M. VISHWANATH PAI takes a peek into the Cu Chi Tunnels of Vietnam.
We left for Cu Chi tunnels — 70 km north-west of Ho Chi Minh — in the morning. All I knew was that the Vietnamese had used these tunnels during their war against the U.S. Reading up about it, I found that the underground tunnels of Cu Chi are a complex network that stretches from the gates of Ho Chi Minh City (earlier Saigon) to the Cambodian border.
By the time I brushed up on its history, the guide announced that we were nearing the entrance of the tunnels. We were first shown the model of Cu Chi tunnels in a bunker, which led me to wonder if a tunnel with so many layers could actually exist. By the time we came out I had some idea of the tunnel network.
As we walked along, our guide suddenly stopped and asked us to identify a tunnel entrance. We looked around but couldn’t find it. Finally he gave a broad smile and pointed to the door just below his foot. It was covered by some leaves. Then he asked, “Who will go through this entry?” While we looked at each other, a small girl volunteered to get in. The size of the entrance is smaller than a manhole. We were shown the different kinds of traps that were laid around the entrance. Booby traps were assembled from scavenged American ordnance duds and pointed bamboo sticks.
“Tell me what that is,” asked the guide, pointing to a termite mound on the forest floor. “A termite mound,” I replied immediately. It turned out to be a ventilation hole disguised as a termite mound. Bamboo and a man-made termite mound were used to supply air through the tunnels. Malaria was rampant during the war and the Vietnamese only ventured out under the cover of darkness. Cooking was a problem but the ever-resourceful Vietnamese worked out ways of concealing the smoke while cooking meals.
The next stop was a bunker that housed the different kinds of shells and bombs used by the American troops; some weighed about 250 kg but they were unable to destroy the tunnels. The passages were neither straight nor “snakelike”, but they zigzagged at angles between 60° and 120°. This was because even if the enemy detected the entrance and set off mines or pour chemicals, it would not have much effect inside the tunnels.
The communicating passages were not wider than 1.2 meters, not narrower than 0.8 meters, not higher than 1.8 meters, not lower than 0.8 meters. The minimum thickness of the roof was to be 1.5 meters-this was “to avoid vibration caused by the explosions of bombs and shells and the sounds of tanks and other vehicles moving above. The enemy was sitting just above their head. About all this digging he asked “How was it done?” Many in our group, mostly students, gave different answers about using machines but again with a broad smile our guide said it was done using hoes and bare hands; it was “amazing”. Someone in our group asked whether any special material was used in creating these tunnels so that it should not crumble, but our guide answered in the negative as the earth in Cu Chi is sticky.
“Ready for the tunnel visit?” he teased all of us; initially there were no takers but I asked him how long we would have to move inside the tunnel. When he said, “about 30 meters and you can come out, but you can continue and come out of some other exit point, if you wish”, many were suddenly interested.
For the tourists’ sake the entrance was made a little bigger and inside the tunnels we had to sit and move and could not stand at all. Just after a few short minutes in the tunnel, it felt too hot. I couldn’t understand how people could live in them braving the heat. After getting a big cheer from the guide we proceeded to the souvenir shops at the exit point for shopping. While boarding the bus for my return trip to Ho Chi Minh I offered my tribute to the 45,000 lives lost defending the tunnels.
During the Vietnam War of the 1960s, these tunnels connected villages, districts and various Viet Cong guerrillas support bases and consisted of living quarters, do-it-yourself ordnance factories, kitchens with concealed chimneys, hospitals, cleverly designed conical bomb shelters, theatres and movie halls.
The tunnels in Cu Chi were originally dug as hiding places for the Viet Minh, the nationalist guerrillas who fought France, in the 1940s and 1950s. With the ceasefire in 1954, Vietnam was provisionally divided into two; the North ruled by the Communists and the south being an independent republic established with American aid.
When the war between the two halves began in 1960, the first thing the Viet Cong did was that to start expanding the tunnels. The Republic of South Vietnam could not cope with the guerrilla assaults and so in 1965 the American army arrived to fight the Viet Cong. Despite its devices, intelligence inputs and manpower, the U.S. had to retreat in 1973. The Viet Cong troops took control of Saigaon in 1975 and Vietnam was united.
The author is from MGM College, Udupi.
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