It was built by night over many years, one scoop of dirt at a time, dirt that was carried off and secretly dumped into the rice paddies. The vast Cu Chi tunnel network built just outside of Saigon — and the will on the part of the Vietcong to live and fight from them — was one reason that the communist forces won the war.
At one point, the Cu Chi tunnel complex had 130 miles of passageways. It allowed the Vietcong to become invisible, allowed weapons to move silently, concealed snipers and booby traps. To American soldiers, the tunnels stood for all that was horrific about fighting in Vietnam.
There were G.I.’s who specialized in raiding the tunnels — called “tunnel rats” — but they were a rare breed. Some of the tunnel entrances were designed so that in the dark, a soldier would feel his way along the wall, only to fall into a pit of pungi stakes — sharpened lengths of bamboo, sometimes smeared with dung to ensure infection, if not death.
In some cases, the last guerrilla fighter to enter a tunnel would set explosives around the entrance, so that an American who tried to follow would be blown up. At the same time, the blast would seal the entrance, allowing the Vietcong to escape through another passageway.
The tunnel entrances were so well concealed that even the fighters themselves needed an experienced guide. Duong Thanh Phong, a Saigon-based photographer, recorded the war from inside the tunnels for five years, said that at least once, he was mortified to find himself above ground, unable to find his way back to the entrance.
At the time, there was little other cover. The forest had been obliterated by U.S. bombers and helicopters. Rome Plow bulldozers finished off the work in this area, creating a wasteland — a free-fire zone. Still, the tunnels survived much of this destruction, in part because their builders had burrowed so deep, with the lowest of three levels out of reach even to crater-making B-52 bombs.
A legacy of sacrifice
The tunnel network, and low-tech arsenal of the Vietcong are sources of great pride, and symbols of the sacrifice required to defeat an enemy that vastly outgunned them. Some fighters spent months at a stretch underground in miserable conditions. There were extended black-outs for precautionary reasons, oxygen was thin and malaria was a problem.
Water wells had be built underground because the Americans sometimes booby-trapped or poisoned above ground wells. Cooking was done underground, with elaborate venting systems to release smoke so as not to draw attention of American troops.
The tunnels were used not only to hide soldiers, supplies and military meeting rooms, but also contained classrooms, kitchens and hospitals. During periods of fierce fighting, villagers also went underground. Babies were born there, classes were held for children. Cultural troupes provided entertainment to raise morale.
But the primary use of the tunnels was strategic, putting Communist forces in the midst of their American enemies — just 35 miles from Saigon.
“From the tunnels we were able to fight Americans from every angle,” said the Colonel Chau Lam, a veteran of the tunnels once known by the code name “Uncle Number Seven”. “They didn’t know where we were coming from. That way we could do more damage and limit casualties with fewer forces.”
The Vietcong devised ingenious ways to conceal the tunnels from the Americans, and from their German shepherds, which were used to sniff out Vietnamese through the tunnels’ air holes and smoke vents.
“We put hot chili peppers and garlic and all kinds of species in those areas, so once the dog smelled it, it would destroy their nose and they’d go yelping away,” said the Colonel.
Or, they would use American smells to get the dogs to go away. By planting an old piece of an American uniform, soap or after-shave near the air holes, the Vietcong made the dogs think it was friendly territory. The strategy worked so well, according to Chau Lam, that U.S. forces dissolved the dog units within six months of starting them.
Today, much of the network of tunnels has collapsed, but the government preserved a small section, which remains as a tribute to its fighting forces, and a grim reminder of war.
But Cu Chi has also become a popular destination for tourists to Vietnam.
Like so many tourist spots, Cu Chi has taken on a slightly campy look, as the war recedes into the past and tourist dollars flow into the operation. Models of robust, well-dressed guerrilla fighters — some of them too tall for the tiny passageways — grace the path to the tunnels.
The old tunnel entrances have been greatly enlarged to accommodate larger visitors from the West. The Cu Chi gift shop has been well stocked with souvenirs — pith helmets and Ho Chi Minh tee-shirts. And for those who want to pay a stiff price, there are AK-47s with live ammo at the Cu Chi shooting range.
For the young who come here, people who don’t remember the war, Cu Chi is a Disneyland version of the struggle.
But for those who fought within, the tunnels were a necessary evil. They were not meant, says the colonel, for the sake of cruelty, but were an expression of the will to survive and to claim independence for the country.
“We didn’t want to kill American soldiers,” the colonel said. “But we had to just to make them leave the country. Eventually they did decide to leave. So we won. We won a great victory.”
Battle Scars is a joint production of Newsweek and MSNBC, with MSNBC’s Andrew Locke producing the video images.