I couldn’t breathe. It felt like the tunnel was closing in on me. My only saviour was the small torch I gripped in my hand, allowing me to see as I put one foot after the other in front of me.
Ahead of me I could hear other people, bumping into the sides of the wall in the darkness, a few whimpers from people anxiously moving as quickly as they could toward the next exit.
The whole time, all I could think about was the people who lived and travelled through these tunnels, day in, day out.
I was pushing my way through the tunnels of Cu Chi, just out of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam.
During the Vietnam War, thousands – probably hundreds of thousands – of Viet Cong soldiers used this secret network of tunnels to control parts of the region. Estimates put the number at more than 250 kilometres of tunnels in the Cu Chi area alone. The soldiers lived and worked in these tunnels, sometimes underground for weeks or months at a time.
The way the tunnels were cleverly concealed meant that American soldiers even built some camps on top of parts of this immense network, and were constantly confused by surprise attacks in the middle of the night – by VC who appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye.
What’s frightening to me as I crawl along is that these tunnels have been widened for tourists – I’m already feeling claustrophobic, so it’s difficult for me to imagine the conditions the VC soldiers faced as they lived and fought in these tunnels, surrounded by almost-constant darkness, rats, and rancid and stale air.
Several tours from Ho Chi Minh City will take you to Cu Chi – it seems that every hostel and hotel offers some kind of visit here. Which, of course, means it’s a very busy place.
The tour starts with an overview of the Vietnam War and the history of these tunnels. They were actually built several decades before the start of the war, and were reconstructed and repaired to be used by the VC.
After the introduction, visitors are taken along a walk through the forest around the Cu Chi area. Volunteers from the tour group bravely squeeze themselves into the trapdoors that lead to the tunnels – which themselves are unseen until pointed out to us by the tour guide. The trapdoors can’t be more than 50cm wide.
We’re shown horrific booby traps, all designed to maim and kill enemy soldiers in sickening ways.
Then we’re invited to descend into the depths of the tunnels to experience life as a VC soldier for ourselves. Cockily, I push to the front of the line, dismissing the tour guide’s warnings that people can feel claustrophobic while down there, and that there are several exits throughout for those that wish to escape at any time.
I’m confident that I’ll make it to the end.
I exit at the third opportunity.
The air in the tunnels is musty, and the light from the small lamps stationed every few metres along give barely a flicker. I switch on the torch in my hand, which makes the journey a little easier.
The sunlight and fresh air when I climb out is welcoming.
The final test of the tour is whether I have the guts to pick up a gun and use it. The Cu Chi tunnels are well-known for the range of guns on offer for tourists to use. Needless to say, despite the tackiness of it, I have to prove myself after my weak effort in the tunnels. I pay US$1 per bullet and head to the firing range with my six bullets and stand behind the biggest gun there – an M60.
With only some cheap earmuffs as protection against the nerve-jarring “pop pop pop” of the guns around me, I take aim at the targets down the end of the range.
I learn that six bullets take less than a second to fire off.