Vietnam’s Cu Chi tunnels: A wartime legacy

Vipul Shinghal | Updated on October 11, 2019

Window to another world: The Cu Chi tunnels were dug manually during Vietnam’s war with the US in 1964-1973   -  REUTERS

A 250-mile network of underground trenches in Vietnam bears testimony to the ingenuity of its people

It’s a two-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City to the famous Cu Chi tunnels, and I am wondering if the journey is going to be worth it. But as I walk down the intricate network of passages, I have no regrets. I am mesmerised by this marvel of effort, engineering and resolve.

The Cu Chi (pronounced Ku Chi) tunnels are an extensive 250-mile (around 400km) network of underground trenches dug manually by the Vietnamese people and Viet Cong guerillas to protect themselves from the merciless bombing unleashed by American forces who fought a war in Vietnam in 1964-73.

The tour begins in a shed in the middle of a dense green jungle with a very succinct and matter-of-fact talk by our diminutive but intrepid tour guide, Van, whose grandfather was killed in the war. He tells us how the tunnels were conceived, designed, camouflaged, booby trapped and ventilated with long bamboo poles connecting the passages to the ground above. Van shows us a rudimentary looking tool and a small bamboo basket used to dig the tunnels and dispose of the soil into the Saigon River to prevent the excavated mud from being seen.

The tunnels are a three-level network of living spaces. There are kitchens — where meals were cooked only at dawn so the smoke emerging from there would mingle with the morning mist — war rooms complete with tables and benches which were constructed inside the cave and bunkers with tiny holes just above the ground. The Vietnamese soldiers would fire their rifles from there, targeting the feet and legs of the approaching enemies.

“We didn’t want to kill the enemy soldiers,” Van says. “We only wanted to wound them — as they would need four more soldiers to carry the casualty back immediately and his blood, wounds and screaming would lower the morale (of the others), whereas a dead soldier could be left behind temporarily and also may raise tempers and the morale,” he tells us. That was amazing tactical guerilla warfare.

We start the tour of the tunnels, built below the jungle close to a US Military Base in South Vietnam. Van asks us to locate the entry to a tunnel. We look around but are unable to find the exact spot. He then bends down and lifts what looks like a lid covered with grass. Below this is a dark and narrow passage, just right for the small built Vietnamese people, but too narrow for the larger American soldiers.

We are then encouraged to enter and crawl the tunnels, with a forewarning that those with claustrophobia, asthma or a weak heart should avoid the adventure. To raise our confidence Van enters first — he lowers himself legs first and then raising his hands straight above his head suddenly disappears into the tiny opening. And before we realise, he is waving out with just his head popping out from another hole in the ground about 50 metres away — in a jiffy, he has gone in from one entrance of the tunnel and crawled out of another! He then urges us to do the same.

I volunteer and slowly lower myself into the dark hole till my feet hit the ground. As my eyes adjust to the dark I see the narrow barrel-like view ahead of me. The tunnel is about 3-ft high and 2-ft wide. Bending low and keeping the hands close I start duck walking with bent knees; it is hard work and I am sweating profusely within minutes. The 40-m walk seems to take forever and my heart leaps with relief as I see light ahead. I quickly pull myself out of the narrow opening, finally realising the strength of the expression “light at the end of the tunnel”! Just a short walk in the tunnel is so exhausting that it is difficult to imagine how thousands of men, women and children lived and worked in these tunnels for years with the constant fear of being shot or bombed.

The Vietnamese also devised other ingenious ways to deceive the Americans. The front and back of the flat rubber soles of the sandals worn by the Viet Cong guerillas were exactly the same, so their footprints did not show whether they were advancing, or going back. They also used pieces of fallen American soldiers’ uniforms to cover the openings of the tunnels, so that sniffer dogs would take those as “friendly” smells and move away.

The Cu Chi tunnels, an innovative response of a peasant army to their enemy’s more advanced weapons, helicopters and bombs, more than served their purpose of turning the simple peasants of the Cu Chi province into fierce warriors. The soldiers, in spite of suffering heavy losses while battling the napalm bombing of their jungles, fields and houses, fought against unbelievable odds. The US troops finally left Vietnam defeated, exhausted and bewildered. Today the tunnels are a popular tourist attraction visited by many, including Americans. It is a revered site for the Vietnamese and reminds visitors of the price of freedom.

Vipul Shinghal is a serving officer of the Indian Army

Published on October 11, 2019

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