– OCTOBER 28, 2015
Today we took the 121 km long bus ride to the complex of tunnels at Cu Chi which have been preserved by the government of Vietnam, and turned into a war memorial park with two different tunnel display sites, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc. We knew that the tunnels are a popular tourist attraction, and visitors are invited to crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system. The Ben Duoc site contains part of the original tunnel system, while the Ben Dinh site, closer to Saigon, has tunnel reconstructions and some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists. In both sites low-power lights have been installed in the tunnels to make traveling through them easier, and both sites have displays of the different types of booby traps that were used. Underground conference rooms where campaigns such as the Tet Offensive were planned in 1968 have been restored, and visitors may enjoy a simple meal of food that Viet Cong fighters would have eaten.
The tunnels of Cu Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Cu Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tet Offensive in 1968.
The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped to counter the growing American military effort.
The tunnels of Cu Chi did not go unnoticed by U.S. officials. They recognized the advantages that the Viet Cong held with the tunnels, and accordingly launched several major campaigns to search out and destroy the tunnel system. By 1969, B-52s were freed from bombing North Vietnam and started “carpet bombing” Cu Chi and the rest of the Iron Triangle. Ultimately it proved successful. Towards the end of the war, the tunnels were so heavily bombed that some portions actually caved in and other sections were exposed. By that time, they had succeeded in protecting the local North Vietnamese units and letting them “survive to fight another day“.
After seeing the examples of weapons used in the Vietnam War, we were told to sit in an outdoor TV lounge where we were shown a model of the tunnel network and then a heavy-handed propaganda filled video about how the little women and young children had to step up and kill the so-called “evil Americans” in the Vietnam War. It was hard to watch/listen to this video, but pretty much everything in Vietnam related to historical record of the war is filled with one-sided perspective against the so-called “evil Americans“.
American soldiers used the term “Black Echo” to describe the conditions within the tunnels. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, soldiers would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops, or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. A captured Viet Cong report suggests that at any given time half of a PLAF unit had malaria and that “one-hundred percent had intestinal parasites of significance“.
Throughout the course of the war, the tunnels in and around Cu Chi proved to be a source of frustration for the U.S. military in Saigon. The Viet Cong had been so well entrenched in the area by 1965 that they were in the unique position of locally being able to control where and when battles would take place. By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels of Cu Chi allowed North Vietnamese fighters in their area of South Vietnam to survive, help prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972, and the final defeat of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975.
The tunnels were a great experience, even with the heavy handed propaganda of the Vietnam military would hit you over the head.
When we returned back to Ho Chi Minh City it was time to get some dinner…the choice was banh mi. Banh mi is a Vietnamese term for all kinds of bread. The word is derived from bánh and mì (wheat, also spelt mì in northern Vietnam). Bread, or more specifically the baguette, was introduced by the French during its colonial period. The bread most commonly found in Vietnam is a single-serving baguette, therefore the term bánh mì is synonymous with this type of bread. The bánh mì is usually more airy than its Western counterpart, with a thinner crust. It is known as a “Vietnamese sandwich”, for which the bánh mì serves as the bread wrapper.
Street food vendors will park in key intersections and cook their choice of meat for the banh mi sandwich. The best stop I enjoyed was at a street vendor with pork slider patties being cooked on an outdoor mini-grill.
I’ll be eating these banh mi sandwiches for the next 26 days throughout Vietnam!
For more photos of our adventure go to our flickr account here.