After breakfast today, our tour bus driver drove us to the Cu Chi Tunnels—a mile-long underground maze where thousands of fighters and villagers hid and fought during the Vietnam War, referred to by locals as the “American War.” The conflict began in 1955-1975. The South Vietnamese Communists, or Viet Cong, built an elaborate and vast network of tunnels in and around the district of Cu Chi and worked continually over the years to expand the multi-level network. The tunnels include mess halls, meeting rooms, an operating theater, tiny cinema, small factories, and vast ammunitions stores, allowed the Viet Cong to control large areas of Saigon. Today, Cu Chi Tunnels provide invaluable insight into the war era.
We had the unusual opportunity to meet a retired Viet Cong Veteran named Chia who was invited by Overseas Adventure Travels (OAT) to meet with our group to answer any questions we had about the tunnels. Chia is married, has four kids and seven grandkids. After taking down an enemy tank in November 1, 1967, a second tank fired back and shot his right arm off. He collects about $195 a month which is sufficient for his living standards and he and his family get free education and health care. He told us that the underground bunker was capable of holding twelve thousand soldiers but normally accommodated an average of 2500-3000. The main problem was getting enough oxygen, so they created “air holes,” which made it easier for the soldiers to breathe. When asked how he decided to join the communists he said he was merely following family tradition. They began building the tunnels in 1954 which allowed Ho Chi Minh to defeat the French. He said no one wins in war and seemed to harbor no bitterness towards the American people. He said it was very apparent that most US citizens were against the war. Afterwards, a few of us took photos with him. While standing by his side I placed my arm around his back and I was moved when he took his "only" hand and gently placed it in mine.
Chia thanked us for coming to Vietnam and invited us to tell our friends to come visit his country.
We were then assigned a young soldier to show us the underground bunkers and how to enter into them for those who were willing. It was an amazing experience moving from descending into one tunnel and getting out through another. Our Vietnamese guide, Arthur demonstrates the tool soldiers used to dig out the tunnels.
On the bus ride home, our Thai tour guide Lin led us in singing the iconic 60s lyrics to the anti-war protest song: “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” by Peter, Paul and Mary which essentially is a meditation on the horrors and losses of the Vietnam war which begged the answer to the question from our government, “When Will They Ever Learn?”
After the tour of the tunnels it was so nice to come out to the other side and be greeted by the parents of three beautiful young children who were only too eager to take a photo with us (see photo). The last photo of me duck walking out of the tunnel was unexpectantly taken by an enterprising photographer.