There's a light at the end of the tunnel -- literally, some three yards ahead. My thighs are aching and I'm crawling on all fours, caked in mud, with sweat pouring down my face.
"Ready for the third level?" Tien teases me over his hunched shoulders. "Sure," I lie, wheezing, as we emerge -- finally standing again -- into an underground sleeping chamber where hammocks of pilfered U.S. parachute nylon have been left as wartime mementos strung between bamboo poles driven into the clay floor. Tien -- my rail-thin, lizard-nimble, 22-year-old guide -- has led me through 35 yards of a twisting, water-pipe-like tunnel whose claustrophobically low and narrow earthen sides facilitate only an undignified crouching crawl.
"We're lucky, you know," he assures me as I stretch my legs back into service. "During the American War, these tunnels were only half as high, so people crawled on their stomachs." Nor were there, I reckon, lanterns placed helpfully along the route every so often. Yet even with such luxuries, and without the danger of lethal booby traps and enemy combatants lurking around bends, it's still daunting enough to pick your way through these tunnels.
We're about 15 feet underground, creeping through a showcase remainder of Viet Cong tunnels at Ben Duoc in Cu Chi district, some 40 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). It's part of the Vietnamese government's nationwide network of war memorial theme parks, which caters to the ever-burgeoning war tourism and encompasses sites as varied as restored stretches of the DMZ along the 17th parallel and a commemorative park at My Lai, site of a massacre by U.S. soldiers. Undoubtedly, the Communist government in Hanoi exploits such memorial sites -- often rather blatantly -- so as to grant historical legitimacy to its continued iron-fisted rule of Vietnam. I decided to visit the sites so as to better understand the Vietnamese side of the war and its history.
The tunnels are also a powerful universal testament to the strength of the human will against overwhelming odds.
About 130 yards more will take us down another 15 feet (just above the water table) and along the third level of a four-story labyrinth that once stretched for an estimated 150 miles, perhaps more. Whatever your take may be on the Vietnam War (or the American War, as the Vietnamese call it) and the causes for which it was fought, you have to credit the VC soldiers for their pluck and valor: At least 45,000 Vietnamese men and women died defending the Cu Chi tunnels.
The tunnels were a seemingly endless, ingeniously disguised web of guerrilla fortifications reaching from the outskirts of Saigon to the Cambodian border, linking hamlets, villages and various VC support bases. They consisted of living quarters, do-it-yourself ordnance factories, kitchens with concealed chimneys, cleverly designed conical bomb shelters and even cavernous theater and movie halls.
Built over two decades beginning in the late 1940s, the tunnels would provide shelter to barefooted peasant soldiers against a vastly superior military arsenal. "My grandfather and father both helped build these tunnels," Tien tells me proudly. Locals dug the clayish red earth (soft during the monsoon season, rock-hard during the dry season) with hoes and bare hands.
"Tell me what that is," Tien quizzes me, pointing to a termite mound poking from the forest floor. "That's a termite mound," I reply smugly. Wrong! It's a ventilation hole disguised as a termite mound. "Now find the trap door," he orders, indicating a patch of mulch in a clearing. After a thorough search, I grudgingly acknowledge defeat. Grinning, Tien lifts a manhole-size wood plank right before my feet.
Clearly, I wouldn't have lasted long against the Viet Cong. Neither did numerous GIs, who fell prey to booby traps assembled from scavenged American ordnance duds, punji stake pits (traps with pointed bamboo sticks) and Vietnamese sharpshooters hiding in camouflaged "spider hole" dugouts.
Below ground, Vietnamese guerrillas sprung lethal surprises at every turn. A favorite trick, Tien explains, was to tie an ultra-venomous snake (dubbed the three-step snake by virtue of its poison allowing you only three steps before it laid you out) to a bamboo stick, which, when tipped, released its irate captive onto the careless trespasser wriggling along in the dark. Only hand-picked teams of specially trained U.S. "tunnel rats" had a reasonable chance of emerging from the burrows alive.
Yet, the tunnels' inhabitants lived and died in abominable privation. Often, a bite of manioc root was a whole day's provisions and rat meat made for rare feasts. In the replica of an underground kitchen-cum-canteen, Tien offers me a sample of steamed manioc. It's like chewing rubbery sweet potato.
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, www.vietnamtourism.gov.vn, or Vietnam Embassy, 202- 861-0737, www.vietnamembassy-usa.org.
Tibor Krausz is a freelance writer based in Bangkok.