It was one
of the weirdest tourism experiences we've ever had.
As though Fellini and Disney had teamed up to do
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.
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
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
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.
of underground conference room from which Tet
offensive was planned
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
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
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).....
War is hell, and, sometimes, the aftermath is just