Cu Chi Tunnels are a vast network of underground tunnels from the 1940s, expanded by guerrilla Viet Cong during the American War. The tunnels were hiding places, as well as communication and supply routes, hospitals and living quarters. Sections of the tunnel system large enough for a 40kg person have been widened to cater for larger bodies, but it's still a tight fit. Cu Chi is a short drive from HCMC and most Saigon tour companies offer day trips.
When in HCMC take a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, easy accessible by road or boat up the Saigon River. As the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tet Offensive in 1968, the Cu Chi Tunnels played a chief role in the Vietnamese winning the American War. The tunnels frustrated the Americans by drawing out the war and extending U.S. fatalities and costs until the United States finally withdrew in 1972 and the Republic of Vietnam fell in 1975.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a huge system of underground tunnels in the area of Củ Chi, one of the five suburban districts of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam. They are located forty kilometers northwest of the city center and 25 km away from Tan Son Nhat Airport.
The surrounding vegetation is lush. To access the famous tunnels and underground galleries dug by human hands, you must first traverse a narrow wooded trail. The sounds of insects are deafening giving the impression of entering a vibrant forest, when Vietnam was still teeming with tigers, monkeys and an abundant variety of exotic species. An illusion equal to the transformation that has shaped the country’s in the last 50 years.
“Right here, in 1968, during the war against Americans, all life had disappeared on the surface”, informs us our guide. “Only charred trees remained after tons of bombs were dropped by B52 daily. To survive in such environment and to continue fighting, Vietminh fighters had no other choice but to live hidden underground”, he adds.
During the American War, the district of Cu Chi experienced some of the most intense combat of the war. This is where Viet Cong placed their
headquarters to plan the Tet Offensive in 1968. They also undertook many guerrilla actions in Saigon by using the extensive maze of tunnels in which Vietnamese fighters could easily sneak.
A labyrinth dreaded by American soldiers who had to crawl into unfamiliar, narrow and dark bowels where they could be ambushed at any time by a bullet or fall into a trap made of sharpened spears.
Needless to say that any attempts to seize a tunnel was a disproportionate risk. Therefore, the Americans declared the perimeter zone “overkill” but none of the different techniques implemented (bombings, defoliants, napalm, use of rats tunnels, specialized in “search and destroy” commando operations) manage to completely destroy the network.
The tunnel system was only about twenty kilometers in length when it was used by the Viet Minh against their French oppressors. At the height of the American War, around 16,000 people lived in the tunnels and it spread over 250 km up to the Cambodian border. Its role in ending the war is probably underestimated. But it was a real thorn in the side of the Americans who never managed to eradicate it completely.
“To weaken the GI's, our fighters fired in their legs”, continues the guide while showing us a remnant bunker hidden by surrounding plants, “it forced them to send relief and proved to be more effective in slowing their advance”.
Then playfully, he points his finger mockingly towards an American tourist: “With your stomach, you will never be able to crawl into this tunnel”. The tourist smiles. He will finally go through the enlarged 100 meter section specially designed to satisfy the curiosity of foreign tourists.
“With the influx of visitors, we have been forced to improve the safety of the site”, concludes the guide stating that a few years ago, unwary tourists had managed to get lost during one day in galleries before finally being rescued.
You can visit the Cu Chi Tunnels in Ben Dinh. Located 50 km away from Saigon, it takes about 1:30 to get there by bus from District 1. You can book a tour of a half-day in a travel agency in Saigon or take a leisurely boat ride to the location through Les Rives Experience.