Friday, 24 April 2009

Cu Chi Tunnels

While me going traveling was about 40% just one day deciding that this was what I wanted to do. There were a few countries and places that I had always wanted to visit that were the catalysts for me actually wanting to go explore the world in the first place. The Củ Chi tunnels in Vietnam was one of these places. I doubt Ollie can even remember the conversation we had upon his return to the UK after he did a similar trip 4 years ago but what he told me about these tunnels here as well as the killing field and S21 prison in Cambodia they blew my mind and I thought back then that they were 3 places I really wanted to see for myself. So when I finally arrived at the Củ Chi tunnels, a place I never actually thought I would end visiting for myself, gave me a strange sense of achievement and the coming true of a small dream I'd had some 4 years earlier. I am writing this several weeks after vising the tunnels as well as after visiting the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison and while the Củ Chi tunnels did not really effect me emotionally like the 2 later places had, I did however find the place absolutely fascinating and only confirmed exactly why this had been such a big reason I had wanted to see the world.

The Củ Chi tunnels are basically a vast network of tiny underground tunnels that extend all over the country and were used by the Veit Cong during the Vietnam war. There was also a great deal of mantraps dotted around the site all using different and ingenious ways of killing/maiming/trapping anyone unfortunate enough to get caught in one. The basic gist of things in this area was that any American that ended up in the area was pretty much going to get merked. As the Viet Cong knew the area so well and with the vast network of tunnels and traps they had, an American was going to end up dead somehow be it from combat or ending up in one of the traps. As well as for general combat the tunnels were used for storage of supplies, as underground hospitals and even living quarters.

The day was pretty much like the sort of thing you would experience on a school trip back in the days of primary school. We all turned up after the 3 hours mini bus ride from Ho Chi Mihn city and were taken into a small army bunker to watch a 15 minute documentary about the tunnels made up mainly of archive footage showing the people who built the tunnels and what life was like for them living and fighting around them. Some of the most memorable stuff from the video was the footage of young children and teenagers with machine guns. One girl who could not have been more than about 14 rocked up at one point with a massive RPG and shoots at what I can only assume were some yanks from over the edge of a bunker. This proper surprised me so much so I let out a rather loud "Holy shit" disturbing the row in front of me who turned round and gave me a disproving look.

When that had finished we were shown a small model of the tunnels demonstrating what they would look like if you took a 30 foot dissection of them. Then we were taken off around the site. The first thing we saw was one of the traps, it was horrendous. It was basically a grass covered platform that the minute any weight was put on it, it would spin round revealing a 4 foot drop onto about 40 carved bamboo spikes. Anyone unfortunate enough to fall down there would be instantly ended for sure. This then took us to one of the entrances of the tunnel. A tiny little square hole surly no more than a foot squared. I managed to fit in and went down into one of the tunnels for a second and took the time to grab a few photo as you can see.

After that we were taken on a short walk past other concealed entrances to the tunnels as well as the odd bomb creator caused by the hundred of American bombs that were dropped onto the area. We were then shown a small bomb making factory the Viet Cong used. It was very basic and mainly seemed to consist of converting bits of used and unexploded bombs into bombs they could then use themselves. At one point we were taken past an wrecked US tank which the Viet Cong had taken out. Later I found out the US army actually want that tank back but the Vietnamese government have refused to let them come and get it. lolzzz.

One part of the tour involved being taken down a several hundred meter stretch of the tunnels from one entrance to the other. This was quality but absolutely killed my leg muscles for the next few days as I had to do a half walk/half crawl so that I didn't get all my things totally dirty. This was extremely tiring but well worth it. Legend has it that this particular part of the tunnels the tourists get to go down have been widened so that us fat westerners can fit through. I believe this as at some points even I had to squeeze through, so some people really would have struggled. The only other difference was that the tunnels were lit which obviously wouldn't have been the case back in the day. After my short several hundred meter journey though the tourist sector of the Củ Chi Tunnels I came to the conclusion that life in the tunnels must have been very hard, not that I wasn't thinking that already. Once out of the tunnels I was given some food and drink that the Viet Cong liked on while they were down in the tunnels. I can not remember what it was we ate but it was horrible. The drink was nice as it was just green tea although it was far to hot to be drinking tea that day I was a terribly sweaty mess that day.

The final part of my journey involved me finally making the transition from boy to man and firing a real gun. It wasn't just any old real gun though, it was a M16. For 100,000 Vietnamese dong I got to shot a grand total of 10 rounds at the shooting range at the tunnels. The M16 is officially the loudest thing I have ever experienced and the ear defenders I was provided with were about as much use as just sticking a tissue in each ear. For about a minute after firing the machine gun I had basically lost 90% of the hearing in my ears and if I poked them they let off a strange whizzing sound. This thankfully went away and all my hearing was restored back to 100% within 5 minutes. I have no idea how soldiers shoot those things everyday in battle, I can not describe how loud it was. Wowza is all I can say. Either way the transition from boy to man through firing a machine gun had worked as by the time I had got back into the mini bus I had chest hair. Amazing. Firing the M16 was so cool although unfortunately I don't think I hit the target once but nevertheless was well worth the 8 quid bite out of my budget.

Unfortunately there was one negative aspect to the day and that was the speed to which I was taken around the site. The tunnels are quite a big tourist attraction (obviously) and they get a lot of visitors. The site is quite small and they cannot really get many people in the tunnels or other attractions at once so our guide was really rushing us through so that the next group could get in. I had read that this was the case before we went so it wasn't a complete surprise it just would have been nice to have experienced the place at a lot slower pace and really take in everything that was on offer rather than just being whizzed along on what felt like a tourist conveyor belt.

Like I said at the beginning I found the whole place extremely fascinating and the dedication and the lengths the people of Củ Chi went to defending their land was just amazing. It was a brilliant trip well worth every penny paid and a day that I will remember for a long time, not only for being a fascinating insight into the life of the Vietnamese during the war but as well for doing something that played such a big part in the reason I wanted to go travel the world in the first place.