Deep beneath the ground, across most of Vietnam, lie numerous extensive and intricate networks of tunnels and caverns. These narrow, low-ceilinged, and at times claustrophobia-inducing tunnels were integral to the Viet Cong’s success in the War in Vietnam. Today, they are visited by huge numbers of tourists who want to learn more about the country’s history and experience the tiny warren-like passages for themselves. Some of the most-visited sites can be found in Cu Chi, a district of Ho Chi Minh City. Would you be brave enough to venture into the tiny Cu Chi Tunnels and see what life was like for resistance fighters? Here’s what you can expect:
The Cu Chi Tunnels: a brief historical overview
The Viet Cong, a Southern Vietnamese political organisation that was allied with North Vietnam, dug huge networks of hidden underground tunnels before and during the 20-year-long War in Vietnam (1955–1975). The Cu Chi Tunnels, located around 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the heart of Southern Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, is one such network. Stretching for around 121 kilometres (75 miles), this network started its constructions in the 1940s, during the times of French occupation of Vietnam, and later enlarged during the War in Vietnam. It has now been preserved by the Vietnamese government and serves as a war memorial park.
The tunnels and chambers were dug using simple tools and the bare hands of tenacious soldiers. Great lengths were taken to conceal the tunnels. Creating a complete underground world, the hidden tunnels provided secret communication routes and the means to transport medical supplies, food, water, clothing, weapons, and other essentials. Viet Cong fighters used the caverns as living quarters, their existence protected and secure during tumultuous times, and to plan operations and launch attacks. Sympathisers and regular citizens also sometimes sought refuge in the caverns during attacks and raids, with some communities living entirely underground for long periods of time.
The opportunity to descend into the historic tunnels
Be amazed when hidden entrances are pointed out to you; the snug trap doors, often covered by leaves, are all but invisible to those who don’t know their location.
Follow in the footsteps of the resolute, brave, and innovative resistance soldiers and climb down a once-hidden entrance to discover the vast underground network. The deeper you journey into the labyrinth-like tunnel system, the closer the walls will become. Do be aware that stooping and crawling will be necessary in parts.
There are two relatively small tunnel sections at Cu Chi that are open to visitors: Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc. Each section is safe to explore. If you visit Ben Duoc you will discover original tunnels, whereas Ben Dinh features enlarged, albeit still very narrow and low, sections.
As you make your way through the tunnels keep in mind that, though lighting has now been fitted for the convenience of visitors, there was no power within the tunnels in the past. Imagine what life was like for the people who sometimes spent days on end deep in the safety of the tunnels, only surfacing in the dead of night to forage for food or to engage in combat. Knowing that many of the tunnels’ occupants were sick, with illnesses such as malaria, only makes for more sobering thoughts.
Reconstructed scenes from wartime
Both underground and above ground you can see reconstructed scenes, with model soldiers, from times gone by. Peer into command centres and envisage those who pored over tactical plans deep under the ground’s surface. See reconstructed field hospitals, complete with basic equipment and supplies that were used to tend to the sick and wounded. Gaze upon storage areas, kitchens, sleeping quarters, and other practical chambers. Don’t be alarmed if you turn a corner to find a group of khaki-clad men resting in hammocks or standing alert with their weapons at the ready; they are just figurines that help to bring the past to life.
As you roam through the dense growth above the tunnels, booming gun shots fill the air. Though it may feel as though you have been transported back to the times of ferocious fighting, these shots are from onsite shooting ranges, created to let visitors try their hand at firing a range of weapons. Why not have a go yourself, and fire off a few rounds from an AK-47 assault rifle, a lightweight M60 rifle, or an automatic M16 rifle? Unlike the people from the past, there’s no risk of you receiving a bullet in return. Additional charges apply for using the shooting range, with prices depending on your weapon of choice and the number of rounds fired.
Ferocious traps that were designed for maximum impact
The Viet Cong took great steps to maintain the integrity of their underground lairs. US forces attempted to flush out soldiers, using water, gas, and other means, but it was rare that the opposition was actually sent into a discovered tunnel; the tunnels and areas close to entrance points featured many booby traps and explosives. Traps were designed to maim and kill; it was highly unlikely for an ensnared person to live long afterwards to tell the tale.
Deadly spikes and snapping hinges are sure to make you cringe, and names like the fish trap and clipping armpit trap leave nothing to the imagination. See how huge barbs were rigged to swing down into doorways, impaling any unauthorised people who tried to pass through.
You can also see old machinery, weapons, and artillery, with grenades, tanks, and guns amongst the items on display. Video displays provide more insights into the tunnels, the soldiers, the war, and life in rural Vietnam during wartime.
Other information about Vietnam's Cu Chi Tunnels
Vendors sell an assortment of snacks, drinks, and souvenirs, whilst a gift shop sells war-related memorabilia, history books, and knickknacks. There’s a restaurant at the Ben Dinh site where you can sample basic fare, such as tapioca, that was common sustenance for the Viet Cong.
The entrance fee is 110,000 VND (approximately 4.80 USD) for the Ben Dinh section, and 90,000 VND (approximately 4 USD) for the Ben Duoc site. Admission to each site includes a guide who will explain the sites and their significance. Ben Dinh is the most-visited location, with numerous tour operators offering half-day trips from Ho Chi Minh City for affordable prices, though it is also possible to reach independently by public bus. Ben Duoc is a little farther away, and a trip would probably necessitate arranging your own transportation by taxi or renting a car with a driver.
The Cu Chi Tunnels offers a fascinating insight into Vietnam’s past and the chance to really step back in time and experience Vietnamese wartime. Add the Cu Chi Tunnels to your Vietnam travel plans.
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