Yesterday morning we checked out of our room at Yinh Guest House and grabbed some baked goods for breakfast before catching our bus to the tunnels. Once the busses arrived, everything turned into pure chaos; the woman collecting us for the tour didn’t want to store our bags under the bus, so we just left them behind the desk at the hostel. In the 15 seconds it took us to do this, the woman had disappeared…with our tickets. The street was even more chaotic than normal since there were half a dozen busses there all picking people up for different tours, so it was impossible to find her again. One of the ladies from our hostel hooked us up with another tour guide, but after I asked him several times whether his was the half-day Cu Chi Tunnels Tour, he let it slip that his was actually the full day. Seeing as how we needed to be back to catch a bus to Dalat by 4pm and the full day tour didn’t get back until well after 5, that wasn’t going to work. Back to our hostel. We eventually got connected with another tour guide and bus, so it all worked out, but we definitely weren’t on the bus that our tickets were for.
As it turns out, we really lucked out by ending up on that bus. Our tour guide, Bin, had been in the US Navy and served during the Vietnam war. Like every tour guide on the planet, there was definitely a fine line between reality and fiction in his stories, but for the most part there seemed to be a lot of truth — even if the stories weren’t his personal truth, they were someone’s truth. Bin talked extensively about his experiences in battle as well as life, particularly in relation to the war — how his girlfriend/intended fiance was killed while they were at university, how his life was torn apart. Despite all this tragedy, Bin still had a great sense of humor and was joking around throughout the tour. Two particular gems from him:
1. While we were wandering through a souvenir area, Bin asked us where we were from; when Luke replied “U.S.” Bin said “Ah, thought so. You very handsome, like young Bush!” Such a compliment!
2. After showing us the tiny trapdoors that open down into the tunnels, Bin gave us a chance to try getting in and out of it. The opening is ridiculously tiny, so at first only a couple of the super-skinny boys dropped through it and came back out, one at a time. A girl tried to go through next; she wasn’t particularly large or skinny, just pretty normal, but those entrances are not built for “normal.” As soon as Bin saw her starting to lower herself in, he shouts, “Be careful of the boobies, don’t get the boobies stuck!”, and he wasn’t talking about the type of traps. Sure enough, she did have trouble getting out, for which Bin cursed the boobies.
Bin apparently served with John Kerry in the Vietnam theatre while stationed on the Saigon river, very close to Cu Chi, one of the largest Viet Cong bases of operations.
During the war, the Viet Cong constructed an incredibly elaborate network of underground tunnels across much of the country, with a main hub being in the Cu Chi district 65km north of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. The complexity of the tunnels is just astounding; there are three levels of tunnels, all connected in a grid-type design. The first level included food storage rooms, a “hospital”/medic station of sorts, a mess hall, and triangular-shaped bomb shelter in addition to passageways, while the remaining levels were exclusively passageways. Primary access to the tunnels was was through very small trap doors hidden in the jungle, some of which were literally right next to US camps and provided ideal access to steal weapons and attack at night.
The construction of the tunnels was positively brilliant; the design included air filtration, water sources, siphoning of smoke from the kitchens far away from the tunnels, extremely narrow tunnels with occasional super-narrow parts specifically to trap “Americans with big asses” from going any further, and many booby traps. The booby traps were vicious and came in many varieties: trap doors that dropped you down onto spears; the “chair trap” that snapped metal spikes onto you like a bear trap; the “rolling trap” where two wheels of spikes that spun on either side of you as you fell between them; and the “door trap” that was specifically designed to impale soldiers in the face with spikes on a lower, hinged piece of wood when soldiers blocked the upper piece. Gruesome…but clever. The Viet Cong knew their enemy and targeted its weaknesses to an impressive degree, and it gave them a huge advantage in the war.