In the Cu Chi Tunnels of Vietnam

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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27 replies

  1. Wow, what an experience! I never knew about those tunnels and I could, by reading your blog could definitely feel as if I was there. I know I could never have made it in person as I am overweight and definitely claustrophobic. Thanks for the informative and fun to read blog! Beth

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Here’s to the old guys! In my (much) younger days, I was a spelunker. Today, I get claustrophobic just thinking about the tight spots I used wiggle through. Congrats on successfully negotiating the tunnels.

  3. Great post, especially for a claustrophobic armchair traveler. The Vietnamese are very resilient people, this has been shown in their response to the current pandemic. Are you still in SE Asia?

    • Thanks! The tunnels are probably more enjoyable from an armchair anyway. No, I’m not in SE Asia, I’m back home writing blog posts, wearing my mask diligently, swimming at the local lake, and waiting for a vaccine. I’m also enjoying your photography and blog. I hope the brown snakes are behaving themselves. Best wishes.

  4. Brilliant, we’ll done for staying the course and crawling all the way through those narrow tunnels. I’m unsure if I could do it or not but I guess I have a slight advantage at only 5ft and 8 stones. Don’t know how I manage to keep my weight down as I’m constantly eating cakes and chocolate, but Im not complaining! Keep writing as it makes my day to find a new post from you. M.

    • Only 5 ft and 8 stone, those tunnels are made for you. I’ll keep watch on the cakes and chocolate while you’re crawling through the tunnels. 🙂

      Thanks for the kind words, M. With pandemic restrictions I should be writing more but that’s not happening. Summer came late. It’s finally sunny and warm so I’m hiking and swimming instead of writing. But soon enough it’ll be grey and rainy and I can scribble then. Enjoy the summer.

  5. Great reading old man! You are one special worm!

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  6. As always, I thoroughly enjoyed this adventure, Tom, and you had me on the edge of my seat with your very engaging writing. The introduction to Cam is great (“… burst into the hostel like a hurricane hitting the beach.”), the age difference was well described. I laughed out loud at this one: “About the age of my grandchildren, if I had any.” Your descriptions of the tunnels and the graphics were incredible, and I know there is no. way. I would have gone inside that tunnel. I’ve been on adventures with strangers where we all did something a little scary together, and when it was over we were like friends who had spent years together. You described that feeling well with your tunnel success and your new friends. Excellent adventure, and much appreciated.

  7. Awesome Tom! Your descriptions are vivid and I can just inagine being in there, but glad to do it vicariously through your eyes. I particularly liked the ending. Well done, Karl

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  8. Well done! Both the post and for making it through the tunnels! Great descriptions of how it felt going through them.
    Hope you both are doing well in these interesting times.

    • Hi D,

      Thanks! Sue and I are staying healthy and tolerating each others company rather well. No sheriff calls or restraining orders needed. Actually it’s been a fun summer and we’ve finally gotten back to trail running. It’s actually as much trail walking as running but we still call it running. We hope you and you’r loved ones are well and if you are wandering this way you’re always welcome.

  9. Wow, gruesome! Thanks for sharing. We were due to experience this ourselves earlier this year until COVID struck and we had to escape from Vietnam. Will definitely return and do this when we can, sounds an amazing experience

    • Hi guys,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I’m sorry COVID disrupted your travels but the tunnels will be there when you return. I thought the tunnels were time well spent but I would go with a smaller group next time. Have fun and thanks for stopping by. tom

  10. Wow! My blood ran cold just thinking about being in those tunnels. Thank you for taking us along! I had heard about them, but you made them come alive!

    • Hey Val! Good to hear from ya. The tunnels were interesting but a little uncomfortable. Sue said she’d like to go to Vietnam with me next time but based on what I’ve written she’d not going down into the tunnels. I don’t blame her. I hope you have a few more summer-like days before the season changes and ice fishing starts. 🙂 Enjoy the fall colors and thanks for the kind words.

  11. Wonderful post. I am not sure about going into the tunnels though. Thanks for the info.

  12. I’ve read about these tunnels and seen something on YouTube and it fascinates me so much. I’m incredibly claustrophobic and almost freak out just reading this! Well done going down. Very interesting to read!

    • Hi Susanne,

      Thanks for reading my post and taking the time to comment. The tunnels are an interesting place to visit even if you choose not to go underground. And many people don’t. I took a quick look at your blog and plan to go back and read some of your posts. My mother’s family came from County Cork in Ireland and my niece moved to Sweden a couple years ago. Best wishes.

  13. I’ve really enjoyed your photos and notes on Vietnam. I too missed the war—registered for the draft the first year of the lottery, scored a high number, and the war ended the next year. Some of my older friends were not so lucky; some never returned, and some returned but were never the same. I can’t remember if I mentioned that I visited Vietnam for a few days in 2015–4 days in Saigon, 6 days in Da Lat. I had good friends living in Da Lat and got an up close and personal introduction to their community there–friendly, wonderful, hospitable people and after only a very brief introduction many have remained Facebook friends! Saigon was huge, labyrinthine, and hot–most of my forays into the city were made in early morning and after dusk. Walking through the city parks was always an adventure because my anglo, gray beard appearance was a magnet for high school kids who wanted to practice their English. So I would frequently get mobbed by these cheerful, friendly kids and we would talk for a while. Great memories.

    Great photos; I see you’re still enjoying the Olympus.

    • Hi Ed,

      Sounds like your timing for the Vietnam War worked out well. Being a tourist is a healthier way to see a country. I think we had similar experiences in Saigon, friendly people and stifling temperatures. But the Olympus did well. My only regret is I didn’t get up North but I guess I can do that next time. Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad to hear you’re safe and healthy. Happy holidays.

  14. Dear Thomas,
    thanks for sharing your experience in the tunnel. We don’t like to go underground. We would have left at the first exit. But interesting to read.
    All the best
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

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