000d; 9am-6pm Mon-Sat) offers a cycling trip or you can join a fun motorbike tour with Saigon Riders ( 0913 767 113; www.saigonriders.vn), which costs US$69 per person (minimum two people).