It’s been well over 6 hours since I left Cu Chi a province 60 km north of Saigon. Growing up you learn about the Vietnam War and through the years I’ve read numerous articles and books about the war from journalists and American Veterans. I pride myself in my ability to see both sides of any conflict whether or not I agree with one side or the other.
My guides name was Billy Francois Rivera. A 63 year old Filipino Vietnamese man proud to have served under the American flag during the conflict and also proud of his Vietnamese roots. He served along many other US Navy and Marines and recounts his stories of living in NYC, service in Subic Bay (Philippines) and being deployed in Vietnam.
As I approached Cu Chi, I honestly didn’t know what to expect or what to think. We stopped by a handicapped workshop. Victims of agent orange who do not have all four limbs or those who mentally disable who work to create arts and crafts. I walked through quickly as I can’t bare to stare at individuals made to look like a living museum.
Back to the tunnel system.
I never heard of this tunnel system. I heard from other travelers that since I am American I should definitely go see this elaborate tunnel system built by the Vietcong.
We paid our 90,000 VND to enter this “historical” site to the Vietnamese government and I prepared myself to watch a movie to learn more about “Cu Chi.” I sat there with other foreigners along with the Vietnamese tour guides and I can’t recall the last time I felt so uncomfortable.
I couldn’t listen to the lady in the film talk about the “awards” a vietcong received for killing the most “American killers.” Of course I realize this is one side of the story, a side I had never heard of and it was indeed harder to swallow than I thought. For some reason, I thought the war was fought all over Vietnam but it seems as though it mostly took place in this northern section 60 km northwest of Saigon. Many Saigonese supported the Americans and those who did not fled and became known as the Vietcong. They were pretty resourceful in their tactics and the film showcased their “ingenuity” that proved to overpower us.
The movie finished and got a 5 minute lecture on the tunnel system. The Vietcong stayed underground for 20 years to protect themselves from the air bombardment. The tunnels and living quarters could be as much as 10 meters deep. They cooked during early morning hours and had the smoke go up levels in a hillside so it would look more like morning myst or fog. They had a “love-making” room for those young vietcong who fell in love and wanted to start a family. 20% of Vietcong were women fighters.
We exited one of these quarters now covered by a roof.
We walked around and first stop was a small pond that was once a B52 bomb had exploded.
The American soldiers realized that the Vietcong were underneath and these bombs were deployed and set to bury itself underground and explode. However, as the bombs exploded it hardened the clay sediments.
As we wrapped around the jungle with trees planted by Australians, I started recounting pictures of Rambo and books I’ve read of how this place must have been in the 60s. Billy points out to the distance on where a US base was located and I couldn’t fathom how close these tunnels were to the GIs.
We approach a tree with tourist staring at the ground and a “sniper hole.” The hole must not be more than 12 inches by 8 inches. A few smaller tourist managed to make it inside for picture taking. These sniper holes were used by the Vietcong to kill the soldiers and quickly hide back underground for days.
Again, we walk and approach a bamboo trap. Not for use to get soldiers but for American dogs used to smell out the Vietcong holes. The dogs would smell fish, walk right into the trap and killed.
We then approach a section filled with “boobie-traps.” The vietcong realized the soldiers had protective body armor but their legs were not protected so they made contraptions on the ground. The description was brutal and I couldn’t stick around so walked away.
We approach an old tanker destroyed by the vietcong and tourist happily jumped on it. I inquired about the tanker and was told it was destroyed by the vietcong and four American soldiers killed. I was horrified and couldn’t get any closer than I did. I just imagined if 50 years from now, tourists would be climbing tankers in Iraq and Afghanistan taking pictures.
The final stop was the tunnel system. There used to be 278 km of these tunnels running through the area of 80km. The Vietnamese government made 100 meters accessible to tourists to get a taste of them.
I took a breath and was the first to enter.
It was dark but manageable but that was only for the first 10 feet. Then it got hot and being surrounded in darkness began to make my heart beat faster.
I was told there is an exist 30 meters for those who can’t make it all the way. I wanted to challenge myself so I skipped the first exit and the guide told me to keep on straight. I couldn’t see anything except for some candles placed inside as a marker of sorts every few meters.
My legs began to cramp.
I started to think is this going to end. I wanted to turn back but I unable to do so. I approached an area that was much smaller than the tunnel I was going through and had to slide my body and inch my way through.
I began freaking out and wondering when will this end.
I paused for a moment. Took a deep breath and tried to calm my nerves. I kept moving and finally a drop of 4 feet then a few more feet to a room.
I just walked through 100 meters of the Cu Chi tunnel and ended up in the “hospital” quarters.
My heart was racing. My legs cramped. Beads of sweat poured out of every pore of my body.
I said to myself, “I can’t believe what I just seen or experienced.”
Imagine these tunnels was so tight for me and they were made slightly bigger to accomodate larger tourists.
We started walking out of the area into our bus and I just thought to myself.
“War is never good.”