The most popular trip out of Ho Chi Minh City is to the Cu Chi tunnel complex, where villagers once dug themselves out of the range of American shelling. The tunnels of Cu Chi are often twinned with a tour around the beautiful Cao Dai Great Temple in Tay Ninh.
During the American War, the villages around the district of Cu Chi supported a substantial Viet Cong (VC) presence. Faced with American attempts to neutralize them, they quite literally dug themselves out of harm’s way, and the legendary Cu Chi tunnels were the result. Today, tourists can visit a short stretch of the tunnels, drop to their hands and knees and squeeze underground for an insight into life as a tunnel-dwelling resistance fighter. Some sections of the tunnels have been widened to allow passage for the fuller frame of Westerners but it’s still a dark, sweaty, claustrophobic experience, and not one you should rush into unless you’re confident you won’t suffer a subterranean freak-out.
When the first spades sank into the earth around Cu Chi, the region was covered by a rubber plantation tied to a French tyre company. Anti-colonial Viet Minh dug the first Vietnamese tunnels here in the late 1940s; intended primarily for storing arms, they soon became valuable hiding places for the resistance fighters themselves. Over a decade later, VC activists controlling this staunchly anti-government area, many of them local villagers, followed suit and went to ground. By 1965, 250km of tunnels crisscrossed Cu Chi and surrounding areas – just across the Saigon River was the notorious guerrilla power base known as the Iron Triangle – making it possible for the VC guerrilla cells in the area to link up with each other and to infiltrate Saigon at will. One section daringly ran underneath the Americans’ Cu Chi Army Base.
Though the region’s compacted red clay was perfectly suited to tunnelling, and lay above the water level of the Saigon River, the digging parties faced a multitude of problems. Quite apart from the snakes and scorpions they encountered as they laboured with their hoes and crowbars, there was the problem of inconspicuously disposing of the soil by spreading it in bomb craters or scattering it in the river under cover of darkness. With a tunnel dug, ceilings had to be shored up, and as American bombing made timber scarce the tunnellers had to resort to stealing iron fence posts from enemy bases. Tunnels could be as small as 80cm wide and 80cm high, and were sometimes four levels deep; vent shafts (to disperse smoke and aromas from underground ovens) were camouflaged by thick grass and termites’ nests. In order to throw the Americans’ dogs off the scent, pepper was sprinkled around vents, and sometimes the VC even washed with the same scented soap used by GIs.
American attempts to flush out the Vietnamese tunnels proved ineffective. Operating out of huge bases erected around Saigon in the mid-Sixties, they evacuated villagers into strategic hamlets and then used defoliant sprays and bulldozers to rob the VC of cover, in "scorched earth" operations such as January 1967’s Cedar Falls. Even then, tunnels were rarely effectively destroyed – one soldier at the time compared the task to "fill[ing] the Grand Canyon with a pitchfork". GIs would lob down gas or grenades or else go down themselves, armed only with a torch, a knife and a pistol. Die-hard soldiers who specialized in these underground raids came to be known as tunnel rats, their unofficial insignia Insigni Non Gratum Anus Rodentum, meaning "not worth a rat’s arse". Booby-traps made of sharpened bamboo stakes awaited them in the dark, as well as “bombs”made from Coke cans and dud bullets found on the surface. Tunnels were low and narrow, and entrances so small that GIs often couldn’t get down them, even if they could locate them. Maverick war correspondent Wilfred Burchett, travelling with the NLF in 1964, found his Western girth a distinct impediment: “On another occasion I got stuck passing from one tunnel section to another. In what seemed a dead end, a rectangular plug was pulled out from the other side, and, with some ahead pulling my arms and some pushing my buttocks from behind, I managed to get through “I was transferred to another tunnel entrance built especially to accommodate a bulky unit cook.”
Another American tactic aimed at weakening the resolve of the VC guerrillas involved dropping leaflets and broadcasting bulletins that played on the fighters’ fears and loneliness. Although this prompted numerous desertions, the tunnellers were still able to mastermind the Tet Offensive of 1968. Ultimately, the Americans resorted to more strong-arm tactics to neutralize the tunnels, sending in the B52s freed by the cessation of bombing of the North in 1968 to level the district with carpet bombing. The VC’s infrastructure was decimated by Tet, and further weakened by the Phoenix Programme. By this time, though, the tunnels had played their part in proving to America that the war was unwinnable. At least twelve thousand Vietnamese guerrillas and sympathizers are thought to have perished here during the American War, and the terrain was laid waste – pockmarked by bomb craters, devoid of vegetation, the air poisoned by lingering fumes.
The Cu Chi Tunnel complex is located at the two sites of Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc, outside of Ho Chi Minh City.
With public transport slow and erratic, day-trips are best arranged through a tour operator.
By far the easiest way of reaching the Cu Chi tunnel complex and the Cao Dai temple is to take a guided bus tour with one of the innumerable travel agencies operating around the Pham Ngu Lao area. In fact, it’s often possible to book such a trip without leaving the comfort of your accommodation – most guesthouses team up with a particular agency, and though they’ll want their own piece of the pie, the extra fee is usually small if it exists at all. Hotels are a different matter; many run their own tours, and the prices are usually a fair bit higher than those given here. In general, signing up through your accommodation will give you some kind of come-back should things go wrong. Most agencies charge in the region of 130,000đ per person for a half-day trip to the tunnels, and 180,000đ for a full-day sojourn to the tunnels and temple. This will include an English-speaking guide and admission fees to the tunnels, though it’ll cost extra for lunch. Tours usually leave at 8am, with half-dayers returning at 3pm or so, and full-day trips finishing around 6pm.
An interesting option is to take a boat tour to the tunnels with Les Rives from Bach Dang pier. It’ll include lunch and hotel pick-up, and can be combined with a visit to the Cao Dai temple.
Some people prefer to go by taxi, which will set you back around $70 including the main tunnels, the temple and waiting time.
A few budget travellers try to hit the temple or tunnels by bus, though it’s usually not worth the bother as some tours are so cheap that you’d end up saving hardly anything at all. If you’d rather go it alone, take one of the infrequent buses to Tay Ninh, which depart from HCMC’s An Suong station, north of the airport; ask the driver to drop you off at the front gates of the temple.
Living conditions below ground were appalling for these "human moles". The tunnels of Cu Chi were foul-smelling, and became so hot by the afternoon that inhabitants had to lie on the floor in order to get enough oxygen to breathe. The darkness was absolute, and some long-term dwellers suffered temporary blindness when they emerged into the light. At times it was necessary to stay below ground for weeks on end, alongside bats, rats, snakes, scorpions, centipedes and fire ants. Some of these unwelcome guests were co-opted to the cause: boxes full of scorpions and hollow bamboo sticks containing vipers were secreted in tunnels, where GIs might unwittingly knock them over.
Within the multi-level tunnel complexes, there were latrines, wells, meeting rooms and dorms. Rudimentary hospitals were also scratched out of the soil. Operations were carried out by torchlight using instruments fashioned from shards of ordnance, and a patient’s own blood was caught in bottles and then pumped straight back using a bicycle pump and a length of rubber hosing. Such medical supplies as existed were secured by bribing ARVN soldiers in Saigon. Doctors also administered herbs and acupuncture – even honey was used for its antiseptic properties. Kitchens cooked whatever the tunnellers could get their hands on. With rice and fruit crops destroyed, the diet consisted largely of tapioca, leaves and roots, at least until enough bomb fragments could be transported to Saigon and sold as scrap to buy food. Morale was maintained in part by performing troupes that toured the tunnels, though songs like "He who comes to Cu Chi, the Bronze Fortress in the Land of Iron, will count the crimes accumulated by the Enemy" were not quite up to the standard set by Bob Hope as he entertained the US troops.
The Cu Chi tunnels are located on two seperate sites. You may wish to visit either or both sites depending on what you’re looking to do. Here is what you can expect from both sites at the Cu Chi tunnel complex.
The guided tour of Ben Dinh kicks off in a thatched hut, where a map of the region, a cross-section of the tunnels and a black and white movie bristling with national pride fill you in on the background. From there, you head out into the bush, where your guide will point out lethal booby-traps, concealed trap doors and an abandoned tank. There are several models showing how unexploded ordnance was ingeniously converted into lethal mines and traps, and a demonstration of how smoke from underground fires was cleverly dispersed far from its source.
When you reach the shooting range, you have the chance to shoulder an M16 or AK47 and shoot off a few rounds, or stop at the adjacent souvenir and snack stalls. Finally, you get the chance to stoop, crawl and drag yourself through a section of the tunnels about 140 metres long (with frequent escape routes for anyone who can’t hack it). It only takes 10–15 minutes to scramble through, but the pitch blackness and intense humidity can be discomforting, so when you emerge, you’ll be glad you don’t have to live down there for weeks on end as the VC did.
The tunnel experience at Ben Duoc is similar to that at Ben Dinh, but it has fewer foreign tourists and a cheesier atmosphere – it’s better if you’re claustrophobic, though scores fewer points for authenticity. The original tunnels have been expanded, and for an extra fee you’ll be able to don soldier gear to crawl through them. Afterwards, you’ll be able to fire off a few rifle rounds. These tunnels are further from Ho Chi Minh City and often best attacked by taxi.
Visiting the tunnels of Cu Chi isn’t for the faint hearted and if you are even slightly claustrophobic, then you may be better off avoiding the part of the tour where you can crawl through a section of tunnel. Thankfully, there are frequent escape routes along the tunnel if it becomes overwhelming.
The Cu Chi tunnels are located close to the weird and wonderful Cao Dai Great Temple. While it’s possible to see both places in a day (indeed, most people do), be prepared to spend most of your time on the road.
Top image: Cu Chi tunnels, Vietnam © chiakto/Shutterstock