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Cu Chi Tunnels

Cu Chi Tunnels

Tel: 08

The town of Cu Chi has now become a district of greater Ho Chi Minh City ( HCMC), and has a population of about 200,000 ( it had aboat 80,000 residents during the American War). At first glance, thereis little evidence here to indicatethe intense fighting,bombingand destruction that went onCu Chi during the war.To see what went on, you have to dig deeper – Underground/

The Tunnel network of Cu Chibecame legendary during the 1960s for its role in facilitating Viet Cong (VC) control of a large rural area only 30km to 40km from HCMC. At its height, thetunnel system stretched fromtheSouth Vietnamese capital tothe cambodian border; in thedistrict of Cu Chi alone, there were more than 250km of tunnel storeys deep, included innumerable trap doors,specially contructed living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories,field hospitals, command centres and kitchens.

The tunnels made possible communication and coordination between theca – Controlled enclaves, isolated from each other by South Vietnamese and American land and air operations. They also allowed the VC to mount surprise attacks wherever the tunnels went- even within the perimeters of the US military base at Dong Du – and to disappear into hidden trapdoors with out a trace. After ground operations against the tunnels claimed large numbers of US casualties and proved ineffective, the Americans resorted to massive fivepower, eventually turning Cu Chi’s 420sq km into what the authors of the Tunnels of Cu Chi have called ‘the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and denerally devasted area in the history of warfare devastated area in the history of warfare.

Cu Chi has become a place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese school children and communist-party cadres. Parts of this remarkable tunnel network are open to the public. The unadulterated tunnels, though not actually closed to tourists, are hard to get to and are rarely visited

There are numerous war cemeteries all around Cu Chi

History

The tunnels of Cu Chi were built over a period of 25 years, which began some time in thelate 194s. They were the improvised response of a poorly equipped peasant army to its enemy’s high tech ordnance helicopters, artillery, bombers and chemical weapons.

The Viet Minh built the first dugouts and tunnels in the hard, red earth of Cu Chi during the war against the French. The excavations were used mostly for communication between villages and to evade French army sweeps of the area.

When the VC’s National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency began in earnest around 196, the old Viet Minh tunnel system assumed enormous strategic importance, and most of Cu Chi district and the nearby area came under firm VC control. In addition, Cu Chi was used as a base for infiltrating intelligence agents and sobotage teams into Saigon. The stunning attacks in the South Vietnamese capital during the 1968 Tet offensive were planned and aunched from Cu Chi.

In early 1963, the Diem government implemented the botched Strategic Hamlets Program, under which fortified encampments, surrounded by many rows of sharp bamboo spikes, were built to house people relocated from communist-controlled areas. The first strategic hamlet was in Ben Cat district, next to Cu Chi. Not only was the program carried out with incredible incompentence, alienating the peasantry, but the VC was able to tunnel into the hamlets and control them from within. By the end of 1963, the first showpiece hamlet had been overrun.

The series of setbacks and defeats suffered by the South Vietnamese forces in the Cu Chi area rendered a complete VC victory by the end of 1965 a distrinct possibility. In the early months of that year, the guerrillas boldly held a victory parade in the middle of Cu Chi town. VC strength in and around Cu Chi was one of the reasons the Johnson administration decided to involve US troops in the war.

To dea with the threat posed by VC control of an area so near the South Vietnamese capital, one of the USA’s first actions was to establish a large base camp in Cu Chi district. Unknowingly, they built it right on top of an existing tunnel network. It look months for the 25th Division to figure out why they kept getting shot at in their tents at night.

The US and Australian triips tried a variety of methods to pacify the area around Cu Chi, which came to be known as the Iron Triangle. They launched large – scale ground operations involving tens of thousands of troops, but failed to locate thetunnels/. To deny the VC cover and supplies, rice paddies were defoliated, huge swathes of jungle bulldozed and villages evacuated and razed. The Americans also sprayed chemical defoliants on the area from the air and then, a few months later, ignited the tinder-dry vegetation with gasoline and napalm. But the intense heat interacted with the wet tropical air in such a way as to create cloudbursts that extinguished the fires. The VC remained safe and sound in their tunnels.

Unable to win this battle with chemicals, the US army began sending men down into the tunnels. These ‘tunnel rats’, who were often involved in underground fire fights, sustained appallingly high casualty rates.

When the Americans began using german shepherd dogs, trained to use their keen sense of smell to located trapdoors and guerrillas, the VC put out perper to distract the dogs. They also began washing with American toilet soup, which gave off a scent the canines identified asfriendly, Captured US uniforms, which had the familiar smell of bodies nourished on US-Style food, were put out to confuse the gods further. Most importantly, the dogs were not able to spot booby traps. So many dogs were killed or mained that their horrified handlers refused to send them intothe tunnels

The USA declared Cu Chi a free-strike zone: minimal authorisation was needed to shoot at anythings in the area, randon artillery was fired into the area at night, and pilots were told to drop unused bombs and napalm there before returning to base. But theca stayed put. Finally, in the late 1960s, American B-51s carpet-bombed the whole area, destroying most of the tunnels along with everthing else around. Thegesture was militarily useless by then because the USA was already on its way out of the war.. The tunnels had served their purpose.

The VC guerrillas serving in the tunnels lived in extremely difficult conditions and suffered horrific casualties. Only about 6000 of the 16,000 cadres who fought in the tunnels survived the war. In addition, thousands of civilians in the area were killed their tenacity was extraordinary considering the bombings, the pressures of living underground for weeks or months at a time and the deaths of countless friends and comrades.

The villages of Cu Chi have since been presented with numerous honorific awards, decorations and citations by the government and many have been declared ‘heroic villages’. Since 1975, new hamlets have been established and the population of the area has more than doubled; however chamical defoliants remain in the soil and water, and crop yields are still poor.

The Tunnels

Over the years the VC, learning by trial and error, Developed simple but effective teachniques to make their tunnels difficult to detect or disable. Wooden trapdoors were camouflaged with earth and branches; some were boody –trapped. Hidden underwater entrances from rivers were constructed. To cook, they used Dien Bien Phu kitchens’ which exhouste the smoke through vents many metres away from the cooking site. Trapdoors were installed throughout the network to prevent tear gas, smoke or water from moving from one part of the system to another. Some sections were even equipped with electric lighting.

Presently, two of the tunel sites are open to visitors. One is near the village if Ben Dinh and the other is at Ben Duoc.

 

Ben Dinh This small, renovated section of the tunnel system is near the village of Ben Dinh, 50km from HCMC. In one of the classrooms at the visitors centre. a large map shows the extent of the network. The tunnels are marked in red, VC bases are shown in light grey and the light blue lines are rivers(The saigon river is at the top).Fortified villages held by South Vietnamese and American forces are marked in grey, while blue dots represent the American and South Vietnamese military posts that were supposed to ensure the security of nearby villages. The dark blue area in the centre is the base of the American 25th Infantry Division. Most prearranged tours donot take you to this former base, but it is not off limits and you can arrange a visit if you have your own guide and driver.

To the right of the Large map are two cross-section diagrams of the tunnels. The bottom diagram is a reproduction of one used by General William Westmoreland, the commander of American forces inVietnam ( 1964-8). For once, the Americans seemed to have had their intelligence information right.

The section of the tunnel system presently open to visitors is a few hundred metres south of the visitors centre. It snakes up and down through various chambers along its 50m length. The unlit tunnels are about 1.2m high and 80cm across. A knocked out M-41 Tank and a bomb crater are near the exit, which is in areforested eucalyptus grove.

Ben Duoc These are not the genuine tunnels, but a full reconstruction for the benefit of visitors. The emphasis here is more on the fun fair ( tourists are given the chance to imagine what it was like to be a guerrilla) and attracts far more Vietnamese than foreigner visitors.

Cu Chi War History Museum

This museum is not actually at the tunnel sites, its just off the main highway in the central area of the town of Cu Chi. Sadly. the Cu Chi War History Museum is rather disappointing and gets few visitors. ( most day tours from HCMC do not make a stop here).

It’s a small museum and almost all explanations are in Vietnamese. One English explanation attached to a canoe reads/

There is a collection of some gruesome photos showing civilians who were severely wounded or killed after being attacked by American bombs or burned with napalm. A painting on the wall shows American soldiers armed with rifles being attacked by Vietnamese peasants armed only with sticks. A sign near the photos formerly read (In Vietnamese) ‘American conquest and crimes”, but this was changed in 1995 to read ‘ Enemy conquest and crimes”. Apparently, some effort is being made to tone down the rhetoric in anticipation of receiving more US visitors/

One wall of the museum contains a long list of names, all VC guerriellas killed in the Cu Chi Area. An adjacent room of the museum displays recent photos of prosperous farms and factories, an effort to show the benefits of Vietnam’s economic reforms. There is also an odd collection of pottery and lacquerware with no explanations attached. In the lobby, near the entrance, is a statue of HCM with his right arm raised waving hello.

Getting there & away

Cu Chi District covers a large area, parts of which are as close as 300km to central HCMC. The Cu Chi War History Museum is closest to the city, while the Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc tunnels are about 50km and 70km respectively from central HCMC by high way. There is a back road that reduces the distance significantly, though it means driving on bumpy dirt roads.

Organised Tours An organised tour is the easiest way to visit the Cu Chi tunnel and is not at al expensive. Most of the Café on Pham Ngu Lao in HCMC run combined full-day tours to the Cu Chi tunnels and Caodai great temple. or book online with vanhaitourism.com

Bus The buses going to Tay Ninh pass though Cu Chi, but getting from the town of Cu Chi to the tunnels by public transport is impossi ble – it’s 15km, so you’ll have to hire a motorbike.

Taxi: hiring a taxi in HCMC and friving out to Cu Chi is not all that expensive, especially if the cost is split by several people. For details on hiring a car or taxim see Getting Around in the HCMC chapter.

A visit to the Cu Chi tunnel complex can easily be combined with a stop at the headquarters of the Caodai sect in Tay Ninh. A taxi for an all day excursion to both should cost about US$60.

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