The town of Cu Chi is a district of greater HCMC and has a population of about 200, 000 (it had about 80, 000 residents during the American War). At first glance there is little evidence here to indicate the intense fighting, bombing and destruction that occurred in Cu Chi during the war. To see what went on, you have to dig deeper – underground.
The tunnel network of Cu Chi became legendary during the 1960s for its role in facilitating Viet Cong (VC) control of a large rural area only 30km to 40km from HCMC. At its height the tunnel system stretched from the South Vietnamese capital to the Cambodian border; in the district of Cu Chi alone there were more than 250km of tunnels. The network, parts of which was several storeys deep, included innumerable trap doors, constructed living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories, field hospitals, command centres and kitchens.
The tunnels made possible communication and coordination between the VC-controlled enclaves, isolated from each other by South Vietnamese and American land and air operations. They also allowed the VC to mount surprise attacks wherever the tunnels went – even within the perimeters of the US military base at Dong Du – and to disappear suddenly into hidden trapdoors without a trace. After ground operations against the tunnels claimed large numbers of US casualties and proved ineffective, the Americans resorted to massive firepower, eventually turning Cu Chi’s 420 sq km into what the authors of The Tunnels of Cu Chi (Tom Mangold and John Penycate) have called ‘the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare’.
Cu Chi has become a place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese school children and communist-party cadres. Two sections from this remarkable tunnel network (which are enlarged and upgraded versions of the real thing) are open to the public. One is near the village of Ben Dinh and the other is 15km beyond at Ben Duoc. Most tourists visiting the tunnels end up at Ben Dinh, the favourite of bus tours; those seeking more of a surreal, funhouse atmosphere should head to Ben Duoc.