What lies be­neath

Viet­nam’s wartime Cu Chi tun­nels have be­come an un­likely tourist at­trac­tion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays For Seniors - MATTHEW SMITH

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.

ALAMY

The Cu Chi tun­nels changed the course of the Viet­nam War

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