I was once asked in an interview, if you could invite any 4 people, dead or alive, to dinner, who would they be? Well, I completely fluffed that question, not a single well thought out inspirational individual came to mind, and when I finally answered it was truly cliché! But having been in Vietnam I now have the name of someone who would definitely feature on my list should I ever get asked that question again. Would the person asking that question know who he was? No. But does that matter? No! So who is this mysterious person I hear you ask? Well, I can’t publish his name for reasons that will become apparent but all you need to know is that he is a Cu Chi tunnel survivor with a lot of stories to tell!
Having left the Cu Chi tunnels until our last day, and after much deliberation, we finally booked with Vietnam Adventure Tours. As we were waiting in their offices that morning all I could think was “I’ve made a mistake, there are far too many of us, there will be no personal touch, I should have gone for a private guide, this company just churns out tour after tour, we are simply going to be herded around like cattle.”
How wrong was I! That morning we met the best tour guide we’ve ever come across, a war veteran, a Southern Vietnamese officer that fought in Cu Chi alongside the US army; one of the lucky ones to have survived. Unlike the majority of other tours we’ve been on he was not interested in towing the communist line, he wanted us to know HIS story. And his story wasn’t anti-communist, wasn’t anti Viet Cong, wasn’t anti USA, wasn’t pro South Vietnamese Army, it was simply the truth. That in war nobody wins (well, the industry does, we all know war is very lucrative).
So, what did we learn about Cu Chi?
The 120km network of tunnels known as the Cu Chi Tunnels were originally built by the Viet Minh to connect villages during the fight against the French in the 1940s. During the Vietnam War the existing tunnels were repaired, and the network expanded linking villages all the way from the Saigon River to the Cambodian border.
The Cu Chi district became the logistical and strategical headquarters for the Viet Cong (the Communist National Liberation front fighting against the Southern Vietnamese Army and USA). The proximity of the Cu Chi Tunnels to Saigon posed a real threat to the Southern Vietnamese army (and therefore the US troops) so the US built a base in the area to help control and fight the Viet Cong (VC). Unbeknown to them however, they built it on top of the tunnel network! Suddenly getting provisions become a lot easier for the VC, they just had pop up at night and help themselves!
The US was without a doubt a much more powerful army than the Viet Cong, most of whom were farmers rebelling against Diêm (the prime minister), but what the VC lacked in strength they made up for in tenacity and cunning. The guerrilla fighters were never seen but always there. They appeared out of nowhere, they attacked in the middle of the night, they set up thousands of bogey traps and yet they were nearly impossible to find.
Where are they hiding?
It took sometime for the US and SVA to figure out they had tunnels. It took them even longer to figure out they had built their base on top of the network! Apparently, the VC would come on to base at night to gather food and ammunition. They even stole some American soap and clothes so that when dogs were sent after them, they mistook the smell for a friendly smell and therefore would not pursue it. Crafty!
Finding the tunnels proved hard though, even after they knew they were looking for them. Every entrance was concealed, with booby traps leading up to it. If the army did get close enough to find the entrance, they didn’t have a hope of getting in! The holes were made big enough only for a Vietnamese to fit in and even then, they would have had to drag themselves along on their stomachs, maybe manage to crawl on the larger sections.
But the Americans would send dogs down, they’d gas the entrances, they’d try and flood them. Yet the VC never rushed out as expected. How?! What the US didn’t realise is that the Cu Chi tunnels were built in triangles so when they started attacking one entrance they simply moved to another point of the triangle. The drainage they had set up to secure them from the floods working to save them from the US efforts.
Can we flush them out?
Once out tour guide and his troop found a large uncovered entrance. They got tonnes of water from the Saigon river and started flushing it down the hole and waiting for all the VC to come out. Sometime later, with no VCs in sight a call came down from soldiers positioned by the river to say “All the water you’ve just taken from the river is back in the river”. All they’d done is discovered one of the VCs drains! They didn’t need to hide them!
Wanting to get into the tunnels they specifically recruited and trained small stature soldiers, called Tunnel Rats, to go into the tunnels. Unfortunately, death rate amongst these was 50-50 due to the booby traps, the venomous snakes and scorpions as well as all the other creatures that shared the tunnels. Those who made it out alive after a close combat were often deaf due to shooting their guns in such an enclosed space or sick from rat wee or bat poo. Our tour guide had lead some of those attacks. You could tell in his facial expressions the remorse he felt at the number of men he lead to their death.
Life in the tunnels
The tunnels housed over 16,000 individuals and included living quarters, hospitals, classrooms, kitchens and tool making areas across 3 levels. The VCs relied heavily on the bombs left by the US army to create ammunition, as well as the arms and clothes they stole from the soldiers they managed to kill. They didn’t have many resources however they made the most of their surroundings, for example, creating weapons out of bamboo. Their favourite booby trap being bamboo sticks concealed under leaves so that when soldiers jumped out of the helicopter or fell into a hole they got impelled. The communist tour talks about the ingeniousness of the VC and the elaborate booby traps they created. In reality, they didn’t have the resources for any of those. They were simple, yet still deadly!
The VC and villagers lived under ground in horrific conditions. They had limited air, food and sanitation; disease was rampant. The same creatures I mentioned above (venomous snakes, scorpions, spiders) were also the enemy of the VC, however they learnt to live with them. A great example of this would be their use of the giant ants. The US army searched and searched for the air outlets. If they could find their air supply and block it then they could surely win. However, these were nowhere to be found. Why? They didn’t rely on large holes, they worked with the giant ants.
Ants created holes where they exist the ground. Those holes (which aren’t big) were the ventilation for those living underground. The US and SVA of course were looking for something much bigger and took them a very long time to figure out!
How did they survive the bombings?
The one question the US and SVA couldn’t answer however was “how come we are bombing the hell out of the area with bombs that penetrate up to 10 metres and yet they aren’t dead?!?”. Every one of us was asked this questions repeatedly throughout the day. 4 hours of thinking about it and yet not a single one of us guessed it.The US army base! Living and sheltering next to or underneath it was the safest place. The US were never going to bomb themselves!! Ingenious!
There is no doubt that the VC were crafty and unparalleled when it comes to guerrilla fighting. They are branded as the heroes by the Communist Government, yet, where are those who endured such hardship living in tunnels for so long? Where are the true heros of the war? Despite their astounding contribution to the victory of the Communist Northern Vietnamese party, they got left with nothing. Many of them have been left blind after so many years under ground, deaf, malnourished, deformed, infested with parasites… And despite this, the government gave them nothing, simply hid them out of view so that the heroic propaganda could be spread, and the story could boast a happy ending. A quarter of the people living in the tunnels died, certainly not a happy ending.
10 out of 10 for the tour guide!
Our tour guide did an amazing job of taking us through his time in the army, giving us facts as well as recollections of things that happened to him. You could still see the pain in his eyes when he told certain stories. And every time a shot went off (they have a shooting range) there was a flicker of pain that you would miss unless you were looking.
However, despite the seriousness he still managed to deliver the tour with a great sense of humour, picking on us, challenging us to answer questions, betting us a can of beer to come up with the answer or manage to lift the gun from the tank 10 times with one hand (nobody managed it but I did get two beers for answering questions correctly! It was like being back at school, Hermione Granger-Meitiner!!). Without a doubt the best tour guide we’ve ever had.
I came to Vietnam knowing nothing about the war (apart from Forest Gump), I leave with so many questions and eager to find out more. You can’t miss the Cu Chi tunnels, and if you’d like to know who to ask for then drop me a line!
Find out what else we got to in Vietnam!