The Cu Chi Tunnels were dug by the people of Cu Chi over a period of decades. Initially they were used in the fights against the French, and later against the Americans. The inhabitants of Cu Chi were staunchly Communist and, despite being in the south of Vietnam, fought for the north – hence being termed “geurillas”. The soil around Cu Chi is ideal for tunnelling as it’s highly compacted. The original tunnels were approximately 60x80cm in size – large enough for the small Vietnamese to crawl though, and also very strong – able to withstand the vibrations of bombs being dropped above.
Today there are two places you can visit to see the tunnels. Ben Dinh has sections of the original tunnels, some widened to “fat ass westerner” size. Ben Duoc has only reconstructions and is more of a “fun park”. We headed for the former.
To marginally update Lonely Planet’s 2005 edition, the entry price is now 70,000d (a slight increase from 65,000d) and the caged wild animals seemed to be nowhere in sight when I was there. I hope that “attraction” has been permanently removed.
Our visit began with a video presentation using old black and white footage which ran for about 20 minutes. It gave a very Vietnamese perspective of the evil Americans destroying their country and the brave rebels fighting them from the tunnel systems. The Americans really did have their work cut out for them. Especially when their first major base in the area was built right over an established tunnel network and it took them months to figure out how they were getting shot at so accurately overnight. The VC must have thought it was xmas…
We were then gathered around one of the original hidden tunnel entrances – a small hole in ground covered by a camouflaged wooden hatch. Two members of our group managed to squish into the hole and close it with leaves still on the lid to hid themselves. During the war, a VC would snipe from here, then vanish into the hole and crawl 1 km to the river or 4 km inland to make his escape.
Walking further into the forest, we stopped at an example of a “tiger trap”. This was basically a hole dug in the ground with a large wicker “lid” placed over it. The lid was hinged in the centre so that whichever end someone stood on, the lid would flip up and they would fall into the pit beneath – filled with sharp (probably poo-smeared) bamboo spikes below. These traps were designed to catch out GIs jumping a few feet from hovering helicopters.
Near this trap was a small exhibition of Cu Chi guerillas resting. Simply three dummies dressed in the relevant clothes and with standard equipment. Thong took us through it all, pointing out that as they were in the People’s Liberation Front, they had no belief in rank. All soldiers were simply that – soldiers… and also civilians. By day they may be hiding in trenches and launching mortars. In the evening, the same people would be ploughing rice paddies (until the US drained them all and dumped exfolients everywhere, at least).
Along from this is a wrecked M-41 tank, the victim of a mine. It’s huge cannon points uselessly at the ground and it’s astounding the damage that one small explosive can do to something so huge. Another “dummy” exhibit nearby shows how the explosives were made. Unexploded US ordnance was collected and taken apart in hugely dangerous procedures. Sawing a bomb in half is an astoundingly mad thing to do, but this is what they did. The sawblade had to have water dripped on it constantly as the heat it generated could easily ignite the gunpowder inside a 250lb shell. Blacksmiths would then build containers for the liberated explosive, detonators constructed and the resultant devices scattered around routes known to be used by the American troops.
The last segment of this forest route was a demonstration of many other booby traps, all demonstrated by our guide. Most involved people standing on things that were very difficult to remove. Levers which, when stood on, caused huge nails to enter the leg from four sides. “Take away” traps which were metal frames with a spike at the bottom and angles spikes near the top. So-called because the GI had to head for the hospital with the trap still attached to him – thus taking it away. The last was slightly different – a rack of nails that fit in a doorframe. At night, this would be lifted up and pinned to the ceiling. If someone entered without disabling it, it would swing down. Even worse, if they used – say – a rifle to block it instinctively at head height, the bottom section would swing independantly up into certain areas of the anatomy that make me cringe.
From all this, I would simply say – don’t piss off a Vietnamese person. And certainly don’t try to break into their house at night.
Next up was the part I’d been waiting for. The firing range. The good news was that for every four bullets you bought, you got one free. The bad news was twofold – firstly, they’d only sell me them in 10s. And secondly that the price is currently $1.60 per bullet. A huge increase on the $1 per bullet listed in my Lonely Planet. Nevertheless, when am I going to get to do this again? So I bought 10 shots on an AK-47 and 10 on am M-60. RAMBO!!!!
I minor, though understandable, disappointment is that the guns are fastened down so you can’t go charging off into the bush to “rescue the colonel”. Spoilsports. There are prizes for hitting the targets, but I didn’t manage it with either gun. But who cares? Letting loose an automatic barrage with an M-60 and picturing it devastating the face of my ex-nextdoor neighbour was enough to leave me cackling.
I have video of me firing the M-60, but I can’t upload it just yet. It’s 25Mb in size and the wireless connection I’m leeching off here just isn’t strong enough for me to get the thing onto my web space. I’ll put up a relevant post when it’s downloadable.
Towards the end of our visit, we left the range (OK, everyone else left. I was dragged away) and came to the section of tunnel that has been enlarged for us oversized westerners. It is claustrophobic, but not as bad as I was worried it would be. One person didn’t go through at all after taking a quick peak and a couple scarpered out of the first exit (there are three along the 80m-or-so length), but the rest of our group crawled along the length. We waddled through most of it “like ducks” as Thong put it, though there was one small bit where the ceiling was so low I did have to crawl on all fours. This tunnel is lit (barely), but the VC used to use small handheld torches to guide their way through. I’d hate to have been down there when the battery went.
Upon leaving the tunnels, we sat for a quick cup of tea and some “tapioca”. This is the root of a tree that grows nearby which is dug up and boiled. It tastes very much like potato though with a different texture. One way to eat it is to dip it into a crumbly mixture of peanuts, sesame seeds, sugar and salt – and it’s not bad for a snack!
That was it for our visit, and we walked back to the bus. On the way, Thong stopped and said “you have ‘forget-me-not’ – here we have ‘touch-me-not'” then proceeded to touch some small plants that shrivelled up. I’ve looked these up on the net and they’re called Mimosa pudica. They look like very small ferns and the reaction they have is much the same as a Venus flytrap’s when insects land on it. It’s called “Thigmonasty“. I’ll spare you the science – go look at the Wikipedia link for more info. Again, I have a short video of this but can’t upload it at present.
The 90-minute ride into HCM City – took 2 hours due to a traffic jam. There are a lot more cars down here than in Hanoi, and the traffic suffers as a result.
The heavens also opened so I decided not to wander far for dinner, instead popping next door again. Tonight I had a “small” pizza which was somewhere between the medium and large sizes at Pepperoni’s and only 40,000d. I had intended to have a dessert, but this really filled me up!