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The Cu Chi Tunnels: Vietnam's Deep, Dark Past

Cu Chi, now like most of Vietnam a gourmand's paradise, has come a long way. Outside the gate to the tunnels, refreshment and souvenir kiosks cater to tourists, hawking everything from snake wine (rice liqueur marinating baby cobras and green snakes in bottles whose labels promise potent curative powers) to ballpoint pens made from bullets.

Down a short trail is an outdoor workshop where instructors in the VC's trademark black pajamas offer visitors a crash course in manufacturing "Ho Chi Minh sandals" (flip-flops with tire-cutout soles); it's done with rubber harvested from bleeding trees on the spot. Nearby, attesting to the rewards of hard-won peace, a merry-go-round pirouettes cheerful moppets to the pop-pop-pop of AK-47 rifle shots from the neighboring visitors' firing range ($1 per bullet).

Down another path, a lavish memorial -- with steles listing the names of Vietnamese soldiers who died defending the tunnels -- houses a sizable Ho Chi Minh bronze. Before it, Vietnamese kneel, hands pressed in prayer.

As I scribble a platitude in the visitors book about the "Vietnamese people's sacrifice," Tien asks me with a hint of admonition: "Why are you foreigners so obsessed with war? It was such a long time ago, you know."

He's right: The war is a shibboleth. Still, Cu Chi's tunnels should remain on the itinerary of visitors to southern Vietnam. Even in times of peace, they continue to serve as an enduring tribute to the human will and Vietnamese peasants' wartime ingenuity.

The Viet Cong tunnels at the Ben Duoc-Cu Chi War Memorial can be visited on a day tour from Ho Chi Minh City. You can go by metered taxi and negotiate the fare (expect to pay $30, after some hard bargaining). Most travel agencies in Ho Chi Minh City offer half-day tours for $4 per person. Admission at the tunnels for foreigners is $4.50. For general info on travel to Vietnam: Vietnam National Administration of Tourism,, or Vietnam Embassy, 202- 861-0737,

Tibor Krausz is a freelance writer based in Bangkok.

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