The Cu Chi Tunnels are the most popular day or half day excursion from Ho Chi Minh City. Full day tours begin in the early morning and head first of all to the Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh on the Cambodian Border. After lunch the tour proceeds to the tunnels returning to Ho Chi Minh City by late afternoon or early evening depending on the traffic entering the city.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a network of around 250km tunnels built by the Viet Cong over a twenty year period which allowed them to move unchallenged underneath enemy held territory including the US military base at Dong Du. At one time they allowed access to the outskirts of Saigon from as far away as the Cambodian border.
Originally the tunnels had been built in the 1940s in the fight against the French as they allowed underground communication between villages. In the 1960s the VC repaired and expanded them in their fight against the Americans and the South Vietnamese using them not only for communication but also for surprise attacks on the enemy. US ground operations in search of the tunnels lead to the loss of many American lives so a huge bombing campaign against Cu Chi including chemical destruction of the vegetation took place but the VC weren’t found (to this day crop yields are poor as chemicals remain in the soil and water).
American “tunnel rats” were the next solution the Americans came up with as they sent men into the tunnels to seek out the enemy causing terrible casualties. Eventually Cu Chi became a ‘free strike zone’ meaning that little (if any) permission was required to carry out any form of attack on the area. Eventually in the late 1960s American B-52s destroyed most of the tunnels and the surrounding area but the tunnels had already served their purpose.
Recommended Reading: The Tunnels of Cu Chi (Tom Mangold & John Penycate)
Cu Chi Tunnels Visit
The visit begins in a classroom where a guide shows wall charts of the tunnels and explains how they were constructed. A black and white propaganda video shows a young girl having the time of her life as she almost single handedly defeated the Americans.
You then walk into the humid jungle to see a selection of fatal traps (above right) that were used to devastating effect during the conflict and a M-41 tank next to a bomb crater. The entrance to one of the tunnels is nothing more than a tiny covered square in the ground which somehow the guide was able to squeeze into (see pictures above).
The tunnel that we tourists are invited to enter has been especially adapted for visitors … a “5-Star tunnel” according to the guide. It’s 100m long, 1.2m high, pitch black and bends slightly. There are exit points after 30m and 60m.
In our group there were two Korean guys who just couldn’t wait to get in there. They went first, Kirsty was third and I was behind her. At 6’5″ I was on my knees to begin with as I was so tightly packed to the confines of the tunnel. Kirsty moved forward and immediately went around a bend leaving total darkness ahead of me as light from her torch disappeared. Panic struck me as I felt trapped by the darkness ahead and the people entering the tunnel behind. I switched on my maglight (torches aren’t provided) and set off on hands and knees into the darkness. After what seemed like an eternity I spotted Kirsty exiting at the 30m point and made a very relieved exit. The Korean boys had already climbed out. Nobody in our group bothered to go beyond the 30m marker. This was not a pleasant experience and I wouldn’t recommend it.
Back out in the open our guide took us to a shooting gallery where you can fire and M-16 or AK-47 rifle from the war at $1US per bullet. Our guide was opposed to this and nobody in our group had a go. The tour continued on with visits to living areas, hospitals and Bien Phu kitchens which were particularly interesting as smoke from cooking exits the ground some distance away to prevent detection (next to the tree in the first picture below).
We finally returned to the coach for the return journey into HCMC and the worst traffic jam I’ve ever seen in my life with five of six lanes of scooters all heading in the same direction (last picture above).