Thursday, December 9, 2010

The warren-fortress

About an hour and a half northwest of Saigon lie the Cu Chi tunnels, the famed and almost mythological underground warren-fortress of Communist guerillas built between 1948 and 1968, and eventually including about 150 square miles of underground tunnels, kitchens, bunkers, hospital rooms, armories and sleeping quarters for thousands of insurgents. The tunnels offer physical testament to the determination of Vietnamese Communists to overcome any obstacle or hardship in their long fight to create a unified, and one-party, Vietnam. Viewing them up close it's impossible to think the U.S. could have unequivocally smoked out those complex, multi-layered tunnels (despite sending hundreds of so-called tunnel rat soldiers and their trained attack dog pals down in there to do just that; the tunnels are a kind of forerunner to the AFPAK caves where Bin Laden hides out, and having come here I have a better sense of why, more than nine years after the terrorist attacks, we still can't find him). They were just so sprawling and dense, built in three separate levels at about six feet, 15 feet, and 30 feet under the ground, the two deepest levels beyond the blast-reach of B-52 bombs, that it must have been clear to anyone who viewed them or knew of them during the war that the Vietcong were in it to stay and in it to win it and taking them fully out of Cu Chi would require manpower and casualty counts the Americans didn't have and couldn't afford.

Enter, hell.

I did not join this fucking maniac for this part of the tour.

The tunnels also represent a unique challenge to claustrophobic history tourists: Climb down in, or no? Short answer: Climb down in only after others go down and make sure it's not too coffin-like, and do this only one or two times. The first time will be fine—you'll scurry along bent over at the waist in a tunnel that's been opened about a third from the old days to accommodate Western tourists, and you'll snap a couple pictures—but the second time you will get halfway through the tunnel but where it bends to the left you will come face to face with a flying, trapped bat and you will turn around and had straight back whence you came.

The view from down in there.

This will complete the subterranean portion of the tour for you today, and you can concentrate in the woods and how frighteningly difficult it would have been to fight here, and it allows time to think about the various low-tech ways the Vietcong used to maim soldiers and kill Army dogs—tiger traps, punji sticks, terrible barbed spikes that caught your foot and leg and never let go. I asked our tour guide, a former South Vietnamese Army helicopter pilot ho said he spent two years in a political re-education camp after the war, how many soldiers the stake pits and such killed. Not many, he admitted, but they were very good at killing dogs. He said the U.S. lost about 3,800 dogs during the war but didn't know how many of that number had died at Cu Chi.

Tour guide, Lut.

After visiting the tunnel complex, we walked down to the Saigon River, where it was Vietnam picture perfect.

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