Considered one of the greatest tactical achievements of the southern insurgency during the American War, the Cu Chi Tunnels (Ben Dinh, Nhan Duc Commune, Cu Chi, tel. 08/3794-8830, 7am-5pm daily, VND110,000) spiderweb beneath miles of rice paddies and fertile farmland all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to the Cambodian border. As early as the 1940s, members of the Viet Minh resistance army (later the National Liberation Front, or NLF) began digging out these cramped crawl spaces by hand. With technology and firepower far inferior to their French enemies, the tunnels allowed Ho Chi Minh’s rebel forces to communicate with nearby villages and bases undetected. By the time the American War arrived in the 1960s, a 155-mile underground network existed.

Initially, the tunnels were meant to provide escape routes and shelter during American bombing raids. As soon as the skies were clear, guerrillas would emerge from their tunnels, cart away the unexploded ordnance left behind and use these weapons to create grenades and smaller explosives. These homemade weapons were then planted alongside other, more crude booby traps, such as sharpened bamboo sticks and iron spikes. In the thick and unfamiliar jungle, the NLF proved almost invisible.

rolling iron spike booby trap built into the ground of the jungle near Ho Chi Minh City as part of the Cu Chi Tunnels

The NLF created booby traps in the Vietnamese jungle. Photo © mathess/iStock.

The retaliatory acts further frustrated American and south Vietnamese troops. Bombing raids became more frequent and the area was deemed a free-strike zone, giving U.S. pilots permission to shoot at anything that moved. With the onslaught of explosives, the NLF moved underground, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. Kitchens and bedrooms were constructed, as well as hospitals, meeting rooms,theaters, and concert halls. Children were born below ground and entire communities set up. The most shallow tunnels were at least five feet underground, but four different levels of passageways existed, with each progressively smaller than the last. Overall, the crawl spaces ranged 2.5-4 feet wide and 2.5-6 feet high.

For every effort the U.S. military made to defeat the NLF, rebels in Cu Chi were one step ahead. Until the very end of the war, the NLF fighters defended their land successfully against the Americans and south Vietnamese.

Today, the government-run tourist area encompassing the Cu Chi tunnels features exhibits, guided tours, and a variety of other attractions. Weapons displays illustrate the gruesome methods of the NLF and hint at the hardships of those who lived underground. Park guides escort you through the tunnels, telling of the history and people of Cu Chi. At each of the two tunnel sites, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc, the narrow passageways have been lit and widened to accommodate visitors. Larger subterranean rooms are occasionally furnished with mannequins and other items.

The history of the Cu Chi tunnels is more interesting than a visit to the tunnels themselves. The present-day memorial site is a bit of a circus. On the same land where an estimated 45,000 men and women gave their lives over the course of the war, visitors are able to fire machine guns, play paintball, or splash around in a swimming pool. While the significance of these tunnels during the war is a valuable part of local history, visiting Cu Chi tends to be polarizing among tourists: people either love it or hate it.

Visitors are welcome to watch a harsh anti-American propaganda film that depicts a rosy picture of life in Cu Chi during the war, with smiling NLF women plowing the fields, rifles slung across their backs. In reality, conditions beneath the ground were horrific: snakes and poisonous creatures were rampant within the tunnels, along with malaria and other diseases. Though collapses were uncommon, when they did occur, death was almost certain. Those who survived weeks and months below ground often emerged with health problems, largely from lack of oxygen and sunlight. For all these flaws, the film manages to provide some useful historical information.

a vine stretches down into a tunnel through the ground in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

Cu Chi Tunnels spiderweb beneath miles of rice paddies and fertile farmland all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to the Cambodian border. Photo © giovanni1232/iStock.

Cu Chi Tunnels Tour Operators

For dirt-cheap mass tours, Sinh Tourist (246-248 De Tham, D1, tel. 08/3838-9593, 6:30am-10:30pm daily, VND109,000-169,000) offers half-day trips to the tunnels or full-day tours combining Cu Chi with a visit to the Cao Dai temple at Tay Ninh. Admission to the tunnels is not included in the price, but you are spared the hassle of navigating the public bus system and a tour guide is provided. Groups tend to be 30-40 people; get a spot at the front if you want to hear what your guide has to say.

Ho Chi Minh City Urban Adventures (tel. 09/0990-4100, VND800,000-1,500,000) runs a tour from the city to Cu Chi for a maximum of 12 people, allowing for additional one-on-one time with the guide and more than the cookie-cutter speeches provided by the guides at the park. The company offers a standard visit along with a couple flourishes, including a brief stop at a local farm en route to the tunnels, as well as a chance to learn how rice paper is made.

HCMC Urban Adventures prides itself on creating tourism that benefits the local community, and so its tours often include extra, off-the-beaten-track stops, which allow travelers to see how the local population lives. Half-day tours to the tunnels are available as well as full-day excursions that go to both the Cu Chi tunnels and the Cao Dai temple at Tay Ninh. The company books its tours via Internet or through telephone reservations; travelers can call at any time to book a tour.

More expensive but also more relaxing is a tour with Les Rives (Me Linh Point Tower, Ste. 2105, 2 Ngo Duc Ke, D1, tel. 012/8592-0018, 10am-10pm daily, VND1,899,000-3,599,000), a company that provides on-the-water excursions to a handful of nearby sights, including the tunnels. The company offers half-day tours to Cu Chi in both the morning and afternoon with an array of extra features, from an additional bicycle trip to a “hidden HCMC” tour that includes a trip to the tunnels. Meals are served, along with unlimited fruit and refreshments, and the hour-long boat ride to the tunnels eliminates the stress of inching through the bumper-to-bumper traffic that often crowds the outskirts of the city. Hotel pickup and all park entrance fees are included in the tour price.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).