HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – The sound of gunshots pierce the thick jungle air. I’m on my hands and knees, crawling through the subterranean darkness, sweating in places I didn’t know I had sweat glands.
“Keep on coming! Keep on coming!” urges a wiry Vietnamese man in fatigues, waving me forward.
We’re in the infamous Cu Chi tunnels, the Viet Cong’s network of secret underground passageways that proved to be one ginormous thorn in the side of the American military during the Vietnam War.
The claustrophobic tunnel system — dug by hand — at one time measured more than 120 miles, stretching from the Cambodian border to the outskirts of what was then Saigon. A virtual city, the web of tunnels was home to local villagers seeking shelter from bomb raids, plus thousands of Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese Army-backed guerrillas who battled South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. Here, right under the boots of American GIs, is where the Viet Cong ate, slept, hid and launched deadly surprise attacks.
It’s also where a select group of American soldiers — a k a tunnel rats — engaged in what has to be the world’s scariest game of hide and seek. These tunnel rats inched their way through the cramped, dark passageways, trying to find the enemy before the enemy found them. Something to think about this Memorial Day.
For obvious reasons, not a lot of soldiers wanted to set foot in these booby-trap-filled hell holes. But these days, the Cu Chi tunnels are one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist attractions. Some 1,000 visitors flock daily to the site, located about 45 miles from downtown Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).
Only a few short sections of the tunnels are accessible today. They’ve been expanded a bit to accommodate Westerners’ super-sized bodies, but that didn’t keep me from struggling to hunch low enough so my back wouldn’t scrape against the dirt ceiling.
“Are there snakes in here?” I ask my Vietnamese guide, who seems almost comfortable in these ridiculously confined quarters.
“Not anymore,” he answers with a big grin, followed by a few more rounds of “Keep on coming!”
Tourists can make their way through three sections of tunnels ranging from 150 to 650 feet in length. If you’re claustrophobic or have a bad back or knees, you’re probably better off staying above ground — at least when it comes to the longer tunnels.
And don’t worry: There’s plenty to see above ground. A display of horrific spiked contraptions once hidden under trap doors in the jungle floor, craters left by bombs dropped from B-52s, abandoned U.S. tanks you can climb in, mannequins of North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas — it’s like the Disneyland of Death and Destruction.
The whole experience gave me a better sense of what American soldiers went through. It’s one thing to stand in front of a war memorial or monument; it’s another to get down and dirty in the proverbial trenches, especially with the eerie sound of assault rifles blasting in the distance.
“If you want to shoot gun — AK-47 or M16 — you can do it … $13 or $14 buys 10 bullets,” says Nguyen Cao Van, my above-ground tour guide at Cu Chi. “If you don’t want to shoot gun,” he adds, “you can buy ice cream next door.”
Just like Disneyland.
Nguyen’s uncle was a colonel for the South Vietnamese army. After the war ended in 1975, his uncle spent seven years in a re-education camp.
“And he was a quick learner,” Nguyen says.
Nguyen’s wife is from North Vietnam. They tied the knot in 2005. Marriages between people from the North and South have become more common in the last few years, Nguyen says, now that animosity between both halves of the country has finally started to die down.
Before I arrived in Vietnam, I was a little worried that I might face lingering animosity over the American War, as they call it. When you carpet bomb a country and spray its landscape with Agent Orange, people might hold a grudge.
But the only accosting this Yank got was from overeager Vietnamese street vendors desperate to sell their bamboo bowls and other tchotchkes.
“What happened has happened,” Nguyen says, adding that most people in Vietnam are too young to even remember the war. Some 55 million of the country’s 87 million residents were born after Saigon’s fall in 1975.
“We don’t look to the past,” he says. “We look to the future.”