On 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.
The 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.