Perhaps the highlight of my recent trip to Saigon was my visit to the nearby Củ Chi tunnels. On Sunday morning just after 7 a.m., a van picked me up at my hotel and took me to a nearby pier on the river (point A on map below) where I joined up with nine other people for a Saigon River Express Tour. We boarded a 35 foot speedboat for a 90 minute ride about 45 miles up the river (Sông Sài Gòn) to the tunnel complex (B).
An important asset for the Viet Cong (VC) guerrilla forces, the Củ Chi tunnels actually date back to the late 1940s when villagers dug small bunkers to be safe from raids by the occupying French forces. Over time, passages connected these underground rooms to each other and the tunnel system evolved. The system contained underground kitchens, hospitals, command posts, sleeping quarters, meeting rooms, air raid shelters, and rooms to make uniforms, sandals, and weapons.
Life in the tunnel system was difficult. Centipedes, spiders, fire ants, mosquitoes, and scorpions infested the tunnels and the jungle was full of cobras and poisonous snakes. Malaria and intestinal parasites were rampant among the tunnel inhabitants, and bombing and shelling often meant staying underground for days, weeks, or even months at a time. The estimates are that only one-third of the tunnel inhabitants survived.
The tunnels were at three depths — 3 meters (10 feet), 6 meters (20 feet), and 9 meters (30 feet) — and the system ran from the Saigon River to the Cambodian border. The tunnels were dug by hand using small picks and shovels to cut into the hard soil. The dirt was removed in small woven baskets and either dumped into the river or into the large craters made by the 750 pound bombs dropped by U.S. B-52s. Because the ground is so hard, there was no need for any structural reinforcements even for large rooms at the lowest depths of the complex. Indeed, the first level tunnels could support the weight of a 50-ton U.S. tank and withstand artillery bombardment. By the end of the war, the Củ Chi tunnels extended for 120 miles.
The Củ Chi tunnels were a primary base for the VC during the 1968 Tet Offensive, particularly for the attacks on Saigon. They were also the last leg of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that brought troops and supplies from the North to the VC rebels in the South. River access to the tunnels was important both to allow entry from the river but also to drain water into the river when U.S. forces attempted to flood the tunnels. The tunnels contain trap doors that could isolate portions of the system to defend against attempts by U.S. troops to use toxic gas to flush out their enemy.
Fresh air and water were vital for the inhabitants of the tunnels. Wells were dug within the tunnel system to provide fresh, clean water. Underground air shafts lead to ground-level air vents that were disguised to look like anthills or termite mounds. To prevent detection by U.S. sniffer dogs, the Vietnamese would place either strong chili powder or flakes from soap stolen from U.S. barracks near the vents. Smoke from the kitchens was dispersed through long chimneys that vented far from the actual kitchens. The cooking was done only in the early morning so the smoke would also be camouflaged by the morning mist.
The U.S. Army had little idea about either the location or scope of the tunnel system and a U.S. supply base was unwittingly built directly above the tunnels. Attacks on the base left troops from the 25th Infantry baffled about where the guerrillas were coming from and, more importantly, disappearing to. Throughout the jungle were “spider holes” into which the VC could quickly disappear. These covered hiding places were quite small since the typical Vietnamese weighed less than 100 pounds and the entrances were easily camouflaged by leaves and other jungle debris.
Thousands of troops were deployed to find and destroy the tunnels, a mission that was largely unsuccessful. Củ Chi was ultimately designated a free-fire zone and was repeatedly carpet bombed by U.S. B-52 bombers. While this aerial bombardment ultimately destroyed much of the tunnel system, it happened too late in the war to change the tide. The Củ Chi tunnels allowed a poorly equipped, peasant army to slow the high-tech, better equipped U.S. and ARVN forces. By slowing down, terrorizing, and frustrating the enemy, the Củ Chi VC extended the fighting and ultimately helped win the war. The landscape around the tunnels is still scarred by bomb craters and fighting trenches.
The VC booby-trapped the trails throughout the jungle in order to slow down U.S. forces. Small markers, typically leaves and sticks, were used to guide the Vietnamese safely around these traps. While the fighters were happy to kill American forces, they also recognized that injuring Americans was a very effective way of slowing them down since other troops would stop to help and evacuate any injured soldier. Many type of traps were used and almost all used sharp metal spikes or bamboo punji stakes to impale the trapped G.I.
The VC used materials recovered from American equipment — parachutes, tires from destroyed vehicles, unexploded ordnance — to make camouflaged clothing, sandals, mines, grenades, and bombs. The sandals, made from used American tires, were quite ingenious since the front-to-back tread pattern on the left and right soles were reversed. This meant that U.S. forces could not tell from the footprints which way the VC were traveling. Consequently, troops would need to go in both directions, thus weakening and slowing down the force.
We were given the opportunity to go down into the tunnels. Even at the first level, the tunnels are small, tight, and pitch black. As I went through the first level that was 10 feet underground, I could easily feel the walls on both sides; the tunnel was maybe 18 to 20 inches wide. The tunnel was only about four feet tall, so one has to crouch, duck walk, or crawl most of the way. When I was crouching, I could feel my back rubbing against the ceiling. A few of the people in my group continued down to the second and third levels that were 20 and 30 feet, respectively, below ground, and even smaller in width and height. I did not feel any need to do this, so I exited with most of the others after about 100 feet. I have the utmost respect both for the Vietnamese who dug these tunnels and used them to fight a superior force as well as for the U.S. and Australian “Tunnel Rats” who went into these dark, narrow, forbidding tunnels in search of the enemy with just a handgun, a knife, and a flashlight.
Quick Bangkok Update
On Thursday, Nissan launched the new Sylphy sedan in Thailand. The local models are priced from 799,000 to 931,000 baht (about $25K to $30k) and they will compete in the heart of the market against Civic and Corolla. As with last year’s introduction of the Almera, an internal launch event was held at the plant, a press conference and dealer conference in the city, and a public launch event at Siam Paragon. Chompoo Araya, a Thai actress, and Pope Thanawat, a Thai actor, are the featured presenters of the Sylphy in the advertising campaign.
On Friday, I attended the American Chamber of Commerce’s Government Appreciation Dinner as a guest of Citibank. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the evening’s main speaker, confirmed that her government was committed to the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. She also announced that the government planned to spend $75 billion over the next several years to expand Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, to upgrade and improve the urban mass transit systems, to build high-speed rail links to Myanmar, Laos, and southern China, and to develop cargo rail lines to Malaysia and Singapore. I found it actually refreshing to hear a head of government not be afraid to say the word “spend”, so unlike Obama’s preference for the fraudulent use of “invest” and utter aversion to the word “spend”.
Last night, I went to the grand opening of El Gaucho, a new Argentinian steakhouse on Soi 19 in Asoke. The restaurant provided free food and wine, both of which were fabulous, and a home-made, caramel Grey Goose vodka that was excellent. Among the people I met were the Hungarian consul to Thailand and a Jesuit who directs an Asian study program for students from Loyola (Maryland) at Bangkok’s Assumption University. A return visit is certainly on the agenda.
Happy Labor Day to all!
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.