Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! Today is Lunar New Year’s Eve and as part of the celebration Saigon businesses close at 2:00 p.m. and don’t re-open for three days. There will be merry-making and fireworks along the Saigon River tonight!
This morning I was up early, got a few morning cityscape photos, and took a Saigon River trip to Củ Chi and the infamous tunnels of the Vietnam War. Our tour group had about 15 people with the usual suspects including Aussies, Brits, and a Scottish tourist who now lives in London – all good fun and fantastic company.
There were two guides, a boat pilot, and a mechanic / engineer in case of engine trouble. Our speed boat was open-air and traveled easily through the abundant water hyacinths and by white egrets fishing in the river – an exhilarating experience! We stopped several times to clear hyacinth foliage from the engine.
The goal was making it to the Củ Chi tunnels and back in 6 or less hours and we started at 7:30 a.m. They served breakfast and lunch on board and the coffee, tea, fresh fruit, vegetables, and Vietnamese cuisine were delicious. The tunnels of Củ Chi are a daunting network of man-made connecting underground tunnels. They’re part of a larger network that underlies the country and where several military campaigns were fought during the Vietnam War. Originally the tunnels were built by inhabitants of the hamlets and villages so they could survive wars. Many of them were constructed during the war with the French colonists and later expanded.
The Ben Duoc Underground Tunnel Complex at Củ Chi was Viet Cong (VC) military command headquarters and heavily protected and guarded by booby traps, land mines, and snipers. The tunnels were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.
The VC guerrillas used the tunnels as hiding spots and for communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches, and living quarters. The tunnel systems were important in the VC’s resistance to American forces and they ultimately helped them achieve military success. Closed, camouflaged trap doors on the jungle floor led into the tunnels which were almost undetectable.
The Củ Chi area was the most heavily bombed, gassed, and defoliated area in the history of combat. “American soldiers used the term ‘Black Echo’ to describe the conditions in the tunnels. 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, scorpions, spiders, snakes, and other vermin. Most of the time guerrillas spent the day in the tunnels working or resting.
The Viet Cong came out at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops, or engage the enemy in battle. During periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they stayed underground for days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. A captured Viet Cong report suggests that at any given time half of a People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) unit had malaria and one-hundred percent had intestinal parasites.”
The US recognized the immense military advantages that the Viet Cong held with their tunnels and launched several major campaigns to search out and destroy the tunnel system, including Operation Crimp and Operation Cedar Falls. For the most part these operations were unsuccessful. An Australian specialist engineering troop ventured into the tunnels and found ammunition, radio equipment, medical supplies, food, and signs of VC presence. A specialized élite group of US soldiers (all volunteers) were known as “tunnel rats”.
Our guide met several of those US soldiers, now in their 70s. He spoke of them with great respect. He also knew several former VC. Some areas at Củ Chi were staged with life-size VC dummies displayed as they likely lived during the war. The brutal VC self-made weapons and booby traps were especially disturbing to see. Some in our group went inside the tunnels and there was a firing range where you could fire the same weapons used in the tunnels (anything to keep the tourists happy).
The sound of gunshot inside the tunnels must have been deafening. There was one tunnel where you could move along for several feet and then there were three options (each one involving a longer distance to travel). No one who went in the tunnel made it beyond the shortest distance… I went inside one large tunnel that was widened so that almost our entire group could fit inside. Even so, it was very scary! I cannot imagine living in those tunnels for a long period of time! To date, only a small number of the bobby traps and underground mines planted by the VC have been recovered.