She was late and burst into the hostel like a hurricane hitting the beach. Her eyes darted about wildly. She was searching for the young backpacker who signed up for her tour. There were no young backpackers in the hostel’s community room so she focused her eyes on me.
“Did you sign up for the Cu Chi Tunnel Tour?” she asked.
I did. I wanted to see the tunnels that allowed the Viet Cong to ambush Americans, then eerily dissolve into the earth like ghosts.
On the way to the bus Cam introduced herself and chatted with me in clear English. She was a head shorter than me and about forty years younger. We drove through the broad chaotic streets of Saigon to a parking lot where we transferred from the minibus to a full-size coach. It was already packed with black haired Asians and a handful of sun bronzed Australians. As in Cambodia, Chinese dominated the tourist scene and a lot were in their teens and twenties. About the age of my grandchildren, if I had any.
The tunnels are 90 minutes from Saigon in a jungle where war stole and damaged thousands of Vietnamese and American lives. Today ragged craters scar the landscape and buried under the dirt and dense foliage are tons of unexploded bombs threatening to steal more lives. More bombs were dropped in Vietnam than were dropped in World War II by the Americans, British, Germans and Japanese combined. It will take centuries to rid Vietnam of all the unexploded bombs and mines. There are also many buried in the forests and fields of Laos and Cambodia as well.
Cam started our tour at a map that illustrated the tunnel system in cross section. It looked like an ant farm you’d see at a science fair. The tunnels consisted of 3 levels corresponding to 10, 20 and 30 feet below ground. Even the most massive bombs could penetrate only the first 2 levels. I envisioned the tunnels as simple escape routes but they were far more complex than that. They had meeting rooms and bunk rooms and underground kitchens with chimneys that you’d swear were termite mounds rising from the jungle floor. And to make them more stealth they cooked in the earliest hours so escaping smoke would disappear into the morning fog and mist. They had sections that functioned as hospitals with wells for water and enough food to survive underground for weeks. Even a few babies were born in the tunnels.
It’s difficult to appreciate how petite, almost miniature, the Viet Cong were until you try to squeeze into one of their tunnels. Or how claustrophobic it must have been crawling on their bellies through earthen tubes 30 feet below the surface, breathing air that tasted like dirt and napalm while the ground shook and the forest above exploded into flames. At only 5 feet 6 inches and 170 pounds there’s no way I could squeeze through the original Cu Chi Tunnels. The Vietnamese anticipated that and enlarged the tunnels by 25% for fleshy western tourists. But the enlarged tunnels are still claustrophobic and progressively narrow as you descend.
En route to the tunnels we stopped at exhibits illustrating Vietnamese life in war time. Wars disrupt farming which leads to food shortages and with a shortage of rice, the Vietnamese turned to the drought tolerant cassava plant. When properly prepared the roots can be used as a rice flour substitute or eaten in wedges like carrot-sticks. Cassava roots are also the source of tapioca pearls which become sweet tapioca pudding. But if cassava roots are prepared improperly the cyanide in the plant becomes concentrated and it can kill you. A long history of invaders and famine forced the Vietnamese to learn to eat about anything, including rats, tarantulas, scorpions and countless other creepy crunchy insects. Today you can still buy all those delicacies at the local market.
They were resilient warriors also. They collected and reused unexploded bombs and refashioned shrapnel into razor sharp spears, then rigged them to impale the feet, legs, trunk and chest of their enemies. Their strategy was it’s better to maim than kill. If they killed their enemy, they’d remove just one fighter from the battle. But if they maimed him it would take at least two or three soldiers to treat his injuries and transport him to a hospital. And to add medical complexity to the deep puncture wounds, the spear tips were coated with human excrement.
Our last stop was the tunnels. Prior to entering Cam pointed to a sign that ordered anyone with claustrophobia, diabetes, high blood pressure, or of senior age not to enter. With the whole group assembled Cam called out in jest, “You’re not that old are you Tom?”
By that point Cam and I had developed a rapport. Early in the tour she encouraged me to try one of the original tunnels and offered to take a photo of me disappearing into its slim, camouflaged opening. I don’t know if it was because my hair was white or because I was traveling alone, but throughout the tour Cam was exceptionally attentive and kind to me. And because of our gentle banter throughout the tour I would discover later some of the young Chinese had learned my name.
As I lined up with the twenty-somethings Cam announced, “If you discover you’re claustrophobic there are two emergency exits in the upper half of the tunnel.” Then she said, “Remember, the deeper you go, the more narrow it gets”.
Shortly after entering, the line slowed to a stop and the air suddenly became warm and pungent. It was like breathing through a sweaty pair of socks. There were people packed tightly for as far as I could see, ahead and behind. By the time we shuffled to the section where we could no longer stand upright I noticed the girl two ahead of me was getting a little bug-eyed. Her boyfriend nudged her playfully and she shouted, “Stop it!”, then slapped his hand away.
Not being able to move in a narrowing tunnel of rock hard clay causes your heart to gallop, your palms to sweat and your disposition to turn edgy. Your mind is screaming, “I’m trapped underground with all these people and I can’t breath.” Neurotransmitters are flowing, synapses are firing and you’re primed for flight, but you can’t escape.
Wiggling underground like a worm has never appealed to me. I enjoy caves with light shows, waterfalls, and broad walkways. Caves that require me to crawl on all fours with my shoulders rubbing the walls are not enjoyable. They’re distressing. A few words of silent reassurance became necessary, “Don’t worry, there’s plenty of oxygen in this death trap”. Those few words grounded me. And later, when the walls closed in and I started to hyperventilate I soothed my nerves with affirmations, “No matter how long it takes the oxygen sucking fools ahead of me to wiggle through this tube of torment I will survive”.
By the time we reached the first emergency exit the girl in front of me was certifiably freaked out and she wasn’t the only one. We lost a lot of our army at that exit. And by the time the tunnel narrowed again and we intersected the last escape hatch our army had shrunk to a platoon. I was tempted to exit also but soldiered on with the young Chinese and chanted a mantra, “I will not die. I will not die. I probably won’t die.”
We continued to scrape along the walls for a few more miles, or it might have been just a few yards. I can’t say for sure because distances are longer underground. Anyway, up ahead I could hear Chinese voices rising. They sounded giddy. They were probably hypoxic. The excited voices caused our platoon to pick up the pace. As we moved forward the air grew cooler. A few steps later I could see sunlight. Then I was outside, standing upright, filling my lungs with fresh air and being swarmed by the young Chinese tourists who also soldiered on. They were as happy as I was to be out of that damn tunnel. I couldn’t understand much of what they said, but some called my name as they approached. They patted me on the back like a teammate and leaned into me to take a selfie of us together. They came up to me in singles and pairs, young couples and travel mates. The celebration went on for a while. “Why in the world do you want a selfie with me?” I wondered.
I don’t take selfies and I normally don’t see myself as an old man, but in that crowd I was. And being old accounted for all the attention. I was that white haired grandpa who ignored the sign and crawled through that tunnel on his knees with the kids. I wasn’t special, just old. But sometimes it’s pretty cool to be old.