Crawling Through the Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

Original Cu Chi Tunnel VietnamOn my last day in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted before having to catch a red-eye flight at 11:55 at night. Traveling in Vietnam, I encountered many people who advised I take a day trip from the city to the Cu Chi tunnels. For a mere $6.00, I was able to book a full-day trip that, in addition to a few stops along the way, eventually made its way to the famed tunnel city from the Vietnam War.

The first thing I should really mention here is that, in Vietnam, the war is known as the American War. During my travels in Vietnam, I tried to keep an open mind about how the Vietnamese viewed the war compared to the Americans. Every country has a way of interpreting how and why things happen, and the way the story at Cu Chi tunnels was presented was almost surprising to me.

Located a few hours’ drive out of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the Cu Chi tunnel system was, at the time of the war, home to the Cu Chi people and the Viet Cong’s base for the Tet Offensive in 1968. In an attempt to hold their ground, they created an underground tunnel system reminiscent of a cobweb that stretches more than 200 kilometers.

Walking over the land today, this part of Vietnam appears to be little more than forested area, but beneath our feet were, in some places, tunnels that were three layers thick and entire rooms that had been built underground. The Cu Chi people literally moved their entire city beneath the ground.

Resized Cu Chi Tunnels VietnamThe original tunnels were barely wide enough for a small-framed person to fit in. Some of them have been preserved, and visitors can squeeze into them to get a feel for what it would have been like to be stuck in them for days at a time. I am not claustrophobic, but it was dark, dirty and hot the few moments I spent in one. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live in those conditions without the option of coming up for fresh air. Luckily, in order for visitors to get a feel for the tunnel experience without passing out from such dire conditions, about 100 meters of tunnels have been widened to “tourist size,” and occasional lights have been placed throughout. Still, the tunnels feel quite crammed, but there are exits every 20 meters for those who prefer to get a taste of the experience and then get out into the fresh air again.

In addition to the tunnels themselves, there are several displays and exhibits throughout the grounds that provide background information on several other aspects of the war, including traps built by the Vietnamese to injure and kill American soldiers, tools and weapons used during the war, tanks and machinery, way-of-life practices while living in the tunnels and information on medical care, cooking and strategic living during the war.

One of the big draws of the Cu Chi tunnels is an area where people can pay to shoot military-grade guns, which, if you are into that kind of thing, is cool, but I found it a bit cheesy, especially since those who hit the target a certain number of times are rewarded with items from the gift shop. (Sort of strange to have a gift shop anyway, don’t you think?)

I found the tour to be informative and interesting, but I was left feeling a bit uneasy and put off by the final part of the experience, which we were told would be a 20-minute film about the Cu Chi tunnels. I was looking forward to it, as our guide didn’t speak English well, and I was hoping it would answer some of my lingering questions. Instead, the film ended up being a propaganda film shot during and shortly after the war about the “beautiful” and “peaceful” community that was there and brutally “destroyed” by the American forces. It was awkward to watch, and there was a tense nervousness simmering over our group as we watched it, I think because, though we understand that there are different ways to interpret the war, we were hoping for a more middle-of-the-road, informational, fact-driven film instead of a piece of propaganda.

Despite the awkward end to the tour, I found the day trip to be well worth the time, money and effort. The Cu Chi tunnels are a very important and iconic part of Vietnam’s history, and it would have been a shame to travel in the country without getting out of Ho Chi Minh City to visit this particular site.

21 Responses to “Crawling Through the Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam”

  1. James Schipper

    That’s one of the things I want to see! No way I want to go climbing through those much, but it is a neat place in history.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’ll admit that it was nice to have the opportunity to pop up for air every 20 meters. I’m not claustrophobic, but it was a bit unnerving being below ground like that.

      Reply
  2. Louise

    Wow, I never even knew these existed. Thanks for enlightening us! (Another place I will probably never go, but thanks to folks like you at least I know what I am missing 😉

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      It was a fascinating place, Louise. I’m glad you take the opportunity to live vicariously through my travels. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Zablon Mukuba

    i would love to go there and see the tunnels and see how small they were. but i will skip the last part which is full of propaganda

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Though I didn’t care for the dosage of propaganda, I tried to think of it as a learning experience. The Cu Chi Tunnels were interesting, but, though I didn’t like the film, it helped put some things into perspective regarding the country’s views on the conflict.

      Reply
  4. Gray

    Very interesting piece, JoAnna. I actually am kind of claustrophobic, so no way would I go down there, but very fascinating to read about. I’m glad you had the opportunity to go. Too bad about the film.

    Reply
  5. Ayngelina

    I also went on a tour and it was filled with “and here’s how we killed the Americans…” I’m Canadian so a bit removed but I wondered how those from the US felt.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      That’s interesting to hear your perspective as a Canadian, Ayngelina. Though there weren’t many Americans on our tour, there was definitely a vibe among the group that indicated that people were pretty uncomfortable with the presentation of the site. It’s weird, really, because I, personally, had nothing to do with the conflict, but there was that lingering feeling that somehow I was supposed to feel guilty or ashamed. I did feel comfortable, but there’s nothing I can do about what my nation did long before I was born. Like I said, I tried to just keep an open mind. This was just one interpretation of the conflict.

      Reply
  6. Leigh

    I didn’t do the tour – because of the thought of a three hour traffic choked ride getting there and I SO regret it.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      If you make it back to Vietnam, it’s worth the time and effort. Check it out if you get the chance.

      Reply
  7. joshywashington

    Awww, you look so cute with your little tunnel cap held aloft!
    I loved my visit to Cu Chi and was more than a little disturbed thinking about surviving and waging war in such cramped conditions!
    Not to mention the crazy replicas of the booby traps! ouch!!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I was so sweaty and dirty while I was there. You have no idea.

      And, I agree … the booby traps were ridiculous! They looked super painful! I didn’t have any good pictures of them, but then again, spikes never look good in photos.

      Reply
  8. Trisha

    I think you did well to remain open-minded about the experience….you’re right that every party to a war views it differently, to them we were the aggressors destroying their country and killing their citizens…..but it’s never easy to listen to the “other side”.

    You’re far braver than I am to actually go into the Cu Chi tunnels – from what I’ve heard and read they are far smaller and more cramped than the catacombs of Rome, which I found unnerving, so I don’t think I’d try it. Brava to you!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’ve never been to the catacombs of Rome, but if they’re the size of the Cu Chi tunnels or bigger, I’m all over crawling through them! I’m a pretty small person, and even the tourist tunnels felt small and cramped to me.

      Reply
  9. Andrew Murray

    I may have to duck into these tunnels and get a feel for the place. Not sure how I’ll react to such cramped confines though to be honest. I don’t think I’ll get Laura in there easily either. Maybe I’ll be able to tempt her in if I can win her a prise on the shooting ranges 🙂

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      The tourist tunnels run about 100 meters, but there are places every 20 meters where you can get out. I’m not going to lie, though – it’s dark, cramped and hot. But if you can get through at least one section, then you’ll be able to say you did it!

      Reply
  10. Akila

    I always find it so interesting to go to other countries where we have participated in war. When we went to Thailand, the Thai museums described their role in WWII as “neutral,” “similar to Switzerland,” and that the Americans mistakenly assumed that the Thai supported the Japanese and Russians. Visiting Hiroshima in Japan was also an interesting experience because there, there was very little blame for what the Americans did (though, frankly, I kind of consider our actions in Hiroshima to be a bit horrific.) We’ll have to put this on the list to see when we make it to Vietnam.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      It’s fascinating to hear about similar experiences you’ve had in other countries and in other situations, Akila. I’ve always wondered what it must be like to visit Hiroshima. If you do make it to Vietnam, I’d be curious to hear what your thoughts are.

      Reply
  11. virgo itinerary

    is it possible to do a DIY trip to chu chi tunnel?i dont like joining a tour group.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’m sure you could do a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The drive wasn’t that far – maybe a couple hours – so I’m sure you could hire private transport to get out there, but I don’t know how much it would cost.

      Reply

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