In November 2023, the MS Westerdam called at the port of Phu My, Vietnam (for Ho Chi Minh City), and I (Merge) was very excited. I have always wanted to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, and even though the drive from the cruise port to the Tunnels was 6 hours return, I was determined to make the trip.
Most people have heard of the Cu Chi Tunnels in the context of the Vietnam War, but many don’t realize that they have a history that predates it. The underground tunnels were originally constructed in the late 1940s during the struggle against French colonial rule. But they were significantly expanded during the Vietnam War, evolving into an elaborate multi-level network spanning approximately 250 kilometers. This labyrinth served various functions, including serving as hidden routes for transporting supplies, facilitating communication, and providing living quarters, kitchens, hospitals, and operational bases for the Viet Cong guerrillas.
The complexity of the tunnels, complete with booby traps, air filtration systems, and water wells, demonstrates the ingenuity of the Viet Cong in withstanding bombings and chemical attacks. Not only did the Viet Cong use this network of tunnels to mount surprise attacks and then disappear into the dense jungles, but they also used American surplus and discarded materials to develop their own weapons and tools. The Viet Cong would repurpose unexploded American ordnance, such as bombs and artillery shells, to create deadly traps and mines. They would often use the metal from downed aircraft or abandoned military equipment to craft shrapnel for these devices. Small arms and ammunition left behind by retreating forces, or those taken from ambushed American soldiers, were incorporated into the Viet Cong’s arsenal. Metal from aircraft and vehicles was used to reinforce tunnel structures or to create tools and utensils necessary for life underground. Surplus American rubber tires were transformed into durable footwear known as “Ho Chi Minh sandals” that became an iconic symbol of the Viet Cong. These sandals were very suitable for the rugged terrain of Vietnam, providing better traction in the jungle and rice paddies than standard military boots. The tread patterns of the tires on the soles also left ambiguous footprints, making it difficult for American forces to track the movements of Viet Cong fighters.
Most tunnels were only 2 – 2½ feet wide and 4½ feet tall, with thick roofs capable of withstanding the weight of tanks or the impact of bombs. Today, much of the tunnel complex has been opened and ventilated so that people can enter to take a look. However, some have also been left as is, and I visited several of the original tunnels. It is eerie to crawl through the tunnels and enter a kitchen or hospital operating room!
There are also hundreds of trap doors that served as entry points and escape hatches. I decided to enter the tunnels through one such door. Essentially, you drop in through the trap door, and then land on the floor of the tunnel about 2 feet below you. Easy, right? Well, no. My first clue that I was heading for trouble should have been when our military guide suggested that I might want to try accessing this tunnel through another entry point. I declined, and determinedly entered the hatch to drop to the floor. And then I got stuck!!! It seems that my chest is larger than most of the Viet Cong guerillas. Because my feet were dangling above the floor of the tunnel, I now had no leverage to get back out. The only way out of my dilemma was to be pulled out by a couple of the guides. Yes, I was mortified. It ended well, but the moral of the story is: When your guide gives you advice, it is wise to listen. Turns out, a fellow visitor documented my unfortunate adventure for posterity!!
On the drive back to Ho Chi Minh City and Phu My, I got an opportunity for some quick photo stops. One of the places was the Chua Buu Thien Buddhist temple. The architecture of Chua Buu Thien is a harmonious blend of traditional Vietnamese design elements and Buddhist symbols, featuring intricate carvings, ornate decorations, and a peaceful courtyard adorned with statues and bonsai trees. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to stop in for a longer visit, but there will always be next time!