As we entered the Cu Chi tunnels, the darkness washed over and drowned us. Our eyes struggled to surface above the blackness. I ran my hands along the tunnel walls, at least I could feel my way through them. The air grew cool as the tunnel opened. Minh flipped a switch and lightbulbs burned brightly. The “The Vietcong had no lights,” Minh explained. Instead, they had to know their way around the tunnels, by feeling, and by smells.
I turned to look into the path we had taken, now lights lit it up. Long ago, just outside of Saigon (Ho Che Men City) and during the Vietnamese war the Vietcong had squeezed their way through the narrow tunnels in order to launch surprise attacks on US and southern Vietnamese forces. Once these tight tunnels were a place of death, today, they are an amazing tourist attraction. The paths are wide and deep now, crawling and slithering replaced by crouch and walking.
My gaze fell back on Minh, he ran his hands along stout wooden columns. Much of the tunnel had been renovated to prevent cave-ins. Cement replaced wavering claw, and this wooden beam replaced the traditional bamboo supports. “This room is deep underground when the Americans dropped bombs the dirt would shake but the room wouldn’t collapse.” Minh smiled, he was proud of his history and proud of his English, he hoped to one day earn his master’s degree in the USA.
“Did people sleep here?” I asked after all the room could have fit at least ten sleeping people.
“Maybe the commanders,” he answered, “But most of the Vietcong either slept in a village nearby or in one of the tunnels. Most of the regular soldiers likely didn’t know about this room, in fact, most only knew about the tunnels that they assigned to defend and fight from.”
Minh leads me through new well-lit tunnels. The path quickly forked and forked again. Within a minute I was lost. He stopped and stood. I followed him as he climbed a ladder. We stood in the middle of a forest. He slid the leaf pasted trap door back into position. The tunnel was gone. “The Vietcong hid their tunnels very well, they only came out when they had to, for food, to fight, and to gather scrap metal and unexploded bombs from the bombing raids.”
“What about traps,” I asked him.
Minh’s smile faltered, evidently, the stories he had heard about the traps were as the bad as the ones I had heard. “The Vietcong protected their tunnels with a lot of traps. They sharpened the scrap metal, covered it in feces and placed it in shallow holes. A lot of people stumbled into those holes, and no boots could keep their feet safe from cuts and infection. Many Vietnamese and American lost their legs this way. Sometimes the Vietcong opened the unexplored bombs and made them into anti-tank landmines. Inside the tunnels, if someone took the wrong path they could easily fall down a shaft that ended in sharpened bamboo.”
My legs quivered as we walked through the forest, the crouching had worn out muscles I rarely used It felt good. We left the trees and walked under the molten bronze Vietnamese sun. We hurried under the thick shade of a thatch hut. Minh flipped the switch to animatronic Vietcong fighters. Two sawed a bomb in half while another pounded on scrap metal. These were the trap makers. Minh Didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to.
He led me to another hut where a diagram outlined the tunnel network. Like an advanced ant colony, the Vietcong had designed a system with multiple entrances, with sentries and guard posts, rooms for storing ammo, for sleeping, for generating power, for giving medical aid. The tunnels were not just tunnels, but a small underground city.
“Would you like to go to the shooting range,” he asked.
I had heard about the shooting range, lots of guns, including rocket launchers and grenades. I shook my head. I had already had my serving of violence for the day. “No, let’s go back into the tunnels, let’s find out what this underground world really feels like.”