Tunnel Rat(tled) in the Mekong Delta

Clueless in the Cu Chi tunnels.
Clueless in the Cu Chi tunnels.

1991, Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

 After a few days of hanging out in Saigon, I hooked up with some other local travelers that I met at a café. This is pretty common with solo travelers, striking up a conversation over breakfast and off you go together on an adventure. That day I wanted to check out the infamous Cu Chi tunnels far inside the Mekong Delta. I met up with a traveling French guy, we hired a car, and off we went.

At the time I reasoned that I’d be safer traveling with another person (although in the end, I spent more time trying to get away from that grabby French dude than anyone else). I had also befriended an adorable Amer-Asia kid who was about 9-10 years old. He followed me around most days to hold my bag.

My cute sidekick came along with us to the Delta.  So it was the 3 of us and the driver. Off we went on the 3ish-hour drive to the Delta in the sweltering heat.

The countryside was absolutely magnificent. The color of those rice paddies is why my favorite color is green — so pure and clear. We stopped at a roadside hut for lunch. The French dude was very careful about throwing out the ice before drinking his drink, but I didn’t bother.

Why my favorite color is green

Why my favorite color is green

At that point I still had a stomach of steel. Obviously, my life-threatening bout of food poisoning in Thailand the year before was far from my mind. When we arrived at Cu Chi, we were given a guide who was in the Vietnamese army.

He took the three of us into the jungle and asked us to find the opening to the tunnel. We searched and could find nothing. He then swept away a few leaves and revealed two iron rebar handles in the ground, which he used to lift out the 2’ x 2’ cover of the tunnel. He then dropped down in to the tunnel and disappeared. It became instantly clear that as a foreign army we could never have successfully tracked the Viet Cong in terrain like that.  I jumped in next (never one to hesitate), followed by the French dude and my sidekick. Our guide immediately showed us how he could have booby-trapped the tunnel for those who followed him. Hmmmmmm. Our guide suddenly didn’t seem so hospitable.

What kind of welcome is this?

What kind of welcome is this?

We toured the tunnels for about an hour, dropping down lower and lower into the tunnel maze viewing a well developed network of hospitals, classrooms, lodging areas, all outfitted with electricity. Cu Chi comprises about 75 miles of underground bunkers and tunnels.

Our guide was the only one with a flash light and I made it my mission to never lose sight of him. He was scurrying around pretty quick down there, but I stuck like glue. I’m not clausterphobic, but I did not want to be down there in the dark. The tunnel walls were so narrow that I could barely fit in and I’m only 5’2.” Apparently, they had actually widened the tunnels for foreign visitors too. When I waddled on my haunches I brushed the sides of the walls with my arms and back. Unfortunately, my little sidekick was stuck behind the French dude, who couldn’t keep up (he was heavy smoker), and he blocked all light. I could hear the little guy weeping with fright behind him, but once in the tunnels there was no way to turn around.

Our Army guide and I waited in one of the tunnel passes. He took this opportunity to chat a bit and asked me where I was from. Now, I am a proud American, but if ever I was going to claim Canadian citizenship, this was the time…deep in the tunnels, with a Vietnamese Army officer and surrounded by booby traps. "Please don't leave me down here!" I’m happy to say I held to my principles and admitted I was American. I then lost my principles and begged him not to leave me down there. He just laughed. I laughed too, but mine was more out of nervousness.

Finally Frenchie and my buddy caught up to us and we made our way out of the tunnels and into the light. That trip through the Cu Chi tunnels was unforgettable and made it crystal clear why the French in the 1950s and Americans during the Vietnam War could never win a war in those jungles.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for the famed U.S. Army tunnel rats who courageously followed the Viet Cong down into that maze. Many of the tunnel rats were of Puerto Rican and Mexican-American descent because they were physically small enough to fit through the tunnels. Known as “the smallest guys with the biggest cojones,” the rats were sent into the tunnels with only a knife or a gun, a flashlight and a piece of string.  Those were some brave men.

My trip to the Cu Chu tunnels revealed just how much your eyes can be opened in a pitch black tunnel.  

Read about my “other” escapade in Vietnam
Drugged & Kidnapped & (almost) Sold into Slavery: Vietnam on a Dime

This entry was posted on Sunday, August 16th, 2009 and is filed under Asia Pacific.

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