Written September 1996
The Cu Chi Tunnels
By Dylan Foley
A gigantic American military base was built near the village of Cu Chi in the mid-1960s, 40
miles from what was then Saigon. The GIs couldn't figure out why they were suffering guerrilla
attacks within their own perimeter at night. Soon after the attacks started, they discovered
that the concertina wire was useless, for they'd built their base on top of a massive Viet Cong
The Cu Chi Tunnels were a 120-mile tunnel system that started as a series of trenches built
during the French War. In the 1960s, the tunnels allowed the Viet Cong to launch attacks in
Saigon and to wait out American bombardments. I decided that I wanted to tour Cu Chi after I
heard the stories of my boss, an electrician who had served in the area around Cu Chi called
the Iron Triangle.
On Pham Ngu Lao Street, over the past few years, several tour companies have popped up offering
tours of Cu Chi. I chose the Sinh Tours, which is run out of Sinh Cafe, a backpackers' mecca in
an area of cheap travelers' hotels and hostels. The tour cost $4 and besides Cu Chi, included a
stop at Cao Dai Temple.
The bus departed at 8:30 am, with about 30 Europeans, Japanese and American tourists. The tour
guide was a Mr. Song. Song was in his late forties and had honed his English while training in
Colorado with the Strategic Air Command. After 1975, he spent one year in a reeducation camp
and 19 years as a cyclo driver, restricted from using his English because of his war record.
The tour bus was in good condition, though the Korean advertisements on the seat covers
betrayed its country of origin.
At 11 am, we arrived at Cao Dai Temple and its surrounding compound. The Cao Dai faith is a
hybrid of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, which fielded its own army during the American War,
fighting on the South Vietnamese side.
The temple is a massive structure with ornate carvings. Services are held there four times a
day, and the tourists take their shoes off and go up in the gallery. The Cao Dai adherents come
in wearing white and the priests wear red, blue and yellow robes, with a third eye on their
hats. Some translation was provided by a gregarious elderly priestess, but after 45 minutes we
were hustled out.
The tour stopped at a nearby restaurant, where the menu was primarily stir-fry and fried rice
cooked for Western taste. It was necessary to avoid the baguettes, for they were crawling with
After lunch, the tour was invited to examine the brick factory behind the restaurant, which was
on the Saigon River. Red clay was brought by boat to the factory. A man carried the clay up the
hill to a large machine that is reminiscent of a very large pasta maker. Two preadolescent
girls stuffed clay into the machine and the bricks came out as long blocks, which were cut off
and brought to the kilns to be fired. A local teacher said that the children who worked in the
factory went to school for four hours each day and worked for eight hours.
We got on the bus for another two hours and were at Cu Chi by 2:30 pm. The village of Cu Chi
was in an area where some of the most brutal fighting of the war took place. According to the
man I know who served there, napalm and Agent Orange destroyed the countryside. Now, the jungle
is thick again.
The bus dropped us off at the Cu Chi Visitors" Center. A perturbed army soldier demanded exact
change for the three-dollar entrance fee for foreigners [Vietnamese are only charged 30 cents].
We were given a lecture by a young woman soldier dressed in Viet Cong black pajamas, checked
scarf and floppy hat. Mr. Song translated.
After the lecture, we were shown a circa 1965 propaganda film on the tunnels, with an English
narration. Footage showed pretty Viet Cong women shooting at American soldiers. This footage
was spliced with footage from a different film showing American soldiers retreating. "Tran Thuy
was awarded two medals for being a No. 1 American killer," said the voice-over. It is possible
that Vietnamese government tourism is still working some bugs out of its system. The film,
however, was useful because it gave insight into booby traps and how explosives from
undetonated bombs were used to make grenades.
When the film finished, another more friendly soldier took us on a tour of the tunnel
entrances. The jungle was very dense and dead vegetation covered the ground. Every minute or
so, a tourist would step on a simulated landmine, that would make a cracking sound. It was late
in the afternoon and there was an eerie calm to the jungle around the tunnel entrances. The
tourists stopped talking and observed a respectful silence.
The soldier pulled up a wooden box similar to a planter that concealed an opening 18 inches
long and eight inches wide. He slipped in and pulled the box in, obscuring the entrance. Two
slender men -- an American and a British tourist -- were able to squeeze in as well. Near the
hidden tunnel entrance, the guide showed us an American M-48 tank blown up by a landmine in
We were taken to a set of reconstructed tunnels, made for Western-sized tourists. Being
six-foot one, I found it to be a tight, claustrophobic fit. I could feel the blood pounding in
my head, and though I am usually fine underground, I felt ready and willing to hyperventilate.
These had lighting, so it was not completely dark like most of the wartime tunnels, but still
Outside, I found myself drenched in sweat and covered with dirt. Other smaller, European
tourists took a shot at the original size tunnels. I declined the opportunity and decided to
check out the Museum of Booby Traps, which consisted of a hut with no walls that displayed
horrific spiked devices that were used against French, American and South Vietnamese soldiers.
I walked over to the gift shop, which had a standard display of plastic army helmets and silk
scarves for sale. I looked at the tray of fake American dog tags and the Zippo lighters
inscribed with expressions like, "Let me win your hearts and minds, or I'll burn your hut
"The ones made in Vietnam are five dollars," said the woman behind the counter, pointing to the
shiny new lighters. "These are real and they are 15 dollars, said the woman, trying to keep a
straight face as she pointed to the battered, distressed lighters.
Despite her attempt at sincerity, I declined the fake war relics and went for a package of
postcards with attractive Viet Cong women firing rifles and scenes of daily wartime life
in the tunnels.
We started back to Ho Chi Minh City as dusk approached. Mr. Song stopped the bus at a bridge
near the tunnels. Around us and in the distance stretched out cultivated fields. In the river,
farmers had set up large drop nets to catch fish. It was the end of a hazy day, and the fog
obscured the mountains in the distance. In the west, a brilliant sunset lit up the sky. After
20 years, Cu Chi and the Iron Triangle were at peace.
Copyright 1996 All Rights Reserved Dylan Foley
This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the