The extensive network of underground tunnels in Cu Chi, which were used by the Viet Cong guerrilla fighters during the Vietnam War, are now one of the major tourist attractions around Saigon. Many operators run tour buses several times per day and excursions can be arranged with travel agents and guest houses around the Pham Ngu Lao area.
Whilst it seems inappropriate to visit such an 'attraction', you have to hand it to the Vietnamese - a race who has been invaded and pillaged from all corners - for managing to turn their tumultuous past into something positive.
The network of tunnels, which spans 250km, were built with the bare hands of Vietnamese people during the French occupation, but were expanded in the 60s to provide a competitive advantage over the Americans. Several military campaigns (including the infamous 1968 Tet Offensive) were based in the tunnels, which played a major role in the Vietnamese winning the war.
Originally they stretched from the Cambodian border to what was then Saigon, and remain now as a testament to the ingenuity, resilience and fighting spirit of the people of Vietnam. Entire communities of Viet Cong fighters subsisted in these tunnels which were only a couple of feet in height and width: living, working, educating their children and even giving birth in there, as well as planning deadly attacks on US forces and the South Vietnamese.
In a horrific spin on hide and seek, some American soldiers were also deployed down in the tunnels, with the mission of trying to find the Vietnamese before they found them ... scary stuff, especially as the VC had the place booby trapped and many of these grisly traps are on display today. These unfortunate Americans (or 'tunnel rats' as they were known) coined the phrase 'black echo' to describe the way underground. Vermin was rife, as well as disease, especially malaria which was second only to battle wounds as a cause of death.
Tours begin with a bus ride out to Cu Chi (approx 45 miles out from HCMC) and a good tour guide will give you the background spiel. Many of the buses stop at another attraction en route. Once at the tunnels a short educational film giving the background and historical context is shown. The tour guide will demonstrate the various traps the Vietnamese used to outwit (and seriously injure) the Americans and you will be allowed to try out some of the hideouts for yourself. Other sites on display include bomb craters, booby traps, scarily life-like mannequins of VC soldiers and a few abandoned tanks that were available for clambering on for photo opportunities (rather inappropriate but fun nonetheless).
As part of the main 'attraction' at Cu Chi, visitors are able to enter sections of the tunnels and crawl through 1km of the dank, dark network. A bit of a health warning for anyone who is relatively tall or well built, the tunnels are incredibly narrow in parts, meaning that you literally have to shuffle through sections on your hands and knees.
Without a torch it is also impossible to see. It is enough to turn even the hardiest traveller into a lily-livered wreck and indeed many people (mostly men, in fact) went down to the entrance of the tunnels only to turn back before even entering them. What makes it worse is that some of the Vietnamese tour guides are somewhat over zealous and try to force people through the tunnels whilst barking at them very loudly. I had the misfortune to be stuck behind one such chap at the beginning of my tunnel run.
Luckily, the tunnels do have 'get out' exit points every few metres which offer a welcome break and I managed to duck away from the tour guide in one such stop. Other get out points along the way provided an opportunity for a quick breather. Although it was a close call, I'm proud to say that I made it all the way through the tunnels with a lot of help and support from my fellow Cu Chi visitors.
After we conquered the tunnels, emerging sweaty and triumphant, there was only one thing left to do - shoot a machine gun! For 20,000VD per bullet you can shoot a machine gun or for a whopping 35,000 you can shoot an AK47. I decided to go for the cheaper option and shot some rounds from an M16.
Warning - the machine guns are incredibly loud and your ears are barely protected by the ear defenders they provide you with. After a quick bite to eat at the shop we boarded the bus back home. We rounded off our trip with a visit to Ben Thanh Market and finished up later that night with some beers in Pham Ngu Lao. One of the best things about the Cu Chi Tunnels trip was the plethora of wonderful people I met on the bus. Although I had gone on the tour alone, I finished the day with many new friends.
My new friend John who I met on the tour bus. We later travelled together in Cambodia