Even though the ‘American War’ ended over three decades ago, most visitors to Vietnam are curious to see any reminders of that era. For that reason, plenty of people visit places like the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone) on the 17th parallel, My Lai where the Americans massacred an entire village, and Hoa Lu Prison Museum in Hanoi, once known as the Hanoi Hilton.
Yet the most popular place associated with the war for visitors to Vietnam is the Cu Chi tunnels, about 50kms northwest of Saigon, and with good reason.
The tunnels were first started by the Viet Minh in the 1940s as a way of escaping the increasingly modern artillery that the French were employing. It turns out that the packed soil around Cu Chi was ideal for such an exercise, and the tunnel network gradually expanded.
The tunnels were abandoned for a while when the French left, but with the arrival of the Americans, they were re-excavated and further extended, so that by the late 1960s they stretched for over 250kms, included kitchens, hospitals and meeting areas, and housed tens of thousands of Viet Cong. Entrances and exits were always cleverly concealed, and hidden booby traps discouraged the Americans from looking too closely for the way in.
By means of the tunnels, the Vietcong were able to keep up communications along the length of the country, despite the proximity of American troops in Saigon. The ingenuity displayed in building these tunnels is symbolic of the Vietnamese character, and most people who visit the tunnels find it a moving experience.
Virtually everyone who visits the site does so with a day or half-day tour from Saigon, and every day the car park packs up with tour buses. Most tours charge US$6, or US$8 if combined with the Cao Dai Great Temple, and entrance to the site is 65,000D. By splashing out a bit more (US$12) with Delta Adventure Tours, you can even travel there by boat.
The tour of Cu Chi begins with a video explaining its history, with some vivid footage of the difficulties facing both the diggers and those who would flush them out. Then guides lead visitors on a walk round a short section of tunnels, pointing out concealed entrances and lethal booby traps that would otherwise pass unnoticed.
The tunnels were built to accommodate Vietnamese, whose slim physique proved an advantage over the rotund Westerners, who could not get in the tunnels even when they found them.
In order for visitors to be able to imagine life below ground, a short section of the tunnels has been widened to accommodate Westerners, and visitors get the chance to crawl along the dimly-illuminated passages for a few minutes before re-surfacing.
That’s enough for most visitors who marvel over how the Viet Cong were able to stay down there for days and weeks at a time. To fit in with the war theme, there’s even a shooting range here, where you can pick up an AK47 or similar and let off a few rounds; don’t go mad, though, as it’ll cost you a dollar a bullet.
Cu Chi Tunnels website: www.cuchitunnel.org.vn