Crawling Through History at the Chu Ci Tunnels
A weapon of a not-to-distant war, the Chu Ci Tunnels remind visitors of the hells of warfare in an engaging way that is sure to leave an impact.
Hot take: A top highlight for Matt in Vietnam, touring the tunnels is fairly cheap ($20 each for the tour) and a MUST for any Westerner (as not just Americans have been involved in overseas imperialism). (4.5 stars)
Pro tip: To get the most out of the tour, try to empathize with the soldiers on both sides of the conflict to experience the site as it was (as opposed to just walking through it as though it were a theme park).
On Saigon’s outskirts, the Chu Ci Tunnels stand testament to decades of violence as foreign powers sought to control Vietnam’s rich south. As a major history buff, this site was on Matt’s must-see list in Vietnam. However, as Americans of the post-Vietnam generation, seeing remnants of the Vietnam War was a sobering reinforcement of the schoolbook history lessons of needlessly sacrificed human life by both sides.
*WARNING: HISTORY LESSON*
The tunnels were originally build by the Viet Minh during the late 1940s as part of the resistance against their French colonizers. Strategically located about 20 miles (30 km) from Saigon, the tunnels were dug out by hand in the iron-oxide rich red clay of the area and allowed peasant resistance fighters to have a place to hide from French authorities. Though the Viet Minh were ultimately unsuccessful, the next generation of fighters (now called the Viet Cong) greatly expanded the tunnels to of over 135 miles (220 km), and dug many more throughout the country, as well as weaponized the tunnel complex with sniper posts, punji stick pits, and trap doors. While disease and privation characterized the VC experience of living in the tunnels, the tunnels were an effective weapon and provided a launching point for offensive campaigns (including the Tết Offensive). In response, the U.S. forces tried various means to destroy the tunnels, including ‘tunnel rats’ (U.S. soldiers and dogs), carpet bombing (the area was deemed a “free-strike zone”), and deforestation (through Agent Orange and napalm). While only about 6000 of the 16, 000 cadres who fought in the tunnels survived the war, the tunnels are considered a great success by the current Vietnamese government and numerous honorifics have been given to the fighters and villagers of the Chu Ci area.
Visiting the tunnels today is easy, cheap, and a highly suggested part of anyone’s trip to Saigon if you have even a passing interest/curiosity about history or warfare. We highly recommend Vietnam Adventure Tours who for $20 each lead a 8a-2p 20ish person tour that will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel. In addition to all the usual tour stuff, this tour featured the indomitable "Mr. Foo" (who was funny, authentic, attentive, and spoke the best English of any tour guide we had in 5 countries in SE Asia…in fact, he was the best tour guide period that we had in our first 6 months of travel). As the ‘token Americans’ on the tour (seriously, no other Americans), we got gently ribbed frequently throughout (especially about Americans being fatter than Vietnamese)…but Matt’s retort of “at least you don’t have to all speak Japanese now” seemed to get a few head nods.
Featuring a live fire range (with fully automatic weapons from the Vietnam war, including an AK-47), the experience of walking the trails above the tunnels was eerie and punctuated by occasional staccato machine gun blasts). As we toured around the complex, we got an excellent history lesson (if you can ignore some of the ‘American war criminals’ propaganda forced by the Vietnamese government) and got a real sense of the hell it must have been for soldiers on both sides of the conflict. From the booby traps to the propaganda/counter-propaganda to sampling the tunnel dweller’s staple food (boiled tapioca), the tour balanced the somber reality of the place with the need to create an enjoyable experience for visitors…it really was a highlight for Matt in Vietnam.
The highlight of the tour was getting to crawl through the tunnels themselves (which we did for 100 yards/meters). Though they were widened 30%+ to accommodate ‘foreign visitor girth’, claustrophobes need not apply since the tunnels are tight (you have to hunch/crawl when inside). Despite being very well ventilated (by guerrilla tunnel standards), the air inside the tunnels was stale and thick (and you are quickly panting from exertion). Most disquieting of all is the zig-zag path of the caves (to prevent collapse) that causes sound to muffle and leaves you seeming alone and buried in the earth. We quickly decided that we would not be well-adapted to tunnel warfare and thanked our lucky stars for never needing to be.
Oh, and of course Matt needed to fire the AK-47!