Our first introduction to the Củ Chi tunnels is a stroll through the lovely, innocuous woods above them. As we make our way to the first exhibit, leaves flutter on to the path, falling gently from the trees overhead.
It's quiet and restful here in this sun-dappled forest, and I find it very difficult to imagine this area in the grips of guerilla warfare. But perhaps that's the secret of the Củ Chi fighters: their unlikeliness. It's hard to picture a vast network of tunnels dug beneath our very feet, as well as the idea that a tenacious, unyielding group of people once lived in them, willing to fight and die to protect their land.
The only indication that this place was once anything but a Lothlorien-like fantasy forest is the occasional hut full of cluster bombs on display.
Shaded from the sun, we follow a well trodden dirt path until we arrive at an open-air entertainment center. With no one else around, we pull a pair of chairs up to the very front, and sit, watching a strongly propagandist film about the Củ Chi tunnels, and the guerrilla fighters who lived and fought here.
It is illuminating to hear about the Vietnam war from a non-American perspective. As we sit, listening raptly, an entourage of Asian tourists arrive. For a brief moment, I experience a sinking feeling that we're about to become a part of a huge tour group.
When the movie is over, a guide appears to scoop everyone up, and he speaking in rapid-fire Vietnamese. We decide to stay put, reasoning that we if we can't understand him, we can learn just as much on our own. As we lollygag, a soft-spoken and friendly guide appears to talk with us. He speaks excellent English, and it looks like the rest of our visit will be a solo tour with him!
Through the woods he leads us, until we come to a patch of ground indiscernible from any other. While we look on, he brushes away some leaves, revealing a tiny, hidden hatch in the forest floor. This is one of the entrances to the tunnels! Unsurprisingly, Tyler immediately asks if we can go in.
Our gentle, forest-green guide smiles at Tyler's excitement and responds, "why not?". As I watch Tyler eagerly lowering himself into the ground, I am reminded of how my brother used to perform this very maneuver when we were kids, except he was slipping into our laundry chute!
As Tyler slinks away into the forest floor, our guide explains how many of the tunnels had to be enlarged to accommodate western tourists. The opening is already extremely small, how much narrower could it really get!?
The tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters.Củ Chi Tunnels Wikipedia Article
A bit further on, there's another section of tunnels that our guide warns is more intense than the first. The burrows go three full meters below ground, and continue on for quite some time without exits. He cautions us to say above ground if we are even remotely at risk for asthma or panic attacks. As we are prone to neither, the two of us follow our guide through another secret, leaf-covered hatch in the ground.
Down in the tunnels we go, moving on hands and knees. Our guide tells us that before the the tunnels were enlarged, there was only enough room for a single fighter to move around by laying flat on their belly and scooting around with their elbows crossed in front of them. And they couldn't turn around.
Without electric lighting, without a smooth layer of concrete to prevent dirt from sprinkling down and caving in, with hardly any fresh air, and literally hundreds of people living below ground… I cannot even begin to imagine such a life.
The further down we go, the more I have inklings of claustrophobia. Ignoring it, I go on, not knowing how long the tunnel will be or how hot it will be or how much air there is to breathe until we reach the other side. Eventually, feeling the vaguest beginnings of panic, I decide I better not go any further.
I am about to turn around, wishing to avoid a subterranean freak-out, when our guide takes notice and is instantly there to encourage me along. He coaches me through the the ever-darkening, ever-narrowing space as our tunnel burrows further and further down. Crawling around past the occasional light, I see tiny little bats fly by, whizzing past my ears. This feels neither gross nor scary, but is actually really cool!
Eventually, we emerge in a meeting room of some sort; it's tall enough in which to stand, and large enough in which to feel comfortable. Phew! After having been in the enlarged tunnels just a few minutes, I am already relieved to be out of them. Life down there must have been awful.
For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, spiders and mosquitoes. Most of the time, guerrillas would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle.
Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which accounted for the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds.Củ Chi Tunnels Wikipedia Article