Roughly 70 kilometres north-west of Ho Chi Minh City lays the sleepy, hamlet studded, lush green district of Cu Chi. Peaceful and tranquil, Cu chi provides a pleasant day trip into the Vietnamese countryside.
In wartime years, however, the Cu Chi district was the stage for some of the fiercest and most intense battles of the Vietnam War, as it was a Viet Cong stronghold uncomfortably close to the South Vietnamese and American troops in Saigon.
Cu Chi became famous for its tunnel system that, at its height, contained over 200 kilometres of multi-level passageways that allowed the Viet Cong to literally disappear underground, becoming an elusive, invisible foe. Coupled with their ingenuity and will to prevail, the Cu Chi guerillas became an inspiring force to their comrades of the North. The Cu Chi tourist brochure proudly describes this: “The tunnel system embodies the undaunted will, intelligence, and pride of Cu Chi people, a symbol of Vietnamese revolutionary heroism.”
American troops and their allies, of course, saw things differently. As regular ground offensives failed, the Americans made several attempts to flush out and destroy the Viet Cong in the Cu Chi district. They tried bulldozing, flooding, bombing, using thousands of dogs to locate the tunnels, employing smaller soldiers as “tunnel rats” and even scattering the landscape with grass seed in an attempt to disrupt the topography.
But the Viet Cong were resourceful. Largely cut off from northern supply lines, those in the Cu Chi district utilized everything available to them, living off a meager diet of rice, tapioca tree and tea. Old tires and inner tubes were used to construct sandals for the battle field, with the tire being the sole and the tube being the lashing to hold it in place. Metal was scavenged from American bombs and destroyed equipment, which was turned into crude mobile traps that could then be used against the enemy. Women farmed by day and then fought alongside the men at night. No moment of the day, no scrap of material, no morsel of food was wasted.
But years of fighting and hardship took their toll. The people of Cu Chi suffered high numbers of casualties and heavy bombing campaigns transformed the area into a lunar landscape. When the war ended, the people and the landscape of Cu Chi district showed their scars.
However, following the war the region was recognized for its roll in the North’s victory. The tunnels of Cu Chi were one of three national remains regions the government of Ho Chi Minh classified almost immediately after the war. More than three decades later, roughly a million visitors frequent the grounds of the Cu Chi tunnels annually to learn about the violent struggle of the past.