What lies beneath
Vietnam’s wartime Cu Chi tunnels have become an unlikely tourist attraction
CRAWLING through a dark, twisted narrow passage, I amstarved of light, oxygen and space. The atmosphere is stifling as claustrophobia envelops me like a straitjacket, yet I continue with steadfast determination.
Welcome to the Cu Chi tunnels in south Vietnam, about 75km from Ho Chi Minh City, an area once called ‘‘the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare’’.
Long before we reach the National Sports Defence Shooting Range, we hear the arresting sound of gunfire. And it is possible for eager tourists to fire off a few rounds with an AK47 or M16 for just $US1. I notice a nearby sign with unintended humour: ‘‘Any tourist who needs shooting must absolutely comply with instructions set out by the shooting range officer.’’
Today, the Cu Chi tunnels are a tourist attraction, but nearly 50 years ago they changed the course of the Vietnam War. The extensive network enabled the Viet Cong to gain a strategic advantage over the south. The Cu Chi district contained more than 200km of tunnels, stretching from the Cambodian border to within striking distance of the then Saigon.
Many tunnels were phenomenally deep and complex. They contained living areas, command posts, kitchens, factories, makeshift theatres, hospitals, surgeries, cap- tured US weapons and equipment, even an entire tank. Thousands of Viet Cong lived and died underground.
Led by a guide in a khaki uniform, we approach a fenced-off booby trap known as a ‘‘tiger trap’’. A proud demonstration of its capabilities evokes suitable sounds of wonderment from our group. Next, we are treated to the choreographed party trick of revealing a tunnel entrance where none seems to exist. Sure enough, in an area that masquerades as the forest floor, a trapdoor is unveiled. It is the size of an A4 piece of paper.
A blue sign stipulates rules for entering the tunnel: ‘‘You should not go down the tunnel in the following cases: visitors are afraid of darkness and narrow place.’’ We have been warned.
My colleague, who already has strong reservations, tentatively follows an eager line of students down the darkened staircase into a blackened pit of nothingness. At the bottom, a disconcertingly small hole appears. We enter, but mere seconds later my colleague declares: ‘‘This is not good.’’ He reverses furiously, sending me sprawling backwards to allow his escape.
I continue alone and quickly learn that with darkness comes terror. I am relegated to the ungainly position of crawling my way out of trouble.
The tunnel is about 1.2m high, 80cm wide, 10m deep and 50m long. I am now experiencing ‘‘black echo’’, a term created by American tunnel rats, an elite group of volunteer soldiers whose bravery and smaller stature were prerequisites for the job. Their objective was to search and destroy the Viet Cong and their tunnels. Australians also played a significant role as tunnel rats — Captain Alex MacGregor led 3 Field Troop of the Royal Australian Engineers and won a Military Cross for his leadership.
As well as booby traps and a hidden enemy, tunnel rats and the Viet Cong had to contend with spiders as big as their hands, large bats, marauding fire ants, giant centipedes, deadly bamboo vipers and, on one occasion, a 2m boa constrictor.
I admit to bailing out through one of the ‘‘emergency exits’’ to alleviate the feelings of suffocation and hyperventilation. We pass gift shops where the Vietnamese cannily exploit their past. My only souvenir is an anachronistic propaganda DVD, which I later discover with much disappointment is the ‘‘politically correct’’ version with no references to ‘‘American killer heroes’’.
At least 45,000 Vietnamese men and women died defending the Cu Chi tunnels. This subterranean world is a poignant memorial to their heroic efforts. The tunnels symbolise Viet Cong grit, ingenuity and spirit and celebrate the formidable human strength and stoicism shown on both sides of the battlefield.
The Cu Chi tunnels changed the course of the Vietnam War