The site at Cu Chi is a 250km network of tunnels, which is an unbelievable feat of bucket and spade engineering - so unbelievable that the Americans never really understood just how vast and complex they were.
In his inimitable style of blurting out non-PC, but thoughtful comments, in the guise of dietary points, Keith Floyd nailed what went wrong for the American’s in Vietnam.
“All this heavy armament couldn’t crush the fighting spirit of the North Vietnamese, while one side was fighting on a diet of doubt, fear, hamburgers and coke the other had a clear conviction of victory and only a daily cup of rice, snake or rat and a handful of dried fish. As a cook, and not a military historian, that’s where I think the battles were won.”
OK, so there was more to it than just that, but Floyd’s comments about failing to understand your opponent and value of conviction are well made.
The Cu Chi tunnels are so much more than the idea that ‘tunnels’ might convey; the vast network is more like an underground town on three levels - 3 metres deep, 9metres and the deepest at 18 metres. Amongst the tunnels there are bunkers, kitchens, storerooms, meeting rooms, sleeping quarters, armouries and a command centre, all interconnected into a vast warren. There are lots of ventilation shafts and disguised smoke outlets as well as dozens of sealed doors to prevent gas and water spreading through the system.
Vietcong soldiers in the tunnels were kept supplied via the Ho Chin Minh trail and would regularly launch attacks on Saigon. Dozens of US military Operations tried to clear the tunnels using CS-type gases, flooding them, setting mines and sending in dogs but because there were endless escape routes and doors to seal off separate sections, they were never more than marginally successful.
The area around Cu Chi was also protected with horrific and deadly bamboo mantraps and it became notorious as ‘Deadly Ground’. After using bulldozers to ineffectively dig up some of the tunnels the Americans resorted to widespread carpet-bombing, which turned the lush jungle landscape into a barren moonscape. There are still B52 bomb craters around the site.
The tunnels themselves are terrifyingly small and entry routes are no more than 12 by 18 inches - way too small for the average American to access. Some tunnels have been enlarged to allow visitors to get a feel for what they were like but even these are horribly narrow and require you to walk bent double. Just a little way in I decided to settle for the concept rather then the claustrophobic reality.
Not surprisingly the Cu Chi tunnels have become a bit of a theme park with tour groups, a shooting range with old wartime weapons and souvenir shops selling bullets, grenades and other memorabilia. Except it’s not an imaginary theme park, it’s a place of historical significance – a tragic memory for many but a key part of Vietnam’s history and one they are very proud of.
Like all historical events, the recounting of stories depends on who is telling them. For the Vietnamese the Cu Chi tunnels are their Battle of Britain – fighting against overwhelming military power, never giving up and eventually prevailing against all the odds.