The Secret Life at Cu-Chi Tunnels

What you first notice are the shacks with some Vietnamese soldiers. Some of them are bent over working on their weapons, some are standing guard, and some seem like they have just sat down to catch a breath. But something seems odd. On a closer look, you discover that these are dummy soldiers recreating scenes from the War. Even as you gape at how true to life these dummies are, you can hear gunshots at the horizon. Close by stands a long queue of tourists in inside another shack displaying arms, ammunition, traps, and weapons. In another shack a movie on the war plays in loop. Some tourists meanwhile seem gathered around a pile of died leaves. The pile eventually turns out to be the entrance to a complex and elaborate system of tunnels that Cu-chi is known for.

Cu-chi tunnels, which are a symbol of the Viet-Cong pride and nothing short of a pilgrimage for the country’s communist cadre today, were originally built during the late 40s for defense against the French forces. They were reopened and expanded exponentially during the long-standing Vietnam War and ran for miles connecting villages along the southern border of the country. The Viet Cong soldiers used the tunnels as communication and supply routes, as well as hiding spots and living quarters, even as the area above ground was being bombed and razed by the American cluster bombs.

The tunnels are narrow and deep and it is impossible for a person of normal size to get in. The only people who can make their way through are the slightly built Vietnamese. That, perhaps, is by design. It is said that even if an American soldier succeeded in getting inside the tunnel, he wouldn’t have come out alive. Not only was there lack of space but there were also traps waiting for him. These traps ranged from the famous chair trap, door trap, punji sticks, to more innovative hot oil, snakes, and even fire.

A guide dressed in military green uniform points towards a pile of leaf and shows us a camouflaged entrance of a tunnel and animatedly explains how the tunnels were a source of frustration for the Americans, for their bombs never reached here. He goes on to display the various traps camouflaged by soil and dry leaves with poisoned Punji sticks ready to pierce through your body. These indigenous traps — which included door trap, chair trap, rolling trap, clipping armpit trap, window trap — we hear, were dreaded by the American soldiers.

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“Nothing is what it looks like in Cu-chi. Deception, after all, was the weapon used extensively in the guerilla warfare of the Viet Cong soldiers who almost bare handedly fought the western forces laced with sophisticated arms and ammunition. These tunnels, which ran for miles were spread across several levels and served as fortification for army and a center for community life. There were marriages, engagements, courting, and even entertainment that happened inside. It was like a town under the ground.” Says Quyen Nguyen, a local who I meet at the tour.

Interesting as it may sound, life inside the tunnels was neither romantic, nor easy. Air, food, and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Soldiers would often spend days in the tunnels and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies or take care of their crops. And sometimes, during heavy bombings, they had to stay underground for days at end and lived only on boiled taro and tea.  Less than half of those who fought in these tunnels survived.

After demonstrating the traps and narrating the story of the tunnels, showing the bombs, tanks, and craters created by the bombings, it is time to experience the tunnels. The 80 feet long tunnel, has a relatively easy entry, all you need is to duck your head. In a couple of feet however, the walls begin to close in, and soon you are squatting and walking at the same time. The natural light begins to fade too. By the time you get used to this, the tunnel becomes smaller. The walls now envelope you completely: there is barely any space to life your head or move. In another ten feet or so, you are literally on all fours crawling like a baby. The surface is uneven, the walls almost touch you, and the humidity and heat makes it hard to keep your cool. The stories of soldiers dying of claustrophobia, snake bites, or traps keep ringing in your ear even as you gasp for breath. Most of the tourists choose to leave the tunnel after the first 30-40 feet only. The other 40, we are told, are quite painful.

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Death, destruction, weapons, traps, warfare, propaganda, sabotage — these words dominate every conversation at Cu-chi; they also make visitors uncomfortable, quite understandably so. After having experienced the tunnels, the shacks and the traps, listening to the tales of the war and the gunshots, and watching the movies playing in loop one does feel dejected and disillusioned.  Some tourists look sad and serious, some are lost in their own world, some talk in hushed tones. Some however seem unaffected — firing bullets at the shooting range, trying to get in and out of the tunnels, clicking selfies with the dummy soldiers. Unlike most of us they seem to have already imbibed the tenacious spirit of the Vietnamese that is symbolized by the tunnels and their inhabitants.

This post first appeared in The Hindu.

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