Jeff Warner PHOTOGRAPHIC, Golden, Colorado, USA

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

10/25/11: Vietnam Day 1: Cu Chi Tunnels

After the previous night’s combined cultural/logistical pre-port, I found myself wondering what it would be like to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of tunnels the Viet Cong used in ‘The American War’ (as they aptly call it here) to infiltrate an air base that the U.S. built right on top of them. Our arrival in the Port of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) was preceded by a beautiful steam up the Saigon River, sometimes requiring the MV Explorer to turn rather rapidly--at least compared to what we’re accustomed to--crossing entire oceans.

Our trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels didn’t start for a few hours after arriving, so we did our typical ‘walk around 200 meters outside the port gate’ for 45 minutes, immediately coming across copious ‘North Face’ backpacks, hats, bags, suitcases, t-shirts, you name it. Did you know that virtually all the major backpack brands are manufactured here in Vietnam, by only a handful of companies? Prices for these ‘North Face’ knockoffs were perhaps 20% on the dollar, and it appeared to my well-calibrated ‘gear eye’ to provide maybe 30% the value of the real thing. So, all in all, that’s about a 33% savings over buying in the U.S.!
After departing in yet another bus, we spent about 45 minutes winding through lush rice paddy and jungle-like terrain, and arrived at our destination. The entrance to the Cu Chi Tunnels is oddly a huge, lighted walkway that descends underground (perhaps 10m) to the cashier, then once paid in full, quickly regains the elevation back to ground level. Strange.

One of the professors on board was a doorgunner in the war, and he gave a rather sobering account of his experiences at last night’s pre-port meeting. One statistic in particular that stuck out was that approximately 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam war. More than 60,000 veterans committed suicide in the 10+ years after returning to the U.S. I’d guess that many people reading this blog are of an age that they at least remember the Vietnam War (I was Reade and Tate’s age), so I won’t belabor any points further. It was dark cloud in US political history, and I can only hope that the last 10 years won’t end up a repeat of the lessons learned (?) back in the late 60s and early 70s.

An airhole, formerly lined with bamboo.

As for the tunnels, the North Vietnamese used them to hide by day, as the U.S. was in control when there was light. As soon as it got dark, however, the situation was reversed. Typically 2,000 people lived in the tunnels at any one time, with as many as 10,000 at the most. As you’ve probably heard, the tunnels are small; the one we traversed for perhaps 250 feet required crouching, but it had been hollowed out to allow ‘most’ visitors adequate room to squirm through, with several bail-out stairways to the surface along the way, other completely dark tunnels heading some unknown direction.

Making sandals out of tires.

The people living in the tunnels had elaborate ventilation systems using bamboo to direct cooking heat/smoke in many different directions, so it wasn’t obvious that there was smoke emanating from the ground. Each person would hollow out a little nook for himself to sleep, and they would have to go to the bathroom down there, eat down there, and die down there. When someone died in the tunnels, they would burrow into the wall, put the body in, then cover it up. The tunnels at Cu Chi were the base of operations for the Vietcong during the Tet Offensive of 1968.

The entrance to the 'westerner-sized' tunnel, still quite small.

It’s hard to imagine what could compel people to such extreme living conditions, but then it’s hard for us Americans to imagine a foreign invader attempting to take over our country. I’m certain that would drive any of us to do things we cannot even fathom.

Rubber trees

Scooter traffic

More scooter traffic

And even more scooter traffic!


  1. Most of the people on the scooters are wearing masks - is there a lot of smog?

  2. OK, I have a picture of inside that small, pitch dark, chuchi tunnel. You might be amazed at the number of bats that are just hanging there letting you pass by! truly amazing place!! Sandy

  3. Re the face masks - Vietnam air is pretty clean these days. During our Aug-Sept 2014 visit the explantion given was that folks wore them outdoors to keep their skin from getting sunburnt !


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