Củ Chi Tunnels, Vietnam, 2013

The Củ Chi tunnels are part of a vast network of tunnels that run underneath Vietnam and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. Củ Chi specifically runs 75-miles long in total. The tunnels were critical to the Viet Cong’s resistance to American forces, and was used by the Viet Cong not only as supply routes, living quarters, and for communication, but also as hiding spots during combat.

fruit trees

Papaya, mango, cashew, and jackfruit (clockwise from top left)

We were greeted by a surprisingly thriving fruit garden that lay between the parking lot and the entrance to the tunnel grounds. Generously-bosomed papaya trees bowed to the weight of their fruit; mangoes bobbled precariously overhead; and jackfruits the size of newborns coyly grazed our heads with their spikes. We even got to see a cashew tree! Apparently cashew nuts are seeds of the cashew apple (a pseudo-fruit) that grow on the exterior of the apple.

underground hut

Our first stop was an underground hut, where we were shown a short 15-20 minute video of the history of the tunnels. On the left wall was a model of the tunnels: living quarters, kitchens, and escape routes. Many of the tunnels had an escape exit that led to a body of water (usually a river), so that soldiers could easily raft down the river if the tunnels were ever bombed or otherwise compromised. American forces typically didn’t expect this, and many Viet Cong were able to escape this way.

cuchi_trap

A demo of the hidden entrances to the tunnels. Really amazing how people manage to fit in these and find the entrances. One of the squishier members of our group decided to give it a shot and got stuck for a little trying to get out! Only light baggage allowed ;).

The tunnels had plenty of trap doors and strategic air filtration systems that were able to deter attempts to flush the entrance with gas, water, or hot tar. Walk over the wrong patch of ground and you could meet a grisly (and rather medieval death), as shown below.

death traps

Chickens roamed the cafeteria area freely. There was also a shooting range to practice in, if you so desired! I thought about doing it, but the rounds were rather expensive — about $20 for 5-10 bullets(??).

chickens and shooting (but not together)

Can you find the baby chick?

We also walked past tents demonstrating daily chores of people working in the Viet Cong.To make banh trang (rice paper), you ground rice and mix it with water so that it becomes a slurry. The batter is then spread onto a cloth stretched over a pot of boiling water. Cover with a bamboo lid and let it steam for about 30-45 seconds. A rolling pin (of sorts) is then used to lift and transfer the rice sheet to a cooling “rack”–a long, woven board of bamboo.

rice paper

There was another tent where we got to see how old materials–namely rubber taken from tires of destroyed jeeps–were repurposed to make sandals because they’re water resistant and don’t slip.

shoemaker

Many Viet Cong actually led double lives. Scarves disguised the identities of “normal” women who worked in rice fields but then tunneled into headquarters at night to fight in Viet Cong attacks.

the fighting bunkerAnd then it was our turn to experience tunnel life. We went down “The Fighting Bunker”, a dark and dank hole that no one should have to subject themselves to living in. The air–well, there really was no air–was so stale, so humid, and basically all CO2. There was no way to move or walk about. We had to army crawl our way to get from one room to another, and to the end of the tunnel. While this tunnel was less than a hundred meters (maybe not even 50m), the several minutes it took to inchworm our way on elbows and knees was exhausting.

We were congratulated on successfully navigating the tunnel with a highly-anticipated meal, Viet Cong-style. On the menu was a single item: a starchy, dry, potato-like root (I forget what it’s called). It was like eating flour. Dip in crushed peanuts for protein and fat intake. On a generous day, treat yourself to some freshly-roasted cashews.

starch and protein

So concluded our tour of the Củ Chi tunnels. Tunnel life is fascinating, rough, and dangerous. I left with so much appreciation for what I have thankfully not had to go through (hopefully ever). Visiting Củ Chi is absolutely something you should experience if you are ever in Vietnam.

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