The Violent Underground

Kevin Sites,

The tunnels of Cu Chi played a critical role in North Vietnam’s war effort, and were possibly an inspiration for Hezbollah's bunker system. Today, they are a tourist draw.

Editor's note: Though Vietnam is not an active conflict, Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone believes it is important to examine the impact of the Vietnam War. In this series, we'll feature the perspective of civilians and soldiers, Vietnamese and Americans, to reflect on Vietnam's past and present.

CU CHI, Vietnam - When U.S. troops first deployed in large numbers to Vietnam in the mid-1960s, one of the first steps of the Army's 25th Division was to build a large base in the Cu Chi District.

They hoped to counter the strength and influence of the Viet Cong or VC (Vietnamese communists allied with the north) in the region, who were in easy striking distance of Saigon only 60 kilometers away.

But it wasn't until many weeks later that the Army realized they had built the camp on top of part of the Viet Cong's underground tunnel network — allowing VC to pop up from camouflaged hatches inside the American perimeter and attack them while they slept. It was if they had set up their tents on the mounds of stinging ants.


At Cu Chi, visitors can explore the Viet Cong tunnels. » View

Having difficulty finding and fighting the VC in their elaborate tunnel network that spider-webbed through the countryside for 200 kilometers, the U.S. began using chemicals like the infamous herbicide, Agent Orange, to defoliate the area.

When that failed, they began sending soldiers called "tunnel rats" into the underground network to find and destroy the VC, but more often than not, it was the tunnel rats who ended up dead.

Toward the end of the 1960s the U.S. carpet-bombed the region with B-52s, destroying almost everything in the district — including most of the tunnels. By that time it was too late. The tunnels had already done their job, including helping to facilitate the 1968 Tet Offensive, which many historians believe turned the tide of the war.

But the legacy of the tunnels has not just been relegated to the history books. Intelligence analysts familiar with the military tactics of Hezbollah say the guerrilla group studied the VC tunnel network in creating their own bunker system in south Lebanon and used it successfully against the

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Israel Defense Forces during the recent conflict.

Today, the tunnels of Cu Chi have become one of the most popular tourist destinations near Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

A tourist brochure inviting visitors to the site reads, "in order that you understand how arduous and protracted the struggle was, and to understand our profound aspiration for peace, independence, happiness and living a comfortable life forever."

Guides, clad in the VC's black "pajamas" and traditional conical straw hats, escort more than 400 visitors through the grounds each day, beginning with a viewing of an old black and white propaganda film — a North Vietnamese version of the newsreel, extolling the exploits of the VC fighters who used the tunnels.

In a classroom setting, the guides explain the history of the tunnels and how they were built over a period of 25 years, beginning in the late 1940s by the Viet Minh, the rebel army fighting French colonialism in Vietnam.

The early tunnels were simply bunkers hewn out of the hard red clay, with picks and straw baskets to remove the soil. The VC repaired and expanded the tunnels in an effort to fight a technically superior military force during the "American War."

They are a marvel of engineering, weaving underground for several stories and linking together living, dining and meeting areas, as well as weapons factories and subterranean hospitals, complete with operating rooms.

But perhaps their most significant function was to allow the VC to coordinate their operations in the south, both by utilizing surprise attacks then disappearing underground, while also inserting agents and saboteurs into the south.

Because of their strategic value, the entrances to the tunnels were well-protected both by camouflage and booby traps.


Guides explain the intricacy of the Cu Chi tunnels and some of the Viet Cong's booby traps.» View

A tour guide nicknamed Jackie (because he looks like Jackie Chan, he says) pulls up the lid of one of the well-concealed wooden hatches to a small hideaway. It fits perfectly flush with a square-framed box, sealing out rain water. Surprisingly, when Jackie kicks dirt and leaves over the top, it disappears.

"When the U.S. soldier opens," he says, "it is very narrow, he cannot enter."

Jackie invites people on the tour to try and fit down the hole. One man from Ireland removes everything in his pockets but still can't get his hips through the opening.

Next Jackie shows the group a series of primitive but effective booby traps designed to stop the tunnel rats and search dogs the U.S. Army set down into the systems.

The largest is the size of a door and is a variation on a Vietnamese tiger trap. The door is suspended on an axle through its center. Jackie steps on one end of the door which gives way, spinning on its axle, allowing the unfortunate soldier to fall several feet below onto a deadly bed of sharpened bamboo stakes. The tour group flinches as the spikes are revealed in what's clear would be a particularly gruesome death in an agonizing, immobilizing trap.

Continuing on the dirt path, Jackie leads the group past the remains of an American tank, its main gun drooping to one side. He stops for a moment to allow people to take pictures.

At another stop he demonstrates a series of smaller but no less debilitating booby traps, including one that gives the men in group an uncomfortable moment of contemplating its emasculating consequences.

It's an entrance booby trap; a rake of wooden spikes that swings down on a hinge from the top of a doorway if soldiers tried to force entry. But the rake is double-jointed with a second hinge.

"So if soldiers tried to stop it like this," says Jackie, grabbing the rake staff to stop its momentum, "the second hinge would continue up." He shows the second set of spikes landing in the region of his groin.

I ask him how the VC didn't fall prey to their own booby traps.

"They knew them very well," he says, "but also they would only set them when Americans or their collaborators were in the area."

Finally, we get a chance to experience what it was like to move through the tunnel system itself. Jackie shows us into an entrance enlarged for tourists. Those who want can enter the tunnels and emerge 15 minutes and a few hundred feet away.

These tunnels at Cu Chi are not for the claustrophobic. The passageways are hot, dark and tiny, a little more than 3 feet high and 2 feet across. With all my camera gear, I can only negotiate it crawling on my hands and knees. There are a few dim lights along the way, which illuminate only a few feet of the tunnels. Once you pass them you are moving in almost total darkness. Emerging near the end, dirty and drenched in sweat from the crawl, I wonder how anyone could have spent months in the tunnels when even a few minutes seems a difficult ordeal.

The tour ends at a shooting range. Visitors are offered a chance to fire some of the some weapons used by both American and Viet Cong forces for $1.60 a bullet. Everything from Kalashnikov rifles to M-60 machine guns are available.

Some tourists find the finale disappointing.

"We expected it to be about the ingenious ways used to escape detection," says Nicky Ashby, 26, from London. "But instead, it's more about techniques of torture with all the booby traps."

Tourists at the Cu Chi tunnels

"It seems to me like it's celebrating the violence rather than the idea of their perseverance," says another, who doesn't want to be identified. "As a tourist attraction, ending with the guns is a little crude."

But regardless of whether all customers leave satisfied or not, the tunnels are a significant historical landmark, as well as a big tourist draw for Vietnam today.

And despite their strategic value to the North Vietnamese war effort, they also signify the sacrifice of those committed to that cause. Of the 16,000 VC that lived in and fought from the tunnels, only 6,000 survived the war.

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