The hatch is so tiny that you could blink and miss it. And given that it’s barely big enough for one person to squeeze through, you would guess it led to sewers or pipes if you noticed it at all. But on the other side of this inconspicuous metal door is a harrowing relic of a bloody conflict fought more than 40 years ago.
In the Củ Chi area on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, a strange attraction draws tourists away from the lure of the big city. First opened to the public after the fall of what was then called Saigon in 1975, the Củ Chi tunnels stretch for more than 150 miles beneath the city. They certainly hold a unique fascination.
Accessed through tiny metal hatches set into the ground, the tunnels draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Moreover, those who make the journey never forget it, with visitors praising it online as a “mind blowing,” “fascinating” and “amazing” experience. But just what are these mysterious passageways hidden beneath the ground?
In the second half of the 1940s and first half of the 1950s, Vietnam was in the grips of the First Indochina War. And, in order to evade the French army, the opposing Communist troops began excavating tunnels under South Vietnam.
Then, in the early 1960s, the United States began to become militarily involved in Vietnam. While America supported the South Vietnamese government in maintaining a non-Communist jurisdiction, the National Liberation Front – also known as the Viet Cong – sought unification with communist North Vietnam.
Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers soon realized the strategic potential of the tunnels and began to expand the network. Often working by hand, they carved out an extensive system underneath Saigon stretching right across to the border with Cambodia.
Subsequently, these tunnels would go on to play a vital role in the Vietnam War. Indeed, as U.S. forces unleashed a rain of bombs down on the Viet Cong-controlled Củ Chi district, the insurgent troops hid safely underground.
During the war, the tunnels were home to thousands of Viet Cong troops and their supporters – a lot of them rural people from lower-income classes. Many lived underground on what was effectively a permanent basis.
Daylight hours would be spent working and resting in the subterranean passageways, while some ventured out under cover of darkness to look after their farms and scavenge what resources they could find. Sometimes, however, the bombs would keep the troops in the tunnels for days on end.
But the network of tunnels was not merely a place to hide and travel about unseen. Indeed, the warren contained entire underground communities, with social spaces, munitions factories, schools, hospitals, and even music halls and theaters for entertainment. Sometimes, couples were even married beneath the ground.
Life underground, however, was tough. Poisonous creatures scuttled along the ground, while supplies of water, food and air were all scarce. Meanwhile, sickness was rife, with around half of the inhabitants suffering from malaria.
In spite of such tough conditions, though, the Củ Chi tunnels became a significant Viet Cong stronghold and a stubborn problem for U.S. troops. So in 1966, in tandem with Australian forces, the Americans launched Operation Crimp – a large-scale offensive on the Viet Cong forces operating in Củ Chi district.
Despite heavily bombing and searching the area, however, they were unable to find any evidence of Viet Cong activity. All of the insurgents had disappeared into the tunnels, and any enemy forces hoping to follow them were met with booby traps. And while U.S. troops attempted to assail the tunnels with grenades and gas, the subterranean structures’ strategic design kept the inhabitants safe within.
In fact, the existence of the tunnels played a huge role in the Viet Cong’s ability to prolong the war. The network enabled them to move troops between locations, and it served as a stronghold during the pivotal Tet Offensive against Saigon in 1968 – the push which kick-started the U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam.
Over time, then, the American and Australian forces began to truly realize the scale and significance of the tunnels. So, they started training specialists known as “tunnel rats” to negotiate the network, each one equipped with little more than a knife, a gun and a flashlight. However, this highly dangerous approach had limited success, and many of the tunnel rats were killed.
Finally, in 1969, U.S. forces began using B-52s to carpet bomb the area around Củ Chi. Yet although they succeeded in destroying large sections of the tunnels, the operation had little overall significance. By then, moreover, America was already withdrawing from the war, and the subterranean structures had fulfilled their goal.
The Vietnam War finally ended when North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces captured Saigon on April 30, 1975. Subsequently, as the country began the process of reunification, the Vietnamese government decided to preserve the Củ Chi tunnels as a memorial to the war.
Today, the tunnels are proving to be a popular destination for tourists visiting southern Vietnam. They are accessible in two areas: Ben Dinh, an artificially large entrance made with Western visitors in mind, and Ben Duoc, where you can still enter the tunnels through the original, claustrophobia-inducing shafts.
Below ground, tourists can see examples of the booby traps used by Viet Cong forces to keep intruders out of the tunnels, visit meeting rooms where significant maneuvers were planned, and even sample a meal similar to that which fighters living underground would have consumed. Above ground, meanwhile, exotic animals, souvenir stores and shooting ranges all add to the tourist-attraction feel.
So, with its busloads of foreign visitors, Củ Chi district today is a world away from the battle-scarred, desperate landscape that saw three decades of bloody conflict. But this fascinating relic remains to remind us of the harrowing realities of war as well as the tenacity of the soldiers who fought there.