Okay, here, finally is my post about my trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels on Sunday.
I booked my 1/2-day trip with Kim Cafe – which is the same travel agency I booked my three-day trip to the Mekong Delta with back in 2001. The bus ride from Saigon to Cu Chi – about 70 kilometers – and the tour guide for the entire half day cost only $4 USD. Admission to the Cu Chi Tunnels was another 70,000 dong (about $4.38 USD). I paid another $5 USD extra to take a boat back to Saigon instead of riding back on the bus (video below) – so the cost of the whole trip for me was $13.38 USD. Oh, and I paid about $6.25 to fire two rounds out of an AK-47 (video below) and three rounds out of an M-16.
According to our guide, the Cu Chi Tunnels were a network of tunnels approximately 250 kilometers long – about 155 miles long – that were dug by hand by the villagers in and around Cu Chi and used extensively by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Cu Chi was important because it was right at the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail – the major supply line from north Vietnam into the south – and was also the main base of operations for the Viet Cong as they harassed the U.S. and south Vietnam forces around Saigon.
The tunnels were very narrow – just large enough to accommodate the Vietnamese, who are typically a lot smaller-framed than Americans. Here’s a camouflaged entrance to one of the tunnels. (The top – which is to the upper left of the photo – just below the black shoe – has obviously been lifted off – when it was in place an covered with leaves and dirt, you couldn’t even tell it was there.)
Here is a shot looking straight down into the tunnel – kind of scary:
Here is a rather blurry photo of me coming out of the tunnel – quickly! I dropped all of the way into this tunnel and underground – the entrance was so tight that my shoulders scraped against the sides of the entrance. Once I got underground, I immediately got incredibly claustrophobic and seriously wanted out of there immediately. Had kind of a momentary freak out. You can’t tell it from the back of my head in this photo but I was very happy to be out of that hole and I declined to go into any more tunnels the rest of the day:
Amazingly, the tunnels were built directly under three major American military bases commonly referred to as the Iron Triangle. The U.S. and south Vietnamese forces operating out of those bases were constantly on search-and-destroy missions for the Viet Cong forces and for years had no idea that the Viet Cong they were looking for were literally right beneath their feet. Some of the tunnels exited directly into the American military bases – thus enabling the Viet Cong to steal weapons and supplies from the bases.
Here are two photos of a map of the area and a close-up shot of that map. The black lines within the red area on the map are the bulk of the tunnels. The American military bases are dark blue:
Entire villages of people lived underground for years in the Cu Chi tunnels. The first level, a few meters beneath the ground, was made up of the main living quarters. (You can see the various levels in the photo of the diorama, above.) The Viet Cong had all kinds of ingenious methods for remaining undetected. For instance, the smoke from their cooking fires would be diffused through a series of rooms such that when it finally exited at ground level it was so thin that it wasn’t even visible to the human eye.
The second level, four to six meters deep, consisted of meeting areas where the Viet Cong would meet to communicate with each other. This second level was deep enough that soldiers on the surface could not hear anyone speaking.
The third and final level, eight to ten meters beneath the surface, was made up of the escape tunnels, all of which ultimately connected to the nearby Saigon River. The tunnels actually terminated below the surface level of the river so that the escaping Viet Cong could simply swim out into and down the river underwater without being detected. As they were escaping, the Viet Cong would open up big baskets of cobras and scorpions, which would then storm through the tunnels and be waiting for the south Vietnamese “tunnel rats” who were crawling through the tunnels looking for the Viet Cong.
[Update: I heard from the father of a friend of mine who actually worked in one of the three military bases above the Cu Chi tunnels - the 25th Infantry Division - that it wasn't just south Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers who were "tunnel rats" - American soldiers were also tunnel rats and the other American soldiers considered them true heroes for risking their lives going into those tunnels.]
Our guide said that some escaping Vietnam would never surface in the river – instead staying under water and breathing through a reed, sometimes for the entire next day. (The Viet Cong were basically nocturnal. They would sleep in the tunnels during the day and only come out at night.)
The Viet Cong were big on other types of traps in addition to the baskets of cobras and scorpions. Here is a video of our guide telling us about a punji stake pit the Viet Cong would use to catch and kill dogs the American and south Vietnam forces sent into the tunnels:
Here is a photo of a guy demonstrating a long line of different booby traps – with names like the “leg breaker” and the “armpit spike” – used by the Viet Cong in the tunnels:
Here is a photo of another type of booby trap called the “door trap”:
The Viet Cong knew that the invading forces generally wore helmets, flak jackets, and heavy boots – such that the only really unprotected areas were the legs and groin. So they would hang this hinged, swinging set of boards fixed with spikes from the ceiling inside a door of one of the meeting rooms, etc., in the tunnels. When the invading soldier would come through the door, the boards would release and swing down toward the soldier. The soldier would instinctively raise his weapon and strike the upper board with the butt or stock of his gun, which would stop the upper board but cause the lower, hinged board to swing upward and into the soldier with even more force – driving the spikes on the lower boards into the soldiers legs and groin. Those guys were not playing around.
On a lighter note, I finally found a Vietnamese girlfriend during my trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels:
I’ve got to get her to quit smoking, but other than that she’s awesome. Very laid back.
Here’s a shot of the sign leading to the shooting range where I shot the AK-47 and M-16:
The next time I go – like when I take someone who’s visiting me
here – I am going to invest in a lot more ammunition and fire the AK-47
and M-16 on fully automatic. Everything is so cheap here that 100,000
dong for 5 shots seems like a lot of money, but really when are you
going to be able to fire AK-47s and M-16s on fully automatic again? If
you invest $62 USD or whatever for 50 shots, it’s not really going to
All in all, it was a very interesting trip. A little touristy, but about what you’d expect, really. Our guide was very good and knew a lot about the war and about the Cu Chi Tunnels in particular. I think the 1/2-day trip was about the right amount of time – I don’t see any need to do the full-day trip.