|It’s hard to believe that Tom managed to climb out of the tiny opening at Cu Chi Tunnel in Vietnam. I was scared he’d be stuck after all the carbs he ate on the two-week cruise.|
Yesterday was a long day with many hours spent riding on the air-conditioned bus that even had a weak WiFi signal from time to time. Sitting or walking for extended periods is not easy for me, but with a few stops on the way to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), I managed fine.
|The sign at the entrance to the Cu Chi Tunnel.|
Actually, the distance from the ship to Saigon is only about 2 1/2 hours drive. However, with the planned stop at Cu Chi Tunnels we ended up going far out of the way beyond Saigon and back again to our hotel, yet another Sofitel Hotel, arriving by 4 pm which accounted for the extra time.
|Rules for visiting the Tunnel in both Vietnamese and English at the entrance to the dense jungle.|
Tom and I always sit in the bus’s last few rows, each taking two seats across the aisle from one another, allowing for more squirming about (in my case) and more legroom, especially with our bulky carry-on bags which we keep with us.
The luggage for the 54 passengers went ahead to Saigon on a truck with our three bags awaiting us in our hotel room when we arrived. This particular Sofitel in Saigon is newer and less appealing than the past two, especially compared to our new favorite Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, which was superb.
|All of these tunnel photos were taken by Tom as he crawled through the narrow spaces on his hands and knees to exit on the other side, quite a distance away from the entrances.|
Those of us who are old enough to recall the constant news reports during the Vietnam War certainly remember the commonly mentioned Cu Chi Tunnel. But young and caught up in our own lives at the time, disheartened by the loss of life, we may not have focused much attention on such sites as used by the “gorillas/Viet Cong” during the war.
|Occasionally, certain areas were lighted as shown in this taller section.|
The Cu Chi Tunnels are described as from this site:
The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong‘s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.
The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped to counter the growing American military effort.
Life in the tunnels
American soldiers used the term “Black Echo” to describe the conditions within 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, and vermin. Most of the time, soldiers 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.
|This guide, a former Viet Cong, who was 10 years old during the war, showed us how entrances to the tunnel was camouflaged by leaves atop a small wood door such as this. Tom actually went down this small opening.|
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 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 PLAF unit had malaria and that “one-hundred percent had intestinal parasites of significance”
The tunnels of Củ Chi did not go unnoticed by U.S. officials. They recognized the advantages that the Viet Cong held with the tunnels and accordingly launched several major campaigns to search out and destroy the tunnel system. Among the most important of these were Operation Crimp and Operation Cedar Falls.
Operation Crimp began on January 7, 1966, with Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers dropping 30-ton loads of high explosive onto the region of Củ Chi, effectively turning the once lush jungle into a pockmarked moonscape. Eight thousand troops from the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment combed the region looking for any clues of PLAF activity.
|It’s amazing a human could fit down this tiny hole especially Tom, who’s considerably larger than the Vietnamese people.|
The operation did not bring about the desired success; for instance, on occasions when troops found a tunnel, they would often underestimate its size. Rarely would anyone be sent in to search the tunnels, as it was so hazardous? The tunnels were often rigged with explosive booby traps or punji stick pits. The two main responses in dealing with a tunnel opening were to flush the entrance with gas, water or hot tar to force the Viet Cong soldiers into the open, or to toss a few grenades down the hole and “crimp” off the opening. This approach proved ineffective due to the design of the tunnels and the strategic use of trap doors and air filtration systems.
However, an Australian specialist engineering troop, 3 Field Troop, under the command of Captain Sandy MacGregor did venture into the tunnels which they searched exhaustively for four days, finding ammunition, radio equipment, medical supplies, and food as well as signs of considerable Viet Cong presence. One of their numbers, Corporal Bob Bowtell died when he became trapped in a tunnel that turned out to be a dead end. However, the Australians pressed on and revealed, for the first time, the immense military significance of the tunnels. At an International Press Conference in Saigon shortly after Operation Crimp, MacGregor referred to his men as Tunnel Ferrets. An American journalist, having never heard of ferrets, used the term Tunnel Rats and it stuck. Following his troop’s discoveries in Cu Chi, Sandy MacGregor was awarded a Military Cross.
|I sighed in relief when I saw his white head pop up, but worried he’d be unable to get out. The guide told him to extend both arms above his head first which would stretch him to more easily squeeze out of the tiny opening. This is not for the faint of heart or anyone claustrophobic! I was impressed by his obvious lack of fear.|
From its mistakes and the Australians’ discoveries, U.S. Command realized that they needed a new way to approach the dilemma of the tunnels. A general order was issued by General Williamson, the Allied Forces Commander in South Vietnam, to all Allied forces that tunnels had to be properly searched whenever they were discovered. They began training an elite group of volunteers in the art of tunnel warfare, armed only with a gun, a knife, a flashlight and a piece of string.
These specialists, commonly known as “tunnel rats”, would enter a tunnel by themselves and travel inch-by-inch cautiously looking ahead for booby traps or cornered PLAF. There was no real doctrine for this approach and despite some very hard work in some sectors of the Army and MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) to provide some sort of training and resources, this was primarily a new approach that the units trained, equipped and planned for themselves.
Despite this revamped effort at fighting the enemy on its own terms, U.S. operations remained insufficient at eliminating the tunnels completely. In 1967, General William Westmoreland tried launching a larger assault on Củ Chi and the Iron Triangle. Called Operation Cedar Falls, it was similar to the previous Operation Crimp, however on a larger scale with 30,000 troops instead of the 8,000.
On January 18, tunnel rats from the 1st BN, 5th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division uncovered the Viet Cong district headquarters of Củ Chi, containing half a million documents concerning all types of military strategy. Among the documents were maps of U.S. bases, detailed accounts of PLAF movement from Cambodia into Vietnam, lists of political sympathizers, and even plans for a failed assassination attempt on Robert McNamara.
By 1969, B-52s were freed from bombing North Vietnam and started “carpet bombing” Củ Chi and the rest of the Iron Triangle. Ultimately, it proved successful. Towards the end of the war, the tunnels at this were so heavily bombed that some portions actually caved in, and other sections were exposed. But by that time, they had succeeded in protecting the local North Vietnamese units and letting them “survive to fight another day”.
Throughout the course of the war, the tunnels in and around Củ Chi proved to be a source of frustration for the U.S. Military in Saigon. The Viet Cong had been so well entrenched in the area by 1965 that they were in the unique position of locally being able to control where and when battles would take place. By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels of Củ Chi allowed North Vietnamese fighters in their area of South Vietnam to survive, help prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972, and the final defeat of South Vietnam in 1975.”
To continue reading from this site, please click this link.
|Today, he’s a little stiff and sore, having used muscles he hadn’t used in years but suffered no ill effects. The passengers in our group were cheering him as he entered and exited.|
Cu Chi Tunnels have become a major tourist destination for travelers from many parts of the world as described here:
The 75-mile (121 km)-long complex of tunnels at Củ Chi has been preserved by the government of Vietnam, and turned into a war memorial park with two different tunnel display sites, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc. The tunnels are a popular tourist attraction, and visitors are invited to crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system.
The Ben Duoc site contains part of the original tunnel system, while the Ben Dinh site, closer to Saigon, has tunnel reconstructions and some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists. In both sites, low-power lights have been installed in the tunnels to make traveling through them easier, and both sites have displays of the different types of booby traps that were used. Underground conference rooms where campaigns such as the Tết Offensive were planned in 1968 have been restored, and visitors may enjoy a simple meal of food that Viet Cong fighters would have eaten.”
To find ourselves at this profound historic location was awe-inspiring. With a fairly long distance to walk through the jungle, all of us were well coated in insect repellent and insect repellent clothing which only made us realize the struggle of the soldiers during this horrific period in time.
How they suffered in the humid heat with insect bites, contracting malaria, dengue fever, and other diseases wrought in the toxic environment due to a lack of with a lack of decent food, clean water, and appropriate medical care.
|We could only imagine how hard life was for the soldiers who spent months in the tunnel during the war.|
Being in this place in the jungle made us all the more aware of the strife they endured while continuing to fight, day after day, month after month, and year after year.
As Kong toured us through the thick brush on the lengthy uneven dirt path over roots, rocks, and vegetation, we finally arrived at the entrances to some of the tunnels.
|Tom, emerging from a larger opening after entering this section of the tunnel from a small opening. His clothes were wet with sweat and covered in dirt.|
When Kong asked for volunteers for the tightest of tunnels, Tom jumped in saying he would try it, even with the weight he’d gained over these past two weeks on the cruise/tour. The Vietnamese people are tiny and easily fit through the narrow miles and miles of tunnels.
When we saw the size of many of the narrow entrances to the tunnel, Tom had decided to tackle I cringed hoping he wouldn’t get stuck. Our group watched in anticipation of him making his way from the tight entrances and out the equally tight exits, crouched down through the narrow underground passageways to surface some distance away.
|He had to literally crawl up these steps when there was no headroom to do otherwise.|
Many others in our group partook in the wider tunnels, although one petite woman in our group followed Tom’s example in one area a short time later. When he’d finally managed to maneuver the tight spaces to enter and subsequently exit the tiny tunnel, he was soaked in sweat and covered in dirt and mud.
Everyone cheered his bravery while he dismissed his attempt at trying to understand how it was for the soldiers in this difficult place for extended periods of time. I was proud of him for his bravery but fully understood, amid his joking and dismissal of his experience as “nothing” compared to the real lives of the soldiers.
|The guide was as limber as a monkey making his way through the tunnel. No doubt, given more time and fewer doughnuts, Tom would have become equally adept.|
Back on the bus, we went to lunch at an exquisite restaurant, dining outdoors under cover during a massive downpour. Tom dined in his dirty sweat-soaked clothes never giving it a thought.
It was quite a day, to say the least, and by the time we checked in to the hotel, a shower was imminent for him with a soak in a hot tub for me following. We dressed for dinner, heading down to a fabulous buffet dinner in the hotel’s restaurant with mostly Vietnamese foods. More on that later.
|Our guide at one of the larger tunnel entrances.|
This afternoon, after we’re done here, Kong will arrange a taxi to take us to the “shoe district” where Tom will purchase a new pair of tennis shoes. He’s wearing the same pair since we left the US 45 months ago and it’s definitely time for something new when they’re literally falling apart. We’ll report back on the results of this shopping trip later.
|This is the type of tool used to make the tunnel by hand. The tunnel is 250 km, 155 miles long weaving through the jungle floor over a massive area.|
Today, I’m wearing a shirt with a hole in the sleeve, less obvious when I roll up the sleeves. Gee, traveling the world has certainly changed us in so many ways, most of which we’ve found to be liberating.
Early tomorrow morning, we’ll leave the hotel for the airport in Saigon known as the Ho Chi Minh City Airport (SGN) Vietnam, where at 9:45 am we’ll fly to Bangkok with a few hour layover and then on to Phuket. A driver will meet us at the airport for the hour-long drive to the villa where we’ll stop for some groceries along the way.
|Tom explained how he crawled into one of these air vents, large enough in which to stand on the inside for both ventilation and firing weapons.|
Most likely we won’t arrive at the villa until 6 pm. Once we’re settled, we’ll prepare a short post with our final expenses for the Viking Mekong River Cruise including the extra three nights we spent in Hanoi.
In a few days, we’ll continue with Parts 2 and 3 of the Cu Chi Tunnels since this tour is deserving that more of these important photos be shared with our worldwide readers. Back to you soon!
Have a joyful day!
Photo from one year ago today, July 21, 2015:
|It’s amazing how quickly Tom’s hair grows as he prepared for another haircut in Trinity Beach, Australia. For more photos, please click here.|