It is hard to believe the conflict that once existed in the beautiful and now peaceful district of Cu Chi. Underneath the rubber trees in Cu Chi lies vast network of underground tunnels, extending from outskirts of Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels construction began in late 1940 by Viet Minh while fighting the French colonialists. They used the tunnels as a hiding place from the French air strikes. The communist guerrilla troops known as Viet Cong, continued construction of the tunnels into the Vietnam War, or the American War as it’s called in Vietnam.
Cu Chi district is part of the Iron Triangle, a 300 square km area supportive of the Communist regime, both during the French and American War. The area remained a stronghold of the National Liberation Front during the war.
Strategically, the Cu Chi Tunnels location was an important post in the Ho Chi Minh Trail which was used to transport troops and supplies from North to South.
- Do the Cu Chi Tunnels on a scooter
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- Taka a half-day tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels
By the end of the Vietnam War, the tunnel system is thought to have been close to 250 km, or 155 miles. Peasants and villagers from nearby villages dug the tunnels along with the Viet Cong. Excess mud had to be disposed off during night, either to the Saigon River or nearby rice fields.
The Cu Chi Tunnel system became a underground village. It would have kitchen, school, workshops, living quarters, meeting rooms, bomb shelters, weapon factory and even hospitals.
The Viet Cong, or the National Liberation Front used the tunnels to hide against the U.S. Military and South Vietnamese troops. They would transport communication, supplies and troops within the tunnel system as they moved closer to Saigon.
The Vietnam War Tunnels proof to be a strategic advantage for the Northern Vietnamese Army. The U.S. Military had built much of their military strategy around aerial bombing, which had forced the Viet Cong underground. Facing a much better equipped military, the Viet Cong turn to guerilla tactics. They would leave the tunnels at night for an ambush and make a quick return to the tunnels.
The U.S. Military and the South Vietnamese forces recognized the advantage of the tunnels and made several attempts to take over the area. Most of the attempts were unsuccessful. The 2 major attempts to take over the area was Operation Crimp in 1966 and Operation Cedar Falls in 1967.
Operation Crimp was combined effort of B-52 bombers and 8,000 U.S. and Australian troops. Despite the massive effort and extensive bombings, it was unsuccessful. In Operation Cedar Falls, the U.S. had 30,000 troops, including tunnel rats fighting the Viet Cong in Cu Chi. The carpet bombs and tunnel rats only brought short-term success as the Viet Cong took the tunnels over again few months later.
The well-built tunnels were an engineering masterpiece and the complexity of them is astonishing, specially considering they were mostly built by farmers using hands and shovels. The way they were able to dispose of any smoke from the kitchen, air ventilation and collection of water. They had escape routes and booby traps that made the tunnels very difficult to deal with for the U.S. troops.
The smoke from kitchen and weapons factory was ventilated through multi-chambered chimneys. The chimneys and ventilation holes were disguised through termite mud tubes and anthills.
After the country opened up in 1990s, the Cu Chi area was cleaned up and the tunnels have become a major tourist attraction.
Cu Chi Tunnels facts
- The construction began in 1948 and took 25 years to build.
- They extend from Saigon to the Cambodian border.
- At its peak, the total length of the tunnel system is though to be 250 km / 155 miles.
- They go 10 meters / 32 feet deep into the ground.
- Tunnel rats used the term “black echo” to describe being in the tunnels.
- Over 45,000 people died defending the Cu Chi tunnels during the Vietnam War.
- Most tunnels were only 2 – 2½ feet wide and 4½ feet tall
Life in the Cu Chi Tunnels
The tunnels might have been strategically important and gained much advantage to the Viet Cong, but the life in the tunnels wasn’t easy. The tunnels were filled with insects, venomous centipedes, ants and rodents. Food and water were scarce and during the heaviest bombing, Viet Cong would have to remain in the tunnels for days on end.
Few places in Vietnam are as symbolic for the toughness of the Vietnamese people like the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Malaria plagued the people living in the tunnels. After battle wounds, malaria was the main cause of death of the Viet Cong. Some reports suggest that as much as half of all Viet Cong living in the tunnels were infected with malaria at any given time.
The Viet Cong would only come out at night to get supplies, mind the crops and make attacks. During the day, they would all have their tasks in the tunnels as it operated as any other village.
Tunnels were divided into 4 levels reaching down to 10 meters below the ground. 1st level was 3-4 meters down and housed ventilation and firing posts and was filled with booby traps. 2nd level housed kitchen and living quarters. 3rd level housed hospital and storage room for food and weapons. 4th level included a well for fresh water and underwater escape route to the Saigon River.
The Vietnam War Tunnel Rats
The Tunnel Rats were volunteer U.S., Australian and New Zealand servicemen that were specially trained to search and destroy the tunnels created by the Viet Cong. They would be tasked to navigate the booby traps, gather intelligence and kill enemy solders.
The Tunnel Rats were small figured solders but even so, they had a hard time crawling the tight tunnels which were only 2 – 2½ feet wide and 4½ feet tall.
Cu Chi Tunnels Tourist Attraction
Much of the tunnels have now collapsed but parts have been maintained and are now open tourists. In addition to having access to the tunnels, you’ll also see how people lived in and around the tunnels and what they ate. You’ll see the booby traps and weapons, and you’ll even have a chance to shoot some of them if you want.
You will have several options for traveling to the tunnels. Almost every travel agency in Saigon will offer tours to Cu Chi Tunnels. Or you can take the bus, motorcycle or private car, all depending on your preference and budget.
The entrance fee is VND 90,000. In addition to the entrance fee you will have to purchase a guide for VND 20,000 unless you’re in a scheduled tour. Don’t rely on the compulsory tour guide for much information. He or she is mostly there to make sure you stay on the tracks on don’t go wondering into the woods.
The tour usually starts with watching a 30 minute, fairly amusing, propaganda documentary film from the 1970s about the history of the tunnels, the construction and the design. The movie is shown in a dug down amphitheater covered with camouflaged roof. From there you will see a disguised entrance to the tunnel and you will have the opportunity to have your photo taken while you crawl into the entrance, something most tourists do.
The main attraction of the site is of course the tunnels itself. They have maintained and enlarged small part of the tunnels for tourists to crawl through. The tunnels have been made bigger to accommodate tourists. They are not for the claustrophobic though, as you still have to crawl on all fours through the 10-15 feet tunnels. No one is forced to go through the tunnels so you can skip that part if you want.
During the approximately 2-hour walk through the area you’ll see several depression in the ground from all the B-52 bombs that bombed the area during the war.
The tour ends at a souvenir shop where you can get Vietnam War memorabilia along with more standard Vietnamese souvenirs. And if you didn’t get enough of the propaganda video in the beginning of the tour, you can buy it there. You will also have the option of shooting AK-47s and M-16s at the shooting range.
The tunnels are open from 8 am to 5 pm every day.
The Cu Chi Tunnels have two different access sites for tourists to visit. Ben Dinh Tunnels and Ben Duoc Tunnels. The admission fee for both is the same and the setup of the tours are similar.
The Ben Dinh Tunnels is where most tourists go. It can get very busy with thousands of tourists visiting each day. It is cleaner and more has been done to make the area appealing to tourists. And a major advantage is that it’s closer to Saigon than the Ben Duoc access to the tunnels.
The Ben Duoc Tunnels will give you more authentic experience. It is also a lot less crowded but it will take you about an hour extra to get there.
The Cu Chi Tunnels Shooting Range
The shooting range has become famous as there aren’t many places left where you can shoot Ak-47s, M16s and jeep-mounted machine guns. You have to be at least 16 years of age to shoot and hey charge price per bullet.
Shooting range per bullet prices:
- M16: VND 50,000 (USD 2.15)
- M30: VND 45,000 (USD 1.93)
- Carbine: VND 40,000 (USD 1.72)
- AK-47: VND 60,000 (USD 2.58)
- M60: VND55,000 (USD 2.36)
- Garand M1: VND 45,000 (USD 1.93)
How to get to Cu Chi Tunnels from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Most tourist go to Cu Chi Tunnels on scheduled bus trips through tour operators or travel agencies as that is the most convenient. But you have other options such as by speedboats, private car, motorcycle or even public bus. No matter which option you take, it will take you 2-3 hours to travel from Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Traveling to Cu Chi Tunnels by Bus
There are private bus and minivan companies offering scheduled services directly from Saigon to Cu Chi Tunnels. It will cost you as little as USD 10 for round trip. But if your budget is really tight, you can easily take the public bus and only pay VND 7,000 (USD 0.30) each way. Take bus 13 from Saigon’s main bus terminal in District 1 to Cu Chi. In Cu Chi terminal you will have to change the bus and take bus 79 to the tunnel entrance.
Traveling to Cu Chi Tunnels by Boat
Les Rives, Saigon Boat Company and Saigon River Tours all offer boat rides to Cu Chi Tunnels on modern speedboats. It is very convenient, as you won’t be affected by the traffic and you’ll enjoy the scenic view on the way.
You can expect to pay around VND 2,000,000 (USD 85) for a half-day tour on a speedboat. It is about 2-hour boat ride from Saigon to the tunnels.
Tips for traveling to Cu Chi
- Go early. It’s cooler and there will be less people.
- Bring water.
- Bring insect repellent.
- Expect to get dirty. So bring clothes that can get dirty.
- Crawling the tunnels is not for claustrophobic.
- Bring some snack, specially if you’re not part of organized tour.
Is visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels a “must-do” while you’re in Saigon? Maybe not a must, but it’s well worth visiting. Spending half a day exploring the tunnels to give you insight into the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese toughness and resilience.