Vietnam's underground saga
More than the accolade of being one of the most famous underground tourist attractions, the Cu Chi tunnels are a testament to the indomitable human spirit
When John, our animated guide, calls it the Heineken tunnel, I imagine a comfortable burrow. After all how bad could it be, I delude myself before descending. "Not too low," I say encouragingly to my sister-in-law, but she has already disappeared into the horizontal cavity. I scramble behind. Things begin well and I'm walking comfortably but soon the meandering passage begins to constrict. Its two ends disappear but, there's enough artificial light at intervals. Tales I had heard moments earlier - of death, disease and deadly creatures in these tunnels - torment me. From hunching just a tad, I find myself bending, then crouching as the air gets too heavy. How long have we been here, I wonder as my breath feels laboured. And then John calls out, "Stop!" We're at a sharp curve. My sister-in-law, who has already turned the bend, freezes, blocking my path. I am stuck, I am paranoid, and I cannot wait any longer. With full force, I yell, "I have to get out, now." Did I forget I was claustrophobic? It's a matter of seconds, but my phobia grips me. "Okay, come," John drawls after what seems like a long time. I lunge forward and see my sister-in-law sprint ahead and climb up into the open ground above us. John is waiting with his camera-phone. "Smile," he commands. Still bending, I reluctantly oblige and clamber up. My knees are buckling. My heart is thumping. And I'm feeling like a victorious VC (short for Viet Cong, the military arm of Vietnam's National Liberation Front); the war with my nerves is over.
Of course, for the real VCs the Cu Chi tunnels were never about the self or, for that matter, even about life and death. The complex labyrinth of subterranean tunnels - some sections have three levels going down nine metres from the earth's surface - was about the cause, the people, the nation. A personification of tenacity, it was about the genius of the human mind and the triumph of the human spirit.
For a city that has earned itself romantic sobriquets like Paris of the East and Pearl of the Far East, the Cu Chi tunnels seem somewhat paradoxical.
Ho Chi Minh City, once called Saigon, is dotted with exquisite vestiges of its past coloniser, the French. Grand buildings, like the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Ben Thanh market and the Central Post Office, lord over the chaotic traffic swarming with two-wheelers. Like most tourists flocking here, we too do the regular romp around town, popping local coconut candies and slurping pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup. War, or any memory of it, seem virtually non-existent until we stop by the War Remnants Museum that spotlights its horrific ramifications. But it's not until we make the excursion to Ben Duoc, a few miles out of town, that the grimness of war jabs us. Hard.
We go past a gift shop that doubles up as a museum showcasing arms and ammunition, and find ourselves on the vast open ground that played a pivotal role during Vietnam's 20-year-long war with the US and which is now a virtual pilgrimage for locals. There are giant posters explaining the structure and mechanism of the tunnels. A B&W documentary from the 1950s providing insights into wartime life in rural areas plays on loop in rustic shacks. Show over, we're standing in the shade of tall trees when John stumps us: "I have been going on and on about the tunnels but where are they?" We, a family group of five, visually sweep the ground but don't spot any openings. On cue, a slender youth in green uniform approaches and clears away dead leaves from the ground near us. We still sight nothing. Then, like a miracle worker, he pushes aside an inconspicuous mud tile, barely a square foot in size, and inserts his body, feet first, into a gaping hole. We gasp. Like the Americans, we too have been fooled by the perfect cover of grass and termite nests. "You still don't get it," John mocks us, like he must be doing every time he gets the chance to butcher his unsuspecting clients. "The termite nests are not the real thing." He points out to several small holes in the mound that were apparently fashioned into wind shafts to provide fresh air below. We are rapt.
The Viet Minh, a nationalist group formed to fight French colonial rule, dug the first tunnels in the region in the 1940s, mostly for storing and channelising arms. In the 1960s the maze-like tunnels were advanced, both in terms of length as well as purpose. As an ingenious mechanism to counter America's technical superiority, the tunnels were used for secret attacks and became virtual villages - it's impossible to imagine that the subterranean network, despite being narrow and claustrophobic, had storage facilities, weapon factories, kitchens, hospitals and even living areas. Each VC knew his/her position in the snaking tunnels, some parts of which had three levels with levers and trapdoors to ward off American attacks.
In the midst of life-like dummy figures of VCs depicted engaged in assigned roles, John narrates their horrific stories: Underground living conditions were awful, it was hot, humid and stinky, there wasn't enough oxygen. Unlike the Heineken tunnel meant for the vicarious pleasure of tourists, the real tunnel had no light. If venomous snakes and scorpions posed a risk to life, other creatures like rats and bats invited fatal illnesses as did the close proximity of so many people quashed together. Sometimes, it was necessary to remain hidden in the tunnels for days on end. The kitchen smoke was made to go through a few levels so that by the time it wafted overground it wasn't visible. Making John's commentary more odious - and completing the experience of being in a war zone - are gun shots intermittently reverberating through the air. These are, however, only tourist warriors testing their aim at the shooting range. This is the modern-day avatar of the Cu Chi tunnels that have evolved into a tourist-friendly arena complete with a cafe, a souvenir shop that sells war memorabilia, and a museum displaying arms.
Back in the day, the VCs had other plans. If the tininess of the tunnels couldn't thwart big-built American soldiers from storming in (some parts were as small as 80 cm), they had more devious devises to combat tunnel rats, the name given to American soldiers trained in underground raids: Deadly traps. Tourists throng a hut that has various torture-impale-and maim traps lined up orderly: Rolling trap, door trap, spinning trap, chair trap . each more lethal than the other. There are guides next to each trap repeatedly demonstrating their functioning as wide-eyed tourists groan and marvel at the techniques. To hoodwink American guard dogs, the VCs sometimes even used the same soap as the GIs.
The frustrated Americans retaliated with B-52 strikes, making Cu Chi district "the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare", authors Tom Mangold and John Penycate observed in their book The Tunnels of Cu Chi. It signaled the end of the Vietnam War but in Cu Chi, its brutal legacy lives on, a constant reminder about the ugliness and futility of war. I came out of the Heineken tunnel breathing and alive but how many lives had the real network consumed?
The more pertinent question is: Who really won?
(Note: There are two different sites for visiting the Cu Chi tunnels: Ben Dinh, closer to Ho Chi Minh City, is mostly reconstructions; Ben Duoc is farther away but is less touristy and more original.)
There are public buses going to the Cu Chi tunnels from Ho Chi Minh City, about 60km away. You could take a cab if you're not part of a tour group. There is a nominal entrance fee for the tunnels. Use of the shooting range attracts additional cost.