The sprawling network of underground tunnels at Cu Chi stretch over 120km and were a crucial component to the Viet Cong’s ability to fend off American military might. They are half an hour’s drive from Ho Chi Minh City, and one of the best historical sites I visited in Vietnam.
Don’t be put off by their touristy reputation: you get a very real sense of the tunnels’ size and importance in providing invaluable shelter to Viet Cong guerrillas right under the Americans’ noses, and you can see some unadulterated, incredibly tiny tunnels, as well as some that are enlarged for visitors’ comfort (ha!). The tour is very good and it’s well worth half a day if you’re spending time in Ho Chi Minh City.
The tunnels: claustrophobic, intricate, impressive
Entering the Cu Chi tunnels is truly terrifying for anyone even mildly claustrophobic (which I am, hence my forced smile). The tunnel sizes vary, from those you have to army-crawl through to areas large enough to stand up in. The whole tunnel network is dark, damp, and feel as though they could have been dug out yesterday. They’re incredibly well disguised: secret entrances appear nothing more than a pile of leaves hiding a hole around the size of a street drain.
Our tour visited two of Charlie’s underground tunnels (named after the NATO phonetic alphabet, ‘Victor Charlie’ for Viet Cong). Inside the first, enlarged for tourists, you have to walk stooped at least double through scooped-out dirt tunnels barely wider than a normal person’s width. On the bright side, there are exits every ten metres or so – if it’s too much, you can get out pretty quickly. I found it really quite scary and emerged shaking, even though I knew millions of tourists, let alone VC, had come out safely the other end. And I didn’t have the additional worry of a brutal war taking place above ground.
The second set of tunnels are the “real thing”, left as the Viet Cong built them. Here, you have to crawl on your hands and knees and there are no exits; but if you dare to go in, this tunnel takes you to an enlarged space once used as a kitchen. This was too much for me so I only peeked inside (as did half the tour group!), but the travellers who did crawl through said they loved it.
Steps to an entrance to a smaller tunnel
If you’re already feeling nervous reading this, know that you don’t have to enter the tunnels. You can have a quick look inside and then take an overground path above to meet your group instead, or only go through the enlarged tunnel. The tunnels are still worth visiting and you probably won’t be the only one wanting to stay above ground!
The tour: an insight into jungle warfare
The guided tour actually spent comparatively little time inside the tunnels. Inside the sweltering jungle complex, we visited a range of artefacts left on display from the war.
There’s a range of gruesome traps on display, set up around the jungle by Viet Cong guerrillas and designed to brutally maim anyone who steps on them. We also walked past what, at first sight, looks like an anthill, but was in fact used as an air hole for the tunnels beneath. They give you a real sense of the adaptability and creativity needed for successful jungle warfare.
We visited a destroyed American tank; its size alone demonstrates the contrast between the Americans’ military capacity and the makeshift traps, tunnels and bunkers used by the Vietnamese guerrillas. It also demonstrates the inappropriateness of such weaponry in that environment. You’d hear a tank rumbling through the jungle long before you saw it – in contrast, the VC were able to move, attack, and retreat quickly and almost silently. The whole tour gives you a good sense of how the Viet Cong managed to evade their enemies for so long, and of their adaptability and resilience in living, hiding, and fighting underground.
There’s also an opportunity to fire weapons, including M-16s to AK-47s. Prices vary by weapon but a Carbine cost around $1 (ca. 25,000 VND) per bullet, and you have to purchase a minimum of 10 bullets. It’s worth taking plenty of extra money if you’re planning on using the shooting range.
The tour ended with a short video about the tunnels, which despite obvious and predictable bias in its historical narrative, contained some interesting footage of the village of Cu Chi. There’s a photograph of Ho Chi Minh above the television.
Getting there from Ho Chi Minh City
- The tour: We paid $5 each for a half-day tour from Ho Chi Minh City (in 2014), booked and arranged once we were there at one of the many tourist booking agencies near and inside hotels – it’s very easy to do and not worth worrying about until you’re there. The price included the bus, 1.5 hours each way, and the tour guide, but not the entrance fee of 20,000 VND. The bus picked us up at 1pm and returned around 7pm, but there’s also a morning option. You can also hire a private car and driver from most of the same agencies around town, but it’s of course vastly more expensive.
- Since the tour is only half a day, it’s worth combining the Cu Chi tunnels with a visit to the War Remnants Museum for a better understanding of the Vietnamese viewpoint on the war. Not exactly a cheerful day out, but the two experiences work really well together.
- Clothes: if you go through the tunnels, you will get dirty! Wear long trousers and preferably long sleeves, both to protect yourself against the tunnels’ dirt and against the mosquitoes.