A war adventure

Vietnam visit

A war adventure

A quiver of fear slithers up my back as the silence is abruptly broken by ear-shattering blasts in succession, making my hair stand on edge. It is raining M16s and AK-47s as macho tourists try their hands at the weapons, coughing up a few dollars for a couple of shots. We are at Cu Chi Tunnels, the ingenious labyrinthine network of underground pathways that served as a hideout for the Viet Cong guerrillas during their independence struggles. First, against the French colonialists to escape their army sweeps of the area, and then against their anti-Communist South Vietnamese counterparts strongly supported by the American troops during the Vietnam War.

Now transformed into a sort of war memorial by the Vietnam government, Cu Chi is a money-spinning tourist spot that visitors to Ho Chi Minh City seldom fail to visit.
History, six-feet-under

History lies buried, 70 km northwest of the city, within the elaborate and intricate three-tiered network of narrow tunnels that were dug out for the first time in the late 1940s. At its peak, the Cu Chi tunnel network covered around 250 km — from the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, then Saigon, to the Cambodian border in the west. Out of the extended network, only two sections — Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc — are open for the public. The complicated system of passageway took 25 years to build, most of it with primitive tools and bare hands.

I am forced to revisit the pages of history as we begin our tour of Cu Chi, watching first, footage of a video that captures the brutal details of combative techniques adopted by the warring guerillas. The tunnels served multiple purposes to the warring Viet Cong guerrillas — they were hideouts, communication and supply routes, dining area, armament store and manufacturing outlets, living quarters, recreation centres, and hospitals.

Beneath the seemingly innocuous veneer of brown earth strewn will withered and fallen leaves from the cornucopia of trees lie surreptitious grottos of misery and anarchy. Camouflaged pits, a part of the tunnel system, actually contained hordes of booby traps, a variety of them, evil and gruesome, designed to injure, cripple and kill the enemies who set foot into the hideouts. We see several of these displayed. No doubt they are bone chilling to observe even today, decades after the war. But the hard truth is forcefully driven home by the ingenious manner in which a determined Viet Cong had been resourceful in successfully conducting the guerilla warfare.

Built and operated at three levels, Cu Chi’s first level of tunnels served as stores and guard rooms, the second level doubled up as resting area and hideout for the guerrillas. Further below, the third level of tunnels, the most narrow and claustrophobic region, served as shelters during an actual raid or bombings.

As we walk along the well-marked out pathways canopied by dark green in several areas, there is hushed silence, broken now and then by exclamations of shock and disgust by fellow tourists. The tunnels bear testimony to Vietnam’s brutal and tenacious history, to the atrocities committed during the war. What we witness allows us to presume that some kind of a pseudo civilisation was created by the Viet Cong beneath the Cu Chi soil to combat and take on the enemy.

All for survival
We are left speechless by the design and architecture of these burrows that served several utilities at once and a perfect ploy for the enemy seeking to penetrate it. If the entrances to the dugouts are not more than a metre wide at max, their interiors are veritable hell holes wherein a single wrong turn could spell doom with spiky booby traps and trip wires primed to detonate a grenade or throw up an army of stinging fire ants, or a nest of scorpions, perhaps even a cluster of spiders or snakes on unsuspecting victims. Though the kitchens themselves were built near the surface, their chimneys were so built to diffuse smoke from the burning fires and release it at a distance.

While Cu Chi might make for a good thriller novel, the tunnels in reality speak volumes of the harsh conditions in which the Viet Cong lived in these holes, facing multiple enemies at one time — heat, humidity, grave illnesses, deadly snakes and insects, and of course, their obvious enemy. The tunnel system was a place where men baked in a furnace-like ambience for months, but refused to give up. Undoubtedly, the war took its toll in more ways than one for Cu Chi dwellers, but it had become a way of life for them.

Unable to win the battle even with its superior armaments and chemicals, the US army began sending ‘tunnel rats’, men to fight the guerrillas on their own underground turf. Needless to say the ‘tunnel rats’ suffered high casualty in a combat area and experience they termed ‘black echo’.

When the Americans used trained German shepherd dogs to smell out guerrillas and their location, the Viet Cong began to wash their attires with American soap to throw the dogs off their trail. They also used uniforms of captured US soldiers to further confuse the dogs. The guerrillas crafted soles of footwear in a manner that they seemed to tread in directions opposite to the actual direction in which they travelled, thus making it difficult for the US forces to track their trail.

We wind our Cu Chi tour by picking up a couple of souvenirs. Nearby is a Vietnamese family making and selling the country’s speciality rice paper, churning out dozens within no time.

A heart-wrenching finale awaits us at Cu Chi tour exit. Vietnamese war veterans, most of them amputees, entertain visitors to the ‘memorial’ with an orchestral musical performance. The melody of their rendition rings in our ears, effacing from our thoughts, even if temporarily, the gruesome visions from the pages of history.

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