For $14, I took a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, where some of the Vietnam tunnel systems during the war have been maintained for tourists. Our guide mentioned that this was just a small portion of the actual tunnel system, and that the majority of tunnels that haven’t been maintained may have spiders and snakes and booby traps. So, he told us to make sure we didn’t venture off the path they lead us on.
I hopped in a very nice air-conditioned bus, which was 5 doors down from my hostel, and we headed off for about 2 hours to the site. Our guide had a great sense of humor and would add jokes in after telling us about some of the atrocities of the war. He said the population of Vietnam was about 40 million during the war and about 3 million people (mostly innocent civilians) were killed. Since then, the population grew to 100 million people. He said, “After the war, the women got busy.”
He told us a very sad story about how his mother died protecting him from a napalm attack when he was a baby. He didn’t know the truth about where his mother was until he was 18, when his father felt he would be old enough to know. You could see on our guide’s forearm that he had a very large burn scar. He also mentioned that because of the Agent Orange attacks on his village, there are 500-600 people with birth defects alive right now in his little village alone. Agent Orange has crossed generations and is still causing birth defects. People are born without limbs, blind, or with deformed skeletal structures.
Before going underground through the tunnels, our guide asked if anyone had heart conditions, physical limitations, or if they were afraid of tight places. I was standing there, pretending like I was all good. In reality, I’m claustrophobic as hell. I don’t even like elevators. The first tunnel we went through wasn’t so bad. The ceiling was big enough to walk through hunched over. And, it wasn’t too long.
One of the tunnels had a leaf-camouflaged wooden cover on both ends, which mimicked how an actual entrance would look during war time. The small Vietnamese tunnel leader showed us how someone would enter the tunnel with their arms up. He ruffled the leaves around the hole and put leaves on top of the cover. He went down into the hole with the cover above his head and closed it. He completely disappeared. You would never know there was a tunnel there, especially if it was not on a beaten path. I was the first person in our group of around 30 people to be small enough and have the balls to go through. Many of the guys were too big to fit and started freaking out because they felt like they would get stuck. It was a pretty cool experience to fit through the little hole and pop out on the other side. I felt like a little kid.
There was a relatively long tunnel we went through, which was a bit cramped and you had to waddle like a penguin with your butt close to the ground. There was also a place you had to slide down a couple feet. When I finally got through and stood up, I was feeling kind of lightheaded. I realized I hadn’t really been breathing and was very hot and sweaty. I’ve passed out before from stressful situations like that where I felt like I couldn’t breathe, so I’m glad I got my shit together and was able to calm down. Without the lights along the walls, I really would have been in trouble. It would be pitch black and you would have to navigate the walls with your hands. I would not do well as a Vietnamese tunnel guy. Also, when I was going through another tunnel, I looked to my right and saw a bat flying towards me. Once it sensed me there, it turned back and flapped the other way. Imagine being in the darkness, feeling your way through the tunnel, and then you feel a bat wing graze your right ear. Fuck that!
Our guide showed us a mock sandal factory, and told us how the Vietnamese had a huge advantage over the Americans because their feet were always dry and they could run through the jungle much more easily and with less energy output. The U.S. troops wore large boots, which would become water-logged and heavy because of all the rain and rivers they had to cross. Also, the Vietnamese would turn their sandals backwards to hide their tracks, so their foot prints would just end, which would confuse the Americans.
We saw an exhibit of all the ingenious booby traps used, which were designed to seriously maim or kill the American soldiers. There were bamboo spike pits and boot traps, which would allow your foot to go inside, but would not let you pull your foot out because of the downward-angled metal spikes surrounding the boot. If you pulled up, the spikes would dig further into your leg. The Vietnamese had to do everything they could to survive this American invasion. They were greatly under-matched with firepower, so they had to us the jungle to their advantage. We also saw a mock bomb factory, where they would retool bombs they found and use them to take out tanks and set land mines.
On the way back, we stopped at a shooting range. For 300 Dong ($12.50), I got to shoot 5 rounds from an old school M1 Garand rifle. It was so awesome. I’ve always wanted to shoot one. It’s highly accurate and powerful. From about 100 meters away, I was able to hit the target at least a couple times. It was hard to see where my shots were hitting from that distance, but if there wasn’t a huge dust cloud from the embankment, it meant that I hit the target. When the clip was over, the magazine popped out with a “ping!” sound, just like the video games I’ve played. An older Australian guy gave me props for my shooting when I was done.