A couple of weeks ago, I started a blog feature called “Sights on Saturday,” which reports on interesting sights and tourist attractions.  This week I’m deviating from the pattern and posting on a Sunday.

The Tunnels’ Role In Post WWII Vietnam Wars

Located less than 50 miles to the northwest of central Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), the Cu Chi tunnel network is an extensive labyrinth of underground tunnels stretching all the way to the Cambodian border. They were built over a period of some 25 years and initial construction began in 1948 by the Viet Minh during the war against the French.

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The Cambodian border is the irregularly shaped black line on the left. That area, known as the Parrot’s Beak, was the site of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970.

During the American involvement in the Vietnam War, the tunnels were extended over an area of approximately 250 kilometers.  The tunnels assumed huge strategic value to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces and played an immense role in helping them survive repeated forays in the area by American troops and their allies.

The Cu Chi tunnels are a complicated structure consisting of numerous tunnels,  trenches, bunkers, booby traps, bomb shelters, and an amazing air ventilation system.  Soldiers cooked, ate, slept, worked, and even went to school in the tunnels.  There were hospitals, theaters, schools, kitchens, all built into this extraordinary tunnel system.  Cu Chi was also used as a base for hit-and-run attacks, sabotage teams, and intelligence agents to infiltrate Saigon.

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Representation of facilities protected by the Cu Chi tunnel system.

There were numerous attempts to eliminate or degrade the Cu Chi tunnels as a base of operations for the Viet Cong forces including two operations involving thousands of troops supported by tanks and B-52 bombers.

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One of the largest tunnel entrances.

In January 1966, some 8,000 U.S. and Australian troops swept the Cu Chi district in  Operation Crimp.  Tunnel entrances that were located were crimped or closed with explosives and bulldozers.  After B-52 bombers dropped a large amount of explosives onto the jungle region, the troops searched the area for enemy activity but were largely unsuccessful.  The bulk of Communist forces had disappeared into the network of underground tunnels.

Australian troops produced the best results in Operation Crimp.  While the Americans preferred to remain on the surface, the Aussies sent men into the tunnels and explored them in great detail.  Their discoveries revealed the importance of the tunnels to the Communists and the risks they posed to the American war effort.

A year later, around 30,000 U.S. soldiers took part in Operation Cedar Falls in the Iron Triangle, an area of Binh Dinh province near the Cambodian border.  Following heavy bombing and defoliation of the jungle and rice paddies, troops backed by  tanks and bulldozers moved in to sweep the tunnels.  Taking a tip from the Australians, the Americans used “tunnel rats,” troops with small stature but outsized courage, who were sent in to search the tunnels armed only with a handgun, knife, and flashlight.  Tunnel rats discovered the Viet Cong district headquarters and a treasure trove of important documents.  Success was temporary as the VC later reoccupied the area and used it as a base of operations for attacks on Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Chu Chi Tunnels Tourist Attraction

Visitors to Vietnam can now crawl through some of the safer areas of the tunnels, view command centers and booby traps, fire weapons on a rifle range and even eat a meal featuring typical foods that soldiers living in the tunnels would have eaten.  Admission costs less than $5.

There are a variety of way to get to the tunnels.  From Ho Chi Minh City there are multiple tours that vary in duration and activities.  You can travel there on your own by car, motorbike, taxi, public bus, bicycle and even walking.  I took a small group tour in a van.

Tourists can explore portions of the tunnels that have been deemed safe.  The entrances look impossibly small, but there is a trick.

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Most adults will find entering the tiny openings easy if they raise their hands over their heads.
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A member of my tour group demonstrated.

I went in via a small entrance equipped with steep stairs.

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Portions of the tunnels have been expanded to accommodate tourists.
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At 6’2″ it was still extremely cramped even in the largest portions of the tunnels. Tunnels have some ventilation but no aircon as is my sweat evidences.

There are various artifacts from the war on display.

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A U.S. tank that was knocked out and left in the field.

Various displays show how the soldiers and civilians lived underground.

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This display shows how cooking was accomplished. Some cooking used smokeless techniques. When there was smoke, it was exhausted through ports a great distance from the source.

Tourists can fire M-16s, AK-47s and M60 machine guns on the firing range.

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I fired a few rounds from an U.S. M-16.

This was the only time I’ve fired an assault rifle.  I don’t get their popularity.  The sights didn’t seem to work that well, and I couldn’t help thinking about a human as the target and said target shooting back at me.

Overall Impression

I very much enjoyed visiting the Cu Chi tunnels.  The admission price and tour costs are very low.  The site does a great job of explaining the tunnels’ historical and military relevance as well as how Vietnamese forces were able to withstand assaults by troops with vastly superior firepower.  Their successful use of ingenuity and knowledge of the terrain reminded me of the exploits of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, during the American Revolution.

I highly recommend a visit if you get to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.