During the Vietnam war, the Vietcong built enormous underground tunnel systems to hide from American bombs and troops. Not only fighters, but entire villages moved underground. We visited the Cu Chi tunnels, 40 kilometers outside of Saigon.
We wandered along the paths, careful not to step off, due to unexploded ordnance, past B-52 bomb craters, trenches, and secret entrances. The hundreds of kilometers of tunnels were built with simple hand tools and ingenuity. They were multi-level including hospitals, family rooms, kitchens, all deep underground. The complex stretched all over the area including under a nearby US base, where the Vietcong stole their supplies.
We came to a small clearing, our guide brushed away some leaves to reveal a perfectly concealed entrance. I squeezed myself into the tiny entrance, my shoulders barely fitting, and awkwardly dropped the lid above me. I was in complete darkness. The space was enlarged from its original size, but it was still so small I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get out.
We went underground into tunnels that had also been expanded 30% from the war years. The guide immediately took off and we had to scramble on all fours to keep up, banging heads and elbows. It was hot and claustrophobic; we only traveled a hundred meters and I couldn’t wait to get out. Brave GI’s called tunnel rats used to volunteer to venture into the tunnel alone to rout out the Vietcong. Unimaginable. Brave doesn’t even cover the heroism of these men.
The ingenuity of the Vietcong was amazing. If the Americans used gas, they had deep rooms the gas couldn’t reach. If the Americans used water to flood them, they could divert it out into the Saigon River. When they brought sniffer dogs, the Vietcong spread stolen GI soap and spread it around secret entrances to confuse them. They even created wore their sandals backwards to hide their real tracks from the enemy and the various medieval traps they created were disturbing.
The Vietcong only came out after dark; the Americans owned the day; they owned the night. The hardship and sacrifices they made is something I cannot fathom. They were in it to win it, no matter what it took.
When we came across a burned-out American tank, pock-marked with bullet holes, it really hits home. This was not a typical tourist attraction. Hundreds of both American and Vietnamese died on the ground you are walking on. They were shot, bombed, burned and buried alive under your feet. This is hallowed ground, a reminder of the hardship and brutality that both sides endured and still have to live with.