In order to combat better-supplied American and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War, Communist guerrilla troops were known as Viet Cong (VC) dug tens of thousands of miles of tunnels, including an extensive network running underneath the Cu Chi district northwest of Saigon. Soldiers used these underground routes to house troops, transport communications and supplies, lay booby traps and mount surprise attacks, after which they could disappear underground to safety. To combat these guerrilla tactics, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces trained soldiers known as “tunnel rats” to navigate the tunnels in order to detect booby traps and enemy troop presence. Now part of a Vietnam War memorial park in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the Cu Chi tunnels have become a popular tourist attraction.
Digging the Cu Chi Tunnels
Communist forces began digging a network of tunnels under the jungle terrain of South Vietnam in the late 1940s, during their war of independence from French colonial authority. Tunnels were often dug by hand, only a short distance at a time. As the United States increasingly escalated its military presence in Vietnam in support of a non-Communist regime in South Vietnam beginning in the early 1960s, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops (as Communist supporters in South Vietnam were known) gradually expanded the tunnels. At its peak during the Vietnam War, the network of tunnels in the Cu Chi district linked VC support bases over a distance of some 250 kilometers, from the outskirts of Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border.
Did you know? "Tunnel rats," as American soldiers who worked in the Cu Chi tunnels during the Vietnam War were known, used the evocative term "black echo" to describe the experience of being in the tunnels.
As the United States relied heavily on aerial bombing, North Vietnamese and VC troops went underground in order to survive and continue their guerrilla tactics against the much better-supplied enemy. In heavily bombed areas, people spent much of their life underground, and the Cu Chi tunnels grew to house entire underground villages, in effect, with living quarters, kitchens, ordnance factories, hospitals, and bomb shelters. In some areas, there were even large theaters and music halls to provide a diversion for the troops (many of them peasants) and their supporters.
The war in the Cu Chi Tunnels
In addition to providing underground shelter, the Cu Chi tunnels served a key role during combat operations, including as a base for Communist attacks against nearby Saigon. VC soldiers lurking in the tunnels set numerous booby traps for U.S. and South Vietnamese infantrymen, planting trip wires that would set off grenades or overturn boxes of scorpions or poisonous snakes onto the heads of enemy troops. To combat these guerrilla tactics, U.S. forces would eventually train some soldiers to function as so-called “tunnel rats.” These soldiers (usually of small stature) would spend hours navigating the cramped, dark tunnels to detect booby traps and scout for enemy troops.
In January 1966, some 8,000 U.S. and Australian troops attempted to sweep the Cu Chi district in a large-scale program of attacks dubbed Operation Crimp. After B-52 bombers dropped a large number of explosives onto the jungle region, the troops searched the area for enemy activity but were largely unsuccessful, as most Communist forces had disappeared into the network of underground tunnels. A year later, around 30,000 American troops launched Operation Cedar Falls, attacking the Communist stronghold of Binh Duong province north of Saigon near the Cambodian border (an area known as the Iron Triangle) after hearing reports of a network of enemy tunnels there. After bombing attacks and the defoliation of rice fields and surrounding jungle areas with powerful herbicides, U.S. tanks and bulldozers moved in to sweep the tunnels, driving out several thousand residents, many of them civilian refugees. North Vietnamese and VC troops slipped back within months of the sweep, and in early 1968 they would use the tunnels as a stronghold in their assault against Saigon during the Tet Offensive.
Tourism in the Cu Chi Tunnels
In all, at least 45,000 Vietnamese men and women are said to have died defending the Cu Chi tunnels over the course of the Vietnam War. In the years following the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnamese government preserved the Cu Chi tunnels and included them in a network of war memorial parks around the country.
Visitors to Vietnam can now crawl through some of the safer areas of the tunnels, view command centers and booby traps, fire an AK-47 rifle on a firing range and even eat a meal featuring typical foods that soldiers living in the tunnels would have eaten.