It was one of the weirdest tourism experiences we've ever had. As though Fellini and Disney had teamed up to do 'Nam....At the beginning of the tunnel complex, there's a wall draped with clothing ... vests, cone shaped peasant hats, capes in camouflage colors. Oh yes, and rifles. Real rifles, but thankfully without the ammo.You can rent these things. And wear them while crawling through the tunnels. So much the better to feel like a guerilla.
The Cu Chi tunnels of Vietnam are one of those horrible remnants of a horrible war that most folks would probably rather forget. So, of course, they've become a tourist attraction.The Cu Chi Tunnels lie 75 km northwest of Saigon ... which nobody these days but the government and maps call Ho Chi Minh City. At the height of the Vietnam war, the tunnel system stretched from the outskirts of Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border ... something like 250 kilometers of tunnels.The tunnel system, built over 25 years starting in the 1940s, let the Viet Minh and, later, the Viet Cong, control a huge rural area. It was an underground city with living areas, kitchens, storage, weapons factories, field hospitals, command centers. In places, it was several stories deep and housed up to 10,000 people who virtually lived underground for years.... getting married, giving birth, going to school. They only came out at night to furtively tend their crops.The ground here is hard clay, which made this whole thing possible. But even so, the planning and construction was incredible. People dug all this with hand tools, filling reed baskets and dumping the dirt into bomb craters. They installed large vents so they could hear approaching helicopters, smaller vents for air and baffled vents to dissipate cooking smoke. There were also hidden trap doors and gruesomely effective bamboo-stake booby traps.
Of course, the U.S. military knew about the tunnels. The tunnels not only allowed guerilla communication, they allowed surprise attacks, even within the perimeters of U.S. military bases. The U.S. retaliated with bombs, eventually turning the region into what writers Tom Mangold and John Penycate called "the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare."That was then.
Today, the trees and bushes have grown back. And since 1988, two sections of tunnels have been open for tourism. There are what some guidebooks call the "real" tunnels at Ben Binh. They remain unlit and mostly unreconstructed, which means chunky Westerners shouldn't even try.
Re-creation of underground conference room from which Tet offensive was planned
The "fake" tunnels at Ben Duoc aren't fake at all. They're merely renovated, widened for tourists and come complete with lights and displays underground.After declining the guerilla costumes and gear we went for a hike through the woods while our guide pointed out bomb craters (labeled by shell type) and smoke vents, thoughtfully steered us around booby traps and let us play a brief game of "try to find the trap door" ... which, of course, we couldn't.Finally, we came to the tunnels. We dropped through a trap door to the first level, 10 feet below the surface, and squeezed through narrow passageways to see bunkers, a hospital, a kitchen and the actual command room from which the 1968 Tet offensive was planned.
There are tables and chairs, bunk beds, crude cooking stoves, dummies outfitted in guerilla garb and, for effect, the occasional live person to give an authentic touch.
Even with the tunnels widened it was a squeeze, especially one serpentine stretch at the second level where we had to drop to our knees and crawl while the ceiling scraped our spines. There was a third level, which is hardly 18 inches high and definitely would have required wriggling on our stomachs. We gratefully declined.
The day we did all this, the temperature was 98 degrees with correspondingly high humidity, and the sweat gushed so heavily we could hardly hold onto our cameras. It gave us an incredible admiration for the people who lived and struggled here.
After one last wriggle, we came up at a snack stand where we got to taste the taro root and green tea that tunnel residents ate.
Then off to the souvenir stand, zoo and shooting range (where, if you knock down the target with your AK47 or M16, you can win a gen-u-ine guerilla scarf).....