The Cu Chi Tunnel Experience in Vietnam

I never learned about the Vietnam war in school. I decided I wanted to travel to Vietnam this past weekend, for my birthday, because I tried out a couple of Vietnamese restaurants while living in Malaysia and decided I loved their food. I also saw an example of their national dress here, and thought it looked brilliant.

However, spending even a weekend in Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly known to Westerners as Saigon, it is hard to ignore the relics of the war where the top 3 nationalities helping the South Vietnamese were Americans, Koreans, and Australians. And given the North Vietnamese won the war, it was interesting to see how this history was painted, and I would expect rather differently than the stories that were told in the US or Australia. But I could be wrong, as I’ve currently only seen some of the Vietnamese perspective.

We hired a tour guide to take us to the Cu Chi Tunnel Complex, which were used by guerrillas supporting the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war. It’s hard to describe what it was like to see and experience the tunnels first-hand, trying to comprehend exactly what the Cu Chi villagers lived through. What was it like to be there, living through it, wondering if you’d ever see another sunrise?

Our guide took us along an hour walk through the jungle. Our first stop was at a secret entrance to the tunnel system, just big enough for a person to fit through if they held their arms upwards, because it was too narrow for your shoulders otherwise. The opening was camouflaged by dead leaves on the ground, but the lid to the entrance itself made of wood. Tourists were encouraged to try it out. And it was far too deep for me to get out of by myself! I couldn’t even grab onto the sides of the tunnel with my shoes to help push myself up.

Here’s a photo of me getting out of this narrow entrance, with the lid on the ground in front (action shot, since my arms are blurry):

I really don’t know how it was even possible for the Cu Chi guerrillas to have got further than the tunnel entrance after that. It was pitch black, and the sounds outside were barely audible unless I tried to focus in specifically on words that were being spoken, like my husband asking my son, “Where’s Mummy gone?”

The tunnels themselves were three levels deep. People lived in the first levels – and not just men, like you might expect, but women and children, too. In fact, from the documentary we watched at the end of the tour, there was a lot of evidence of women being very involved in the guerrilla tactics. It was hard to breathe when you got down to the third level, about eight metres below ground. Ventilation to the lower levels was carefully hidden inside fake termite nests.

Though the tunnel system spans 250km, tourists are invited to experience a slightly larger (for people to fit) 100m long version of the tunnels, built specifically for tourists, with exits about every 20m in case they don’t want to go the whole way. It’s definitely something claustrophobics would want to avoid. I’m a small person, but even I seemed to have an arm touching a wall at all times, not to mention the crouching for the full length, minus the part we had to slide down, or when we went to lower or higher levels in the tunnel – they were the only chances we had to make our bodies straight. My son, on the other hand, was short enough to walk the whole way through. And at least in the tourist system, they had lights set up through some of it – though without the guide with the flashlight (and when I got a little far behind), it would be (and was) impossible to see anything. I worried about if there would be a sudden drop, because I had been warned moments before that there was a part to slide down coming up soon.

While watching the documentary at the end of the tour, and realising that these were guerrillas who built the tunnel system, rather than the North Vietnamese army, I started wondering. Do you suppose in wars, if there’s a side with guerrillas, that side has a better chance of winning? It worked in Vietnam. The Viet Cong really believed in what they were fighting for. They were from South Vietnam and believed communism was better for their country. What of the Americans and Australians? How many troops in those armies would have understood why they were fighting a war on foreign soil? How many would have signed up just because it was a “job”? I can’t speak for America, but I know when I was in high school, the Australian Defense Force certainly marketed joining the army, navy or airforce as a great way to further your educational studies all on the Government’s dollar instead of your own, and with little to no focus on any awareness that you might be sent out into a war. Is that what it was like in the 60s and 70s, when we sent troops to Vietnam, too? Well, maybe not, since tertiary education in Australia was probably free back then. I know my mum got free tertiary education in Australia in the 70s.

I don’t have any stories of family members’ experiences in any war. No World War I. No World War II. No Korea, or Vietnam. I don’t even know anyone now who was sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. Until visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, my only knowledge of war came from text books, classes, movies, and things that were vaguely discussed in passing.

Seeing things first hand is one of the best ways I learn. Before going to Vietnam, I never once wondered what it would really be like to be out there, fighting, wondering if you would even live to see another day. Now I at least hope those involved in fighting in these wars know what it is they’re fighting for, and that they’re fighting for something they believe in.

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