In which I shamelessly fire an AK-47 and learn about the Vietnam War
I knew my visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels would be an action packed day. For one, I was looking forward to learning to more about the Vietnam War as I was pretty ignorant about it to be honest. On the other hand, I knew that the tunnels would test my fear of being underground. Those who went with me to Pencelli in Wales in Year 8 would understand this immediately. Let’s just say I was in a cave, in a small gap and made my entire group wait for 30 minutes whilst I wouldn’t move. Safe to say, since then, I haven’t been fond of the idea of going underground.
The morning was another standard Vietnamese morning, to me at least. I caught the xe om into town (minus the wading this time) and grabbed a bánh mì (the famous Vietnamese breakfast baguette) as well as a traditional Vietnamese drip coffee over ice.
Boy, I was growing to love Vietnamese coffee even more! I also glimpsed Vietnam Electric Company. Someone pleased tell me if this is legal:
Around 3 hours of picking people up from hotels and actually driving to the Cu Chi Tunnels, we arrived. The first thing that happened was we were shown into a kind of bunker with a roof, where there was a video about the war playing. We didn’t see all of it, as we seemed to have come in half way through, but it was interesting none the less. We learned here that the tunnels stretched for over 200km at their longest, with their range including the Cambodian border, the Saigon River and also the outskirts of Saigon as well. We then had a short talk from a Vietnamese guy who fought on the side of the Americans in the war, for the Navy. He described the Viet Cong Cu Chi tunnel systems to us, with a great diagram (which I forgot to take a photo of) which gave more detail.
The Cu Chi tunnels system was split into three levels, the first, (around 3-4m below the surface with the ability to support the weight of heavy machinery like tanks), for getting around and in place for attacking the American forces, the second level, (around 6-7m below the surface, housed sleeping quarters, hospitals and storerooms and was able to withstand mortar attacks) and the third level (8-10m below the surface, and impregnable), for escaping the enemy quickly. The further the level below the surface, the narrower the tunnels became. The tunnels ranged from 0.5m-1m wide, so you can tell that this was not very wide at all! One thing to note is the fact that the area around the tunnels is rife with clay, which when hardened, gave the reason as to why the tunnels could survive such onslaught from machinery and mortar fire.
The guide also told us about how the tunnels led to the Saigon River. “Where’s the toilet?” he asked us, “All people want to know where the Viet Cong took a shit,” which was, I kid you not, his exact phrasing. Basically the Viet Cong waited until low tide, crawled down the tunnel to the Saigon River and did their business. The guy delighted in joking that the river then flowed past his navy base and that they could see the number twos floating down. However, it wasn’t all funny stories. He told us of one night his platoon from the Navy decided to ambush the Viet Cong. They had waited for high tide because not only was the tunnel to the Saigon River for use as a toilet, they also used it as an escape route. If it was high tide and flooded, it would be harder to escape from. However, as his platoon drew closer to the Viet Cong area, they were ambushed themselves. The guide recalled how he saw fellow soldiers fall and knew not how he was spared. It was quite harrowing to hear in all honesty.
The next item on the visit agenda was a walk into the jungle, although we were reminded that all the plant life we saw here was all new. No Man’s Land over 40 years ago destroyed what had previously been there. We were led to a patch of leaves. Somehow we all knew to stay away from the centre, though at least this time, it wasn’t a booby trap. There was a tiny tunnel entrance, which the guide said we could try and climb in if we wanted. One guy tried, and got in
and then his friend closed the lid and stood on it. If that had been me, I would not have been a happy bunny! This guy seemed fine, but no-one else tried…
Our next stop was a booby trap.
We were shown what it would happen if an American soldier happened to stand on one. BOOM, spikes.
I can imagine this would have probably resulted in a slow death, whereas a shot to the head may have been more preferable if you were an American soldier. This was not the last of the traps however. We were shown a whole range of different ones, which all ended up with you being spiked in various positions if you stepped on them.
You have to admit, the Viet Cong were very clever.
Next was expected, but still a little bit of a surprise. It was now time to fire a gun, if you wanted to. There were many different options of rifles, but I just went “AK-47!” really quickly, and lo and behold I was suddenly standing in front of a rhino target with ear defenders.
Now children, guns are not big and they’re not clever, but having only ever fired air rifles before, I wanted to compare the two. Boy, was it powerful. I had no idea how uncomfortable the recoil on an assault rifle would be, how naive of me. So, I’ became a terrorist for about 5 minutes. Don’t worry, I don’t have any plans to lift a rifle again in the future. Try everything (sensible) once, and once is sometimes enough!
After the brief interlude, it was now time to face the fear. The Cu Chi tunnels themselves. There was 100m of tunnel for us to climb through, with exits every 20m. The first 80m was of the first level of tunnels, so the largest, and the last 20m the second level, so a little smaller. As our larger group slowly descended, everyone was really cool and taking photos for the people in front of them.
Soon it was my go and I was about to crawl through a tunnel. I’m massive, as you may well know and to make a comfortable, if dirty passage, I had to crawl. I had no room to crouch and shuffle. Let’s just say I only made 20m, but at least I didn’t hold anyone up. I made my way to the end of the tunnel, and the people coming out were sweating like pigs. “It’s hot in there!” one guy exclaimed.
Glad to be above ground, I was looking forward to the next part of my day: a boat ride back to Ho Chi Minh City from the Cu Chi Tunnels on the Saigon River.
It was a glorious way to travel back. The weather held out for us, so we could happily sit on the deck watching the greenery go by.
There were more boats with their eyes, fishermen everywhere and more wonderful people posing for us!
The Cu Chi Tunnels were definitely an interesting day trip. As a complete novice in regards to the Vietnam War, it gave me a chance to see some of the “action” as it were. I cannot believe that where I stood had no trees over 40 years ago. However, I knew that I still needed to learn more, so I knew I needed to take a trip to the War Remnants Museum later in the week.