Introducing Cu Chi
If the tenacious spirit of the Vietnamese can be symbolised by a place, then few sites could make a stronger case than Cu Chi. This district of greater HCMC now has a population of about 350,000, but during the American War it had about 80,000 residents. At first glance there is scant evidence today of the vicious fighting, bombing and destruction that convulsed Cu Chi during the war. To see what went on, you have to dig deeper – underground.
The tunnel network of Cu Chi became legendary during the 1960s for its role in facilitating VC control of a large rural area only 30km to 40km from HCMC. At its peak the tunnel system stretched from the South Vietnamese capital to the Cambodian border; in the district of Cu Chi alone more than 250km of tunnels honeycomb the ground. The network, parts of which were several storeys deep, included countless trapdoors, constructed living areas, storage facilities, weapon factories, field hospitals, command centres and kitchens.
The tunnels facilitated communication and coordination between the VC-controlled enclaves, isolated from each other by South Vietnamese and American land and air operations. They also allowed the VC to mount surprise attacks wherever the tunnels went – even within the perimeters of the US military base at Dong Du – and to disappear suddenly into hidden trapdoors without a trace. After ground operations against the tunnels claimed large numbers of US casualties and proved ineffective, the Americans resorted to massive firepower, eventually turning Cu Chi’s 420 sq km into what BBC journalists Tom Mangold and John Penycate, authors of The Tunnels of Cu Chi, have called ‘the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare’.
Cu Chi has become a place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese school children and Communist Party cadres.