Cu Chi Tunnels

If you come to Saigon, do not forget to check out the famous Cu Chi tunnels. There are tours available at every travel agency in the city and the tunnels are a must see in the region.

Cu Chi Tunnel EntranceCu Chi Tunnel Entrance | photo: Frank Fox (cc-by-sa)

The Black Echo, the Underground City, the Spiderweb...

These days we were invited by a partner to join a small group tour to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels. Let me write down some notable things about this experience.

Saigon River at Cu ChiSaigon River at Cu Chi | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Cu Chi Tunnels History

Originally created by the Viet Minh, a resistance group against the Japanese occupation and the return of the French afterwards. Many Viet Minh veterans joined the newly formed Viet Cong and remembered the tunnels and their perfect location. The Cu Chi network has been massively expanded by the Viet Cong and used as a base against the American war effort in the whole area of Saigon.

The Americans saw the great advantage the Viet Cong held in the tunnel network and started several attempts to root them out. Most notably the "Operation Crimp" and "Operation Cedar Falls". Crimp started with a massive bombing by B52 bombers. After that, the infantry went in to check the area and search for tunnel entrances. However, rarely people were sent into a tunnel itself, because it was too dangerous. Instead the entrance area was flooded with gas, water or tar - or just blown up. This tactic proved to be not very fruitful, since the tunnels were longer and more complicated than anyone could estimate.

Later on, an Australian team named "Tunnel Ferrets" or "Tunnel Rats" began infiltrating the network and proved a bit more successful, at least in discovering the true significance and vastness of the spiderweb. Ultimately the tunnels got carpet bombed and made largely unusable in 1969, but it was too late.

The significance of the tunnels during the American War (or Vietnam War) was great. A large amount of troops and supplies could be hidden in the area, it was right next to Saigon and at the peak of their usage the Viet Cong could decide where a battle would take place. They controlled the area in all but name.

Even if the Americans eventually were able to close the Cu Chi tunnels, the network was a big factor in raising the time, cost and war effort to a level that finally led to America's retreat in 1972 and the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Entrances to the Cu Chi TunnelsEntrances to the Cu Chi Tunnels | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Cu Chi Tunnels Strucure

The tunnels are also referred to as "underground city" or "the spiderweb" and feature various camps, hospitals, supply and weapons depots, workshops and command centres. The estimated total length of tunnels at the peak of their usage was around 250 kilometres, which is longer than the mighty Mekong river in Vietnamese territory.

After the Viet Cong started renovating and expanding the Cu Chi tunnels, the spiderweb could be classified in three levels. Level one at a depth between 3 and 5 metres was the main living area containing all the facilities. The air vents were hidden in ant hills and the entrances well camouflaged and riddled with booby traps.

Nasty Traps at the Cu Chi TunnelsNasty Traps at the Cu Chi Tunnels | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Level two was designed as a retreat point from enemy bombing and during the time of the heaviest attacks, many people moved to level two completely. However, at a depth of around 7 metres, the natural ventilation was not too efficient and oxygen was scarce. People developed tuberculosis as a result.

Level three at a depth of 9-12 metres was designed for retreating from the heaviest B52 bomb shells that could even penetrate level two. There was no way of living down there long term and the moisture created a highly hazardous environment full of venomous and otherwise nasty critters. These tunnels stretched all the way from Saigon River to the Cambodian border and provided escape routes in case of emergency.

Stuck in the Tunnel EntranceStuck in the Tunnel Entrance | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Nasty Leg TrapNasty Leg Trap | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Cu Chi Tunnels Experience

War is hell.
Life in war is most likely hell too.
But when you spend 10 years of your life in war in narrow, dark tunnels and you go out at night to tend your crops or launch a surprise attack on a better equipped enemy before you flee back into the relative safety of your tunnel, hell gets a totally new meaning. During daytime you rest, tend to the injured and dying and only leave the narrow darkness to crawl down into the damp pitch-blackness below - because facing nasty ants, huge spiders and deadly centipedes is better than the dangers of the upper level during a bomb attack.
The word hell is not enough.

The main hazard in the "Black Echo", how the Cu Chi tunnels were often called by American soldiers, was not the enemy. From the total causalities among the inhabitants, 40% were caused by malaria and other diseases, parasites and venomous animals.

Rolling TrapRolling Trap | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Many booby traps at the tunnels were not designed to kill but rather take out one leg of a soldier. That way the whole team got slowed down and became an easy target.

For the sake of tourism they widened one 150 metres long tunnel to accommodate tall Europeans like me, added a light bulb every couple steps and emergency exits every 20 metres, just in case a visitor urgently needs to escape the claustrophobia inducing tube. I have been in there and for me it was fun, because there was no gun to carry, no enemies trying to kill me with terrifying booby traps, no centipedes injecting their venom into my neck, no dark, damp echo eating up my sanity.

It was just a tamed stretch of tunnel for visitors, but to hold on down there for a minute or two and think about how it really felt to live down there for years or to be one of the Australian "tunnel rats", trained to survive long enough, equipped with a gun, a knife, a lamp and a piece of string to root out a few enemies in a vast labyrinth that has never been mapped in its entirety. Now imagining that is damn scary.

Viet Cong Uniforms at Cu ChiViet Cong Uniforms at Cu Chi | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

You visit workshops where they display how for example worn out tyres got recycled and turned into cheap and sturdy sandals. You have the opportunity to try a bite of the Viet Cong's daily meal - steamed cassava. The starchy root tastes so plain that without the provided dip of peanuts, salt and sugar it's hard to get it down. However, we are spoiled and hunger is the best cook.

Eating Steamed Cassava at Cu Chi TunnelsEating Steamed Cassava at Cu Chi Tunnels | photo: (©) Frank Fox

There is more about the Cu Chi tunnels and I am definitely not finished with them yet. However, it's enough for this article for now. I suggest you check the place out for yourself when you are in Saigon - every travel agency offers tours and I give you options below.

One thing to mention as well is the shooting range at the tunnels. Myself I am not much of a gun person, I prefer machetes and swords, they are more intimate and personal.
However, at the shooting range you can buy ammunition from a stall and fire an M60 or Kalashnikov AK 47 and more. The guns are welded to the railing to prevent accidents.

Steamed TapiocaSteamed Tapioca | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Cu Chi Tunnels Tour Choices

Basically there are several options for Cu Chi Tours

Big Group Tour
The big group tours are the cheapest option and if you insist on haggling for every Dong, you will most likely end up in one of these. Well, at least they get you to the location and back again, but don't expect a lot of information or experience from one of these.
Big groups normally consist of 30-35 people.

Small Group Tour
That's the tour we took to visit Cu Chi Tunnels. We had an excellent tour guide named Dung who gave a lot of information on the history, structure and the daily life at the tunnels, and a fast bus connection. The bus picks you up at your hotel or travel agency if you stay around Ben Thanh Market or the Pham Ngu Lao Backpacker Area.
I'd say the small group tour for up to around 18 people is your best value for money.
Small groups normally consist of 18-20 people.

Window TrapWindow Trap | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Luxury Tour
Luxury tours are probably the best value on a higher level. You can expect good tour guides in a very small group who guide you around the area and explain the various stations.
Luxury groups normally consist of maximum 9 people.

Private Tour
Of course, if you can afford a private tour, this option is always available. Private tour guides explain to you what you want to know and you are not bound to other travellers on your trip. However, as always, the quality of private tours depends on the travel agency and season. During high season it may be quite tricky for a not so well connected agency to find a good tour guide and some of the cheapster tour offices even send one of their staff member to act as a guide to save money. On our tour with the small group we gathered much more interesting information than the private tours we bumped into could provide, so choose wisely.

Self Guided
If you rent a motorbike, you can get to Cu Chi in around 2 hours from the centre of Saigon and you can wander around the area and listen to various tour guides explaining the area. Of course you need to be able to read maps and stuff, otherwise you get lost and end up somewhere in Cambodia :D . Sporty fellows may tackle the tour by bicycle which takes about 3 hours if you are fit. Some people take a taxi, but that can be quite pricey.

But whatever tour option you choose, the entrance fee for Cu Chi Tunnels is (at the time I write this) 110.000đ and unless otherwise stated never included in the price given by travel agencies.

Bus or Boat

Usually tours can be undertaken by bus or speed boat. When you take one of the group tours, the guide will inform you on the bus that you can take a boat back to Saigon at some extra cost if you want. The speed boat is a bit faster than the bus because it's not impeded by heavy traffic.

Bamboo PipeBamboo Pipe | photo: (©) Frank Fox

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