We were only in Ho Chi Minh city for one day overnight in order to catch a bus to Cambodia. We wanted to make good use of our time so we asked the locals what was the one must see/do in the city and the answer was unanimous: visit the Cu Chi Tunnels.
We booked an afternoon tour through our hostel, and walked around the city to get the lay of the land. The biggest observation we made right away had to do with the heat. It was different than being at the beach in Hoi An. This heat was thick, humid and overpowering. The minute you left your air conditioned room you are covered in sweat from head to toe. Every minute or so I had to swipe my brow and remove the endless sweat dripping down into my eyes. It’s hard to describe how thick the air felt walking around the city. It’s as if you could almost see the air. The heat and humidity combined with my asthma was not a good feeling. The only way to describe is comparing it to trying to suck air through a straw; except the air is thick like a milkshake. After w few hours, I started sounding like an old rattling set of pipes with my wheezing.
When it was time for our tour, we boarded a semi-air conditioned bus for the two hour bus ride to the tunnels. Our tour guide, Mr. Bean, used the time to share some of the history of the tunnels with the group. He also provided some personal stories from the Vietnam War. The only way to describe Mr. Bean is by using the word passionate. He has a thick Vietnamese accent and sometimes I wasn’t sure what he was saying but that didn’t stop me from feeling his passion or emotions about a harsh time in his country. Mr. Bean puts all his energy into sharing these gut wrenching stories with you and at the end of each one he would lean towards the person closest to him, look them in the eye and ask “understand?”
We learned that Mr. Bean served in the American Navy and assisted US Troops in navigating the Cu Chi Tunnels. He taught us that the tunnels were built in Southern Vietnam by the Viet Cong (VC) who were Communist Supporters. The network of tunnels, which extended over 250 kilometers, received their name because they were located in the Cu Chi District.
The purpose of these tunnels were to evade US troops and Vietnamese troops in the South (Non-Communist). Through the use of the tunnels they were successful because the USA used primarily aerial bombs and the VC would just go down into their tunnels and wait on until it was safe to come back up again. The villagers and VC would go underground and spend hours, days, weeks in these tunnels in order to avoid the enemy and their gas bombs.
Now these tunnels are small! You know those children’s tunnels that you see at gymnastics classes or mommy and me places? The kind a small toddler crawls through for fun? That’s the original size of the Cu Chi Tunnels! We couldn’t believe that the Viet Cong were able to survive in these tiny tunnels for long periods of time. How was this possible. Mr. Bean explained this in great detail. First, he did a squat stance down low to the floor with both his feet flat on the ground. This wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed someone sit like this. Most of the locals sit like this at the market or when eating the street food. Many of the chairs and tables at street carts are so short that you have to squat down to sit on them. Also, a lot of the toilets are very short and low, low, low to the floor. Mr. Bean called this the “Asian squat.” He said this was an invaluable skill during the war. See, the Viet Cong could squat in this stance for hours. Mr. Bean said that this squat position is so comfortable that the VC would stay in the squat and take a nap, smoke a cigarette, eat their food and wait until all the bombing had ended. This didn’t mean that the VC didn’t take the war above ground. They used their stealth and squat skills to hide in the jungle. When their enemy would walk past them, athey would shoot just one person. While the enemy would start shooting (at waist or eye level) the VC would just stay in a squat waiting for the shooting to stop (they didn’t want to waste any bullets) and then fire back eliminating the enemy one at a time.
The VC also created booby traps that were extremely effective. They did all this with minimal resources. They didn’t have the technology or the funding that the Non-Communist Vietnamese troops received from other countries but their tunnels and booby traps gave them the ability to outwit the enemy and retain their land. Mr. Bean really helped us understand the driving force behind the Viet Cong. He said, “They did it because they loved their land. They were trying to keep what belonged to them and this fierce passion is what drove them to great lengths to fight for it.”
When we arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels we were in a dense jungle atmosphere (if you thought it was hot in the city….). The first part of the tour takes you around the jungle to point out the different booby traps used by the Cu Chi people.
This one is hard to see, the VC called it a “trap door.” Someone would hide inside with a gun. Wait until the enemy had walked past and start shooting. The leaves cover the trap door making it nearly invisible.
The tour included replicas of the Cu chi people and how they created weapons to use against the enemy during the war. One room showed how the villagers used leftover bombs dropped by the US. Some of these bombs did not detonate. The VC would find the bombs and using a handsaw they’d penetrate the outer metal shell.
They had to cool the metal as they were sawing through it because a spark from the friction of the handsaw could cause the bomb to ignite (and many did). They did this process to create deadly land mines that were then buried all throughout the jungle. Mr. Bean informed us that there are still some parts of Northern Cambodia that are very dangerous because some of the landmines are live and buried there.
It was now time to go down to the tunnels. During the entire tour, Mr. Bean had been preparing everyone for this part of the tour. He had told us that the tunnels themselves were extremely small and referenced that they were made for “Asian-sized” bodies. He added that over the years, the tunnels had been expanded in width to allow those of us Americans with extra “girth” to fit through them. But they were still going to be very small. They had also added electricity to the portion of the tunnels that we would crawl through. There were tiny night lights plugged in every few meters to provide some light. We would only be crawling through 90 meters of the tunnels. That doesn’t sound very long, but trust me when I say that it felt like ten miles.
Mr. Bean explained to us that once inside the tunnels if we became claustrophobic or for any other reason decided that we could not continue we should exit one of the escape hatches. There were a total of five escape hatches in the tunnel system we explored. These escape hatches were a small side hole that had a ladder leading up to the surface. This is where the Viet Cong would come to stretch their legs and it was also the only source of fresh air. (Photo above is of what an escape hatch looked like from above ground during the war. It looks like a pile of rocks and dirt, nothing more)
Once you climb down these stairs you’re in a small room and in one corner there is a small hole. The hole comes up to just above my knees. I already started to feel short of breath. So I stepped out of line. I told Super Nel to go on ahead, I was going to catch up. I let most of our tour group go in the tunnel ahead of me while I sat down catching my breath, focusing on my breathing and doing some positive self talk. I stepped into the tunnel at the next break in the line.
The tunnel seemed to get smaller as I took the first five steps inside. I think what made it worse is the inability to see what lay ahead in the tunnel. A part of it was the dim lighting (I had packed a head lamp for our Asia trip but it was left behind in my luggage, #regret) and the other part is that there are people in front of you so you have to go at their pace (and I could hear people in the middle of the group taking damn selfies which only slowed us down even more). I was doing a duck walk like everyone else and moving through the tunnel. It was extremely uncomfortable. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move, my back hurt and it’s so dark inside. When I saw the first escape hatch I quickly crawled into it and stood up.
Standing up had never felt so good. I started taking really deep breaths. I started to climb up the ladder ready to end this adventure when a little voice in my head said “You’re really going to quit Andy? Don’t you want to be able to say you finished this? You won’t be able to say on your blog that you made it to the end. Come on, you don’t quit from challenges that easily.” My brain was trying to talk me back into the tunnel.
I knew if I went back in the tunnel, I had to do something about my gear. I currently was holding the small 24 liter Osprey daypack that Super Nel and I share. I had been carrying it on my chest since Mr. Bean had encouraged us to do so. He said it would be easier to squat and walk with it that way. I knew I wouldn’t make it through the rest of the tunnel doing a duck walk because it put too much pressure on my lower back. I moved the backpack onto my back and secured the chest and waist straps. I also had my straw hat and my hydroflask. I was able to attach the hydroflask to the chest strap of my backpack and continued holding my hat in my hand. I was now ready to leave the escape hatch.
I had decided to crawl on my hands and knees instead of duck walking. Even crawling proved to be hard. The only way to describe how I looked in the tunnel is for you to imagine I was doing a half push up with my arms bent at a ninety degree angle and on my knees crawling at the same time. This hurt my knees because I’m crawling on hard stone and every now and then there’s rocks in the stone. However, this was still easier than the squat walk. Since my chest was so close to the ground as I was crawling, this meant my hydroflask was dragging along the ground making a loud metal sound. I didn’t care, I was doing it. I made it past one escape hatch but when I came to a third I had to take a break. I took a few seconds to catch my breath. I eyed the escape hatch ladder longingly but my positive self-talk kicked in (never underestimate the power of positive self talk!) and my brain said “You’ve climbed all the way to the top of Duomo in Florence and climbed the steps of the Arc de Triumph in France-don’t you want to know you were able to crawl through the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam?! You can do this! Get back in there and crawl!”
That’s just what I did. This time I was pretty far away from anyone in front of me. So instead of holding my straw hat in my hand, I started sliding it as far as I could push it in front of me. Then I would crawl to the hat and repeat the process. I think this provided a good distraction from the fact that the tunnel was starting to look and feel like it was getting smaller. Was this possible? I hoped it was only my mind playing tricks on me. I didn’t know how much farther we had left until the end of the tunnel. I had caught up to a few people from our tour group and they said the tunnel was getting smaller ahead and we had to slide down a section flat on our backs in order to get through it.
My heart started racing. I was scared. All kinds of thoughts were going through my head: what if I got stuck, what if I fell at the end of the slide, what if I can’t breathe?! I was really having trouble catching my breath and there was no escape hatch in sight. I had let the people in front of me go around the corner while I stayed in the same spot trying to figure out what to do.
I tried to find say some positive self talk, but my brain was all out of encouragement. I relied on the one thing that my heart could say when my brain runs out of juice, “You can do this. You’re Wonder Woman and she never backs down from a challenge.”
The slide part of the tunnel was tricky. I had to take my backpack off my back and hug it to my chest along with the hydroflask. I sent my straw hat down the slide ahead of me. Then I laid on my back. Since this slide wasn’t slick it wasn’t like you actually slid down a slide. I still had to shimmy by body down the path. So I would bend my knees as far as I could in the tunnel, dig my heels in and pull my body down. When I landed on the lower level, I continued crawling. I came to an escape hatch and popped into it for a much needed break. I didn’t know how much longer I could go. I didn’t know how much more was left to crawl through. The next thing I knew, a guard popped his head in the escape hatch. He started speaking to me in Vietnamese. I told him I didn’t understand. He pointed to the ladder in the escape hatch and said “You go up now!” But I didn’t want to quit. I pointed to the tunnel and told him I wanted to finish. He said “hurry!” I quickly got into my crawling position and resumed my tossing the straw hat and crawling to it technique.
I had tossed my hat and crawled to a few times when I noticed there was no more light in the tunnel. I couldn’t see any night lights plugged in ahead. I was now crawling in the dark trying to feel my way through. All the while a guard was right at my feet saying “Go, go, go!” I was crawling blindly as fast as my hands and knees could go. Then I came around a corner and saw light up ahead and I heard voices. I was hoping it was the end of the tunnel and when I arrived to the light it was indeed the exit. I saw Super Nel right away and gave him a dust covered hug as I said, “I can’t believe we made it all the way through!” He then looked at me and said, “Actually, you made it. I went out the first escape hatch.”
I was hot, dirty and my gear was all scratched up, but I didn’t care. I can now say that I’ve survived the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. And I have a whole new level of respect for the people who lived down in that tunnel system for months.
Next I’ll be blogging about our time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, It was a very emotional visiting their Genocide museum and Killing Fields. It was hard to take it all in but worth it.