Tunnel Rats

Trip Start Oct 02, 2012
Trip End Mar 31, 2014

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Saturday, December 15, 2012

During the Vietnam War, the south of the country was under the control of the Democratic Republic Party of Vietnam and the American Forces. The North of Vietnam was under control of the Communist Party of Vietnam and their legendary leader, Ho Chi Minh. Both sides were battling to unite the country under one party. Socialist or Capitalist. As in all civil war, there is no real territorial divide between the enemies and there were active communist resistance groups operating in the south with local support, such as the Viet Cong and the National Liberation Front. Cu Chi province in the south was a base of operations for the southern communists and its rebel guerilla soldiers, its close proximity to Saigon (the southern capital) made it a very important region. Over the course of eight years, the communist supporters in Cu Chi dug one of the most complex subterranean tunnel systems in the world. Spanning over 3 levels, the lowest down to 12 meters deep, and around 250 kilometres long, the system is like a spider web under Cu Chi. They were dug by hand, by ordinary people, without any modern ordinance equipment or machinery. The soil in Cu Chi is hard. Very hard. The amount of effort, stamina and perseverance needed to complete even a small section of tunnel is astonishing. To join existing tunnels and plot their courses while 12 metres underground, with no surveying equipment or GPS etc. is almost beyond belief. It is said that it would take you around 45 days to crawl through the entire tunnel system. They are both an engineering marvel and a testament to the profound determination of the Vietnamese. The tunnels were used to great effect against the American soldiers, and their encampments in the surrounding area, as the Cu Chi Guerillas became deadly ghosts of the jungle. The Americans even unknowingly, built one of the main bases directly over the system and suffered greatly for three months before they discovered the city of tunnels beneath their feet.

Today we're going on a trip with 12 other people to visit the tunnels of Cu Chi. We squeeze onto the minibus at 8:30 and away we go. Cu Chi province is about 70km away and in Saigon traffic it's going to take a couple of hours to get there. Thankfully, we have a wonderful young guide who gives us a brief 2 hour lesson on the history of Saigon and the Vietnam War. He is knowledgeable and funny and the journey flies by. We make a short stop off at a workshop called Handicapped Handicrafts. The workshop employs physically disabled artists who turn out amazing handcrafted objects. The place is filled with glorious vases, eggshell artwork, mother of pearl inlayed wood, and a host of other exquisite objects. We walk through the workshop and witness them at work before heading into the shop area where we look at things we would have to sell a kidney to buy. Back on the bus and in no time we are stepping off into the lush jungle, 35 degree heat and the entrance to Cu Chi tunnel complex. How exciting!

Our guide takes us on a tour around the overground complex where we are shown secret entrances to the tunnels below and a few brave souls have a go at squeezing into the tiny openings. Our guide then revels that these openings are actually replicas; they were dug wider to accommodate western tourists’ larger bodies. He calls them our Burger King bodies / Heineken bodies, much to everyones amusement. We then get a tour of the various booby traps employed by the Cu Chi Gorillas, (all very nasty and deadly) to protect the tunnels from invaders. Arriving at a rest stop we sit down for refreshments. At this point in the tour you can pay to fire machine guns. You pay by the bullet and the sound of the guns is loud and horrible in our ears. A few of the macho-boys in our group disappear with the guide to fire bullets. Perhaps it will make them feel like men?! We eat crisps and enjoy the jungle surrounding while we wait. Much nicer.

Soon enough we are walking through the jungle again on our way to a run of Cu Chi tunnel. The tunnel is about 100 meters long and drops down 3 levels in to the hard earth. We're going in. We take a deep breath. Force down the feeling of impending doom and try not to imagine becoming trapped. Onward down the rabbit hole we go, quick quick quick. It is bloody small in here! We have to crouch with our hands touching the floor and our backs scraping the roof. There is no way to turn around. If a panic attack grips you then the only way is forward, deeper into the earth. It would be a terrifying experience if there wasn't a large group of us head-to-tail in the tunnel, but it turns out to be more uncomfortable and claustrophobic than scary. That is until the floor drops away in a sharp slope and Anna hesitates, unable to make up her mind whether to chance the steep slope head first or feet first. As a little battle rages in her mind, the people in front disappear into the darkness below. Oh dear. Panic starts to rise and Anna finally plungers down head first in an attempt to catch up with the person in front. It is a wise choice; if she’d have chosen feet first then she would have to navigate the rest of the way belly up on her hands and feet as there is no room to reposition her body once at the bottom of the slope. We hurry after the group trying not to scream and crawl our way down a further 2 levels before finally emerging from the tunnel covered in dirt and sweat (it's super humid down there) with lunatic grins on our faces, we survived! Hoorah! We later find out that the tunnel run was widened for our McDonald-bodies and when the Cu Chi were living in them they were much smaller and nightmarishly tight. Imagining American G.I's trying to crawl through these tunnels by torchlight, with their larger bodies, bulky gear and the constant threat of booby traps, it must've been like crawling down into the depths of hell.

After surviving the tunnels we sit down for a spot of traditional Cu Chi dinner, potato-like tubers with a crushed peanut dip. Basic, but surprisingly tasty and nice dose of protein and carbs. Then it's time to relax in a seated area where we are treated to a black and white propaganda video. The video is interesting but short and within the hour we are fully brainwashed and back on the road to Saigon. It has been a fun, educational day and we are left with an even deeper respect for the Vietnamese people. And a growing need to wash our bodies and clothes…!
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