HO CHI MINH TRAIL AND NORTH VIETNAMESE TUNNELS

HO CHI MINH TRAIL

The main supply route for weapons, supplies and troops infiltrating into South Vietnam was the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of roads and trails extending from North Vietnam through eastern Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese called the route the Truong Son Road after the ridge it ran along or Highway 559 after the engineer brigade that built it. The route began in a gorge the North Vietnamese called "Heaven’s Gate."

The object of some the U.S.’s first military actions in Southeast Asia was to disrupt the movement of supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Throughout the Vietnam War a great deal of money and effort was spent trying to shut it down. Thousands of tons of bombs were dropped on it, key battles such as Hamburger Hill and Khe Sanh were fought to control it. Everything that U.S. forces tried were ultimately unable to shut it down.

David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "That North Vietnam had been able to build the trail—and keep it open in the face of relentless American attacks—was considered one of the great feats of warfare. It was like Hannibal crossing the Alps or General Washington the Delaware—an impossibility that became possible and thus changed the course of history. The old infiltration and supply route—which the Vietnamese call Truong Son Road, after the nearby mountain range—wasn't a single trail at all. It was a maze of 12,000 miles of trails, roads and bypasses that threaded through eastern Laos and northeastern Cambodia and crisscrossed Vietnam. Between 1959 and 1975 an estimated two million soldiers and laborers from the Communist North traversed it, intent on fulfilling Ho Chi Minh's dream to defeat South Vietnam's U.S.-backed government and reunite Vietnam. Before leaving Hanoi and other northern cities, some soldiers got tattoos that proclaimed: "Born in the North to die in the South." [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, March 2008]

See Places, Infrastructure, Roads

History of the Ho Chi Minh Trail

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was put together, beginning in 1955, on the personal orders of Ho Chi Minh to find a supply route to the south. Five hundred troops, led by Maj. Vo Bam, began assembling a patchwork of jungle paths into a cohesive network. By the late 1950s the trail was being used to bring supplies to Communist rebels in Laos. It was informally christened on May 19, 1959—Ho Chi Minh's 69th birthday—when Hanoi's Communist leadership decided, in violation of the Geneva Accords that divided Vietnam in 1954, to conduct an insurgency against the South.

David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "Col. Vo Bam, a logistics specialist who had fought against the French colonial army in the 1950s, was given command of a new engineer unit, regiment 559. Its 500 troops adopted the motto, "Blood may flow, but the road will not stop." The trail they started building was so secret that their commanders told them to avoid clashes with the enemy, "to cook without smoke, and speak without making noise." When they had to cross a dirt road near a village, they would lay a canvas over it so as to leave no footprints. Before long there were thousands of soldiers and laborers on the trail, hidden under triple-canopy jungle and camouflage nets. They built trellises for plants to grow over, scaled cliffs with bamboo ladders, set up depots to store rice and ammunition. Villagers donated doors and wooden beds to reinforce the crude road that slowly pushed south. Porters stuffed bicycle tires with rags because their cargo was so great—up to 300 pounds. There were makeshift hospitals and rest stops with hammocks. [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, March 2008]

In the early 1960s the Ho Chi Minh Trail was used to bring supplies to South Vietnam. By the late 1960s, it was a network of roads that covered 10,000 miles and had parallel routes and bypasses that could be employed if one route was shut down by as B-52 bombing raid. By the 1970s, the route was so developed that trucks could be used on much of the route, reducing the travel time from North Vietnam to South Vietnam to 23 days, compared to six month in the early days of the route.

Running Supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

The North Vietnamese used horses, trucks, special bicycles rigged to carry 500 pounds and even elephants to pack and carry supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Elephants became bombing targets for U.S. planes and by the time the war ended the number of elephants in Vietnam had been dramatically reduced. Five thousands soldiers were in charge of maintaining the route. One brigade was in charge of filling in bomb craters.

More than 1 million North Vietnamese soldiers used the Ho Chi Minh Trail to reach South Vietnam. A retired colonel involved in extending the trail told the Los Angeles Times, "The trail was very secret...We’d lay canvas sheet over the dirt roads, and the last man across would roll it up so there would be no prints. We carried our own weight in weapons, supplies and medicine. We set up storehouses for rice. Usually it was a 20-day walk from one storehouse to the next. In between we ate roots... At first, the American bombing wasn’t so bad. But malaria, snakes, drowning, accidents were just as deadly. In the four months it took us to reach the south, 100 men in my regiment died." Another North Vietnamese soldier told the Los Angeles Times, "I drove this part of the road [near Khe Sanh] many, many times during the war, hauling ammunition, supplies, taking the wounded north. There was no more dangerous duty."

David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "The camouflaged network of footpaths and roads they traveled was the world's most dangerous route. One North Vietnamese soldier counted 24 ways you could die on it: malaria and dysentery could ravage you; U.S. aerial bombardments could disintegrate you; tigers could eat you; snakes could poison you; floods and landslides could wash you away. Sheer exhaustion took its toll as well. [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, March 2008 <>]

Doi, 50 miles south of Hanoi, was an overnight stop on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Bui Thi Duyen, a villager who lives there today told Smithsonian magazine, "There was not a day without famine then..."We had to farm at night because of the bombing. Then we'd go up in the mountains and eat tree roots." What food the villagers had—even their prized piglets—they gave to the soldiers who trekked through Doi, pushing bicycles laden with ammunition or stooped under the weight of rice, salt, medicine and weapons. She called them the "Hanoi men," but in reality many were no more than boys. <>

Life on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Bruce Stanley wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “ North Vietnamese army veteran Than Tram Luy recalls life on the trail as a feral nightmare. The 80-year-old says he scavenged plantains and other wild vegetables and hunted monkeys and boar. He endured leeches and hunkered in foxholes while B-52 bombers obliterated the jungle. [Source: Bruce Stanley, The Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2007]

Trong Thanh, one of North Vietnam's most celebrated photographers, spent four years documenting life on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, His "images spoke of the emotions of war more than the chaos of combat: a North Vietnamese soldier sharing his canteen with a wounded enemy from the South; a moment of tenderness between a teenage soldier and a nurse who looked no older than 15; three adolescent privates with faint smiles and arms over one another's shoulders, heading off on a mission from which they knew they would not return....The faces of the youthful soldiers stayed with me for a long time—their clear, steady eyes, the unblemished complexions and cheeks without whiskers, the expressions reflecting fear and determination. Their destiny was to walk down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, March 2008 <>]

"It used to take two or three months for a letter from your family to reach you on the front," Thanh said. "But those were our happiest times on Truong Son, when we got mail from home. We'd read the letters aloud to each other. Pretty soon one soldier would laugh over something in a letter, then everyone would laugh. Then you'd feel so guilty for being happy, you'd cry, and the whole forest would echo with falling tears." <>

In the 1960s, Lamb wrote: "a young doctor, Pham Quang Huy, kissed his wife of two months goodbye in Dong Hoi and headed down the trail. He carried the traditional farewell gift that wartime brides and girlfriends gave their departing soldiers—a white handkerchief with his wife's initials embroidered in one corner. So many young men never returned that handkerchiefs became a symbol of grieving and parting throughout Vietnam. Huy did not see his home again—or even leave the trail—for ten years. His daily ration was one bowl of rice and one cigarette. In all the time he was away, he and his wife were able to exchange only seven or eight letters. "The soldiers became my family," Huy, 74 and retired from his civilian medical practice, told me. "The most terrible time for us was the B-52 carpet-bombing. And the artillery shelling from the coast. It was like being in a volcano. We'd bury the dead and draw a map of the grave site, so their families could find it. Our equipment was very simple. We had morphine but had to be very economical in its use. Soldiers begged me to cut off an arm or leg, thinking that would end their pain. I'd tell them, 'You should try to forget the pain. You must recover to finish your job. Make Uncle Ho proud of you.' " <>

"It may sound strange, but although it was a terrible time, my four years on Truong Son was a very beautiful period in my life," said Le Minh Khue, who defied her parents and at age 15 joined a youth volunteer brigade on the trail, filling bomb craters, digging bunkers, burying corpses and ending each day covered head to toe with so much mud and dirt that the girls called each other "black demons." Khue, a writer whose short stories about the war have been translated into four languages, went on: "There was great love between us. It was a fast, passionate love, carefree and selfless, but without that kind of love, people could not survive. They [the soldiers] all looked so handsome and brave. We lived together in fire and smoke, slept in bunkers and caves. Yet we shared so much and believed so deeply in our cause that in my heart I felt completely happy. "I'll tell you how it was," she continued. "One day I went out with my unit to collect rice. We came upon a mother and two children with no food. They were very hungry. We offered to give her some of our rice, and she refused. 'That rice,' she said, 'is for my husband who is on the battlefield.' That attitude was everywhere. But it's not there anymore. Today people care about themselves, not each other." <>

Bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail

The United States launched Operations Steel Tiger and Tiger Hound to try and shut down the Ho Chi Minh. More than 1.7 million tons of bombs were dropped, setting the forest ablaze and littering the roads with charred bodies and scorched vehicles. One North Vietnamese told the Los Angeles Times, "I remember watching from behind bush, three girls take off their clothes and bathe in a stream. When they emerged they looked like fairy princesses. They were so young, so beautiful...An hour later, they were killed in a B-52 raid."

Rain-inducing techniques were used to try and flood the Ho Chi Minh Trail out of existence. Agent Orange was used to strip the jungle away. Sensors were dropped from "invisible" parachutes that relayed data to intelligence sources. The North Vietnamese confused the sensors by placing buckest of urine and water buffalo dung next to the sensors.

The CIA estimated that only one North Vietnamese soldier died for every 100 bombs dropped. The North Vietnamese claim they shot down 2,500 war planes over the trail The U.S. says only 500 planes were shot down. Sustained bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail began in 1965. B-52 bombers dropped loads of 750-pound bombs in 30 seconds, clearing a section of forest the length of 12 football fields. Huge Daisy Cutter bombs carved out 100-meter-wide craters.

David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "Trying to stop the infiltration of men and supplies into South Vietnam, the United States bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail for eight years, setting forests ablaze, triggering landslides, denuding jungles with chemicals and building Special Forces outposts along the Laotian border. The Americans seeded clouds to induce rain and floods, launched laser-guided bombs to create choke points and trap truck convoys, and parachuted sensors that burrowed into the ground like bamboo sprouts, relaying data on movement back to the U.S. surveillance base at Nakhon Phanom in Thailand for evaluation. But work never stopped, and year after year infiltration into the South increased, from 1,800 soldiers in 1959 to 12,000 in 1964 to over 80,000 in 1968. [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, March 2008 **]

"After each aerial attack, hordes of soldiers and volunteers scurried to repair the damage, filling craters, creating bypasses and deliberately building crude bridges just beneath the surface of river water to avoid aerial detection. By 1975, truck convoys could make the trip from the North to the southern battlefields in a week—a journey that had once taken soldiers and porters six months on foot. Antiaircraft artillery sites lined the road; a fuel line paralleled it. The trail made the difference between war and peace, victory and defeat, but it took a terrible toll. Upward of 30,000 North Vietnamese are believed to have perished on it. Military historian Peter Macdonald figured that for every soldier the United States killed on the trail, it dropped , on average, 300 bombs (costing a total of $140,000)."

American GI Patrols on the Last Link of the Ho Chi Minh Trail Before Saigon

On his missions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, near Saigon where the Cu Chi Tunnels are, U.S. Army Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd,"During our time at Pershing our focus was to primarily disrupt the flow of men and supplies from Cambodia down through war zone C and D and into Saigon. Our job was also to engage the enemy at every opportunity and eliminate them. The VC supply Trail passed down through the East side of Dau Tieng and through the Michelin rubber plantation. This was one of the hottest spots in Vietnam. If you look at charts of casualties, you will find Hau Nghia province and Tay Ninh province right up there in the number of casualties. It was also the most direct route to the capital because of the direction of the rivers which the VC could use their sanpans to ferry supplies, in addition to using the trails. So our base was surrounded by some of the hottest areas of real estate in South Vietnam at the time. [Source: Sergeant Arnold Krause, with Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, April 2013 |~|]

"The Trail also wound through the iron triangle, which was a Viet Cong-dominated area, between the Thi-Tinh and Saigon rivers, next to Cu Chi district. It then crossed the Saigon River in the Hobo Woods and Filhol rubber plantation, bypassing Cu Chi and on towards the outskirts of the capital, Saigon. To our East were many small Hamlets and villages that favored supporting the local VC forces. To our Northwest, the Boi Woods, to the Northeast laid the Hobo Woods and the Mushroom, three geographical strongholds for the enemy south of the Saigon River. |~|

"In October, the company was on a mission near the southern side of the Saigon River at a time when we were sweeping through a heavily populated wooded area. As we are moving to this area we engaged a small force of VC and a firefight ensued. After the enemy disengaged from the action we swept the area and discovered a rice cache. It was covered with vegetation above ground, most likely because it was going to be moved soon. As for the bags themselves, they were likely confiscated after being used somewhere else. |~|

"One time we found hospital supplies wrapped in U.S. newspaper, so nothing surprised us. There were several tons of rice found and we airlifted it back to FSB Pershing. The discovery of food stores, ammunitions, and medical supplies was not a daily occurrence but it happen a few times. Prior to the discovery of this food cache, when we were near Hoc Mon, we were specifically seeking out weapons caches based on Intel, and spent days scouring the banks of creeks and rivers looking for munitions hidden in the vegetation along the shore lines. We frequently found in the field, small arms, mostly 5.56 Chicom rounds for the AK-47’s. Of the bigger stuff, occasionally we would find 75mm recoilless rifle rounds, 122mm rockets, 82mm and 60 mm mortar rounds, and tons of RPG-7’s – rocket propelled grenades, some artillery rounds, but not sure of what size. |~|

"VC tunnel complexes and spider holes, as they were called, were everywhere we went. I did very little tunnel work because I was too tall and manuvering in a tunnel was not easy. The tunnel holes or entrances in places were barely 18-20 inches wide, so it took a small man to get into these. Most of the "Tunnel Rat" guys packed their .45’s and a good knife and if they remembered, some sort of ear plug, but you still had to listen for the enemy. When the Division base camp was built at Cu Chi, it was right on top of the Cu Chi Tunnel complex, which I think was left over from the French struggles, but certainly expanded with time. Saying "on top" does not imply that the tunnels were in the base camp, but they were close by. |~|

"Cu Chi remained the 25th Div base camp from 1966 to 1971 when we began to pull out. Cu Chi got mortared or hit with 122mm rockets occasionally and did experience a few ground attacks. BUT, it was too big for the enemy to overrun. They got through the wire when I was there, and blew up a bunch of CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

Fighting the Viet Cong and NVA on the Ho Chi Minh Trail Before Saigon

U.S. Army Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd,"Most of our operations consisted of search and destroy missions, reconnaissance in force, either on foot, or using Eagle flights, which were intended as a show of strength, moving in by Huey UH1-D helicopters and sometimes CH-47 Chinooks, the latter only to secured landing zones. There was a vast array of assault helicopter companies that supported the 25th division in this area. During the months of October and November the company and the Battalion engaged in many battles with the Viet Cong and NVA. We relied heavily on the utilization of combat assaults to surprise the enemy and catch them in areas that were favorable to us in defeating the enemy. [Source: Sergeant Arnold Krause, with Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, April 2013 |~|]

"About the only difference between VC and NVA, was the uniforms. The NVA operated in larger numbers and were a military unit while VC were guerrilla fighters, squad and platoon strength normally, usually locals from the villages, but could also be regional. The VC normally would ambush you, get someone injured, not killed, then try and draw you into a rescue effort in hopes of killing more. They would organize and co ordinate large nighttime activities, ground assaults at NDP’s, night defensive positions. These would be places where we stopped at night and dug in. We would deploy concertina wire and claymore mines around our location and then sit and wait, like bait, to see if Charlie would try and hit us either with mortar fire, or ground assault. |~|

"We would rely on artillery fire and aerial support if attacked. In these instances, the F.O., forward observer for artillery, would zero in the closest battery support to our location. He would have the artillery fire air bursts of White Phosphorous by having them calculate from the center of our location, These airbursts would then encircle or position overhead with each gun. So when the shit hit the fan, they could drop down from these calculations and hit the enemy with HP, high explosive. |~|

"In December of 68 I was given three more replacements which brought my squad up to nine, the highest strength I had experienced in any a squad I was associated with during my time in Nam. Most of the time our platoon strength was around 25 and a company strength varied between 75 to 100 men. Companies were usually four platoons, the fourth platoon a heavy weapons platoon (mortars) which usually stayed in the base camp. It was an up-and-down year for my company and for my platoon. During the year that I was there we lost 22 men plus a medic, 12 from my platoon. During the month of December we lost our platoon leader, and two close friends of mine. I ended up as acting platoon Sgt. for about three weeks. |~|

Turnover rate in the company during my period of time there was very high. Doing my own research, for a company that averaged between 100 and 120 men, we had close to 400 men listed on the company roster for a one-year. This list made up men arriving, rotating home, wounded and sent home, killed or reassigned to other units. As you can see a large turnover which translated into a lot of inexperienced men in the field that needed to be brought up to speed quickly. |~|

Firefight with the Viet Cong Near the Ho Chi Minh Trail

U.S. Army Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd, "It was December 14th, 1968, and we were making a company combat assault just south of the village of Sa Nho, Vietnam, almost due east of FSB Pershing, about 5 clicks. The evening before, the Lieutenant had briefed us that it would be a two platoon lift (Eagle flight) and the S-3 (Air Operations officer) scheduled 10 choppers for the mission. Lift off would be at 1400 hrs, and our field strength was approximately 60 men. We were to sweep south east, then rotate north hitting our checkpoints along the way. Intelligence (S-2) said that there had been enemy movement spotted in the area. Right after landing in an area of rice fields, the company formed up into two columns. Our platoon (3rd) had the point (meaning we had to walk ahead of the rest of our force). SP4 Jim McInvale was leading us, with Sgt. Conlin right behind him. I sent out flankers as we began to move out to our first checkpoint. [Source: Sergeant Arnold Krause, Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, April 2013 >>]

"The terrain where we’d landed was mostly dry rice fields mingled with dense wooded thickets and hedgerows. From the landing zone, the company was about 200 meters from the wood line. As the column neared the hedgerow area, we started taking heavy automatic and machine gun fire, and we were pinned down out in the open. The rice paddy area afforded us some protection because of the dikes that were built to hold water, but it made maneuvering difficult. Sgt Richard Conlin went down with the first burst and we couldn’t get to him. He was about 15 meters to my front. As soon as the shooting started, we automatically recoiled into a defensive position, finding any cover we could. >>

"SP4 Jim "Big Jim" McInvale was leading Sgt Conlin when he got hit not 5 feet behind him. McInvale was also hit in the opening volley, in the side under his left armpit. Close by is Darrell Kuhnau, a rifleman who is screaming and out of control. McInvale tries to reach Conlin but knows he’s dead. He continues to fight using his M-79. My squad and 1st squad spread out and return fire. Sgt Price and Sgt Buckley move the M-60’s up to the front and we start laying out a suppressing fire along the tree line.The VC continued to return fire. They are about 40 meters to our front Bullets were kicking up dirt and dust everywhere. You could hear them whistling by, sounding like mad bees. I could see muzzle flashes from VC rifles at three or four points to my front and settle my sights on one of them. >>

"PFC Ed "Wally" Wales from New York, and SP4 Jesse "Taco" Tostado, who hails from SoCal were dropping high explosive rounds from M-79 grenade launchers into the wood line. We were getting no word from command about what to do. No effort was made to try a flanking movement to the left and into the tree line. Any attempt to move to the right with no cover would have been suicidal. We were without an officer since 1LT James Merrett was killed two days previously. SFC John Partee wants to call in a C.S gas drop using one of the planes from Cu Chi equipped for that, and asks Buckley about it. Buckley retorts by asking him if he’s crazy because none of us have gas masks with us. Then Partee starts talking about bring in an air strike, but that thought gets no traction. I ’m burning through my ammo pretty quick and others up front are also. I send a runner to the rear to get us more ammo." >>

Viet Cong Tunnels

Many Viet Cong spent the war living in hideouts dug underground with their own hands. Most of the tunnels were near Saigon in Cu Chi and Vinh Moc (near the DMZ). One Vietnamese man who lived underground with his family for five years told journalist Tim O'Brien, "You had daylight, but I had the earth...Many times I might reach up and take this man's leg. Many times. Very easy. I might just pull him down to where the war was." The man worked, cooked, bathed and slept underground during the five year period.

Vinh Moc Tunnels (about 100 kilometers north of Hue and 550 kilometers south of Hanoi,) contain remnants of Vietnam War tunnels, where a community of 600 people lived underground for more than four years. Almost two kilometers of the tunnels can be visited. Unlike the tunnels at Cu Chi, they have not been restored too much and they are pretty much in the same condition they were in when the war ended. The site also contains a gloomy one-room museum with blurry photos and items used by the people who lived in the tunnels.

The Vinh Moc Tunnels are located 13 kilometers east of the national Highway 1A and just six kilometers away from the sea in Vinh Linh Village, Vinh Thach Commune, Vinh Linh District, Quang Tri Province. The tunnels used to be thousands of meters long. But now there remain only 1,700 meters. This underground network is linked with 13 doors (seven opening to the sea and six to the hills). The structure is divided into three layers, the deepest being 23 meters underground. They are connected by a 768 meters main axis that is 1.6 to 1.8 meters high and 1.2 to 1.5 meters wide. It is linked to the sea by seven exits, which also function as ventilators and to a nearby hill by another six.

Along the two sides of the main axis are housing chambers. There is also a large meeting hall with a seating capacity of 50 to 80 people, which was used for meetings, movies, art performances, surgeries, and even the delivery of babies (17 were born here). There are also four air wells, two watch stations and three water wells. The village featured unique Hoang Cam stoves, named after the general who invented the store to allow for underground cooking without emitting smoke, thus evading the discovery by bombers.

According to the Vietnam government: “The spectacular tunnel network stands as a testament to the endurance, wisdom and bravery of the local people in their fight for independence. Before entering the tunnels, visitors are shown the displays of that brutal period in Vietnam's history by some photos. They provide a sharp contrast for the vitality of the local people in during war time, celebrating on the victory day. The war forced many people to either leave their villages or live beneath the ground. Vinh Moc residents opted for the second solution. A few would imagine that the rubber and pepper tree plantations today used to be a fierce battleground from 1966-1972 when Vinh Moc was a place to pass food and ammunitions to Con Co Island.

“The area underwent tens of thousands of tons of bombs by U.S warplanes. The invaders wanted to return the area to the "stone age" and launched a destructive war there. It was estimated that local residents endured the equivalent of 500 heavy rockets per day. In 1976, the Ministry of Culture and Information recognised Vinh Moc Tunnels as national heritage site and included it in a list of especially important historical sites. To ensure security for visitors, the tunnels were restored with reinforced concrete and internal lightening.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Cu Chi Tunnels (75 kilometers northwest, or a two hour drive, from Ho Chi Minh City) is the famous underground warren of tunnels used by the Vietcong to attack targets around Saigon during the Vietnam War. Built under fortified villages, where peasants had been forcibly moved, Cu Chi was a 200-kilometers-long mile network of passages with underground hospitals, meeting rooms, multi-level sleeping quarters, trap doors, smokeless kitchens, air raid shelters, weapons factories, strategy rooms and even entire underground villages with theaters and movie halls. In some places the tunnels had three stories.

One of the radio command centers was made from a South Vietnamese tank stolen by the Vietcong in 1966 and buried and linked to the tunnel system. There was even one tunnel with a trapdoor inside a U.S. military base at Dong Du. The conditions in the tunnels were harsh. Many Viet Cong who lived in them survived on one meal of manioc a day.

According to the Vietnamese government: “For a place that's physically invisible, the Cu Chi Tunnels have sure carved themselves a celebrated niche in the history of guerilla warfare. Its celebrated and unseen geography straddles "all of it underground" something which the Americans eventually found as much to their embarrassment as to their detriment. They were dug, before the American War, in the late 1940s, as a peasant-army response to a more mobile and ruthless French occupation. The plan was simple: take the resistance briefly to the enemy and then, literally, vanish.”

“First the French, then the Americans were baffled as to where they melted to, presuming, that it was somewhere under cover of the night in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta. But the answer lay in the sprawling city under their feet - miles and miles of tunnels. They became not just a place of hasty retreat or of refuge, but, in the words of one military historian, "an underground land of steel, home to the depth of hatred and the incommutability of the people." It became, against the Americans and under their noses, a resistance base and the headquarters of the southern Vietnam Liberation Forces. The linked threat from the Viet Cong - the armed forces of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam - against the southern city forced the unwitting Americans to select Cu Chi as the best site for a massive supply base - smack on top of then 25-year old tunnel network. Even sporadic and American's grudgingly had to later admit, daring attacks on the new base, failed for months to indicate where the attackers were coming from and, importantly, where they were retreating to. It was only when captives and defectors talked that it became slightly more clear.”

The tunnel system was so large and complex that roads signs were used to help the Vietcong soldiers navigate their way around and avoid bamboo-stake booby traps meant for the American and Australian soldiers that tried to ferret them out. Favored traps included punji stake pits with hidden upward-pointing bamboo stakes, and bamboo sticks that released an extremely poisonous snake called the three step snake, because its venom was toxic that a person collapsed three steps after being bitten.

Today, the Cu Chi tunnels are one Vietnam's most popular tourist sights. There are two separate places that tourist visit, usually as part of an organized tour: the Tunnels at Ben Binh and the Tunnels at Ben Douc. The Tunnels at Ben Binh are definitely the better of the two. The contain sections of real tunnels that have enlarged and restored for tourists. The ones at Ben Douc are complete reconstructions that are part of a Cu Chi amusement area.

History of the Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels were built in an area of heavy guerilla resistance, known to the Americans as the Iron Triangle, from a system of tunnels originally constructed as hiding places and links between villages in the 1940s by guerillas fighting against the French. The red soil in the are was hard and compacted, and ideal for digging tunnels that didn't collapse. In the gap between French occupation and the arrival of the Americans the tunnels fell largely into disrepair, but the area's thick natural earth kept them intact and maintained by nature. [Book: The Tunnels of Cu Chi by Tom Mangold and John Penycate (Random House, 1985)]

The Viet Cong enlarged the tunnel system in the 1960s and began hiding entire military units in them and used them as command center for guerilla activity in an area that became strategically important. It was a fortunate stroke of luck for the Viet Cong that the South Vietnamese government constructed many "strategic hamlets" near Cu Chi, which provided the guerrillas with new recruits and support and means of spying on their enemy.

AFP reported: “Communist forces in the 1960s expanded tunnels that anti-colonial rebels first built in the late 1940s, creating a vast complex with sleeping quarters, arms caches, kitchens, hospitals and even propaganda theaters. Entrances were concealed and booby-trapped to stop the "tunnel rats," US and Australian soldiers of narrow build, who crawled into the deadly holes with only a torch and a handgun to ferret out the black pyjama-clad enemies. The elusive underground guerrillas -- once dubbed "human moles" by US commander General William Westmoreland -- terrified US and South Vietnamese forces like no other communist soldiers in the conflict. [Source: Agence France Presse, January 29, 2008 <>]

“Viet Cong veteran Nguyen Thi Nghia, who joined the revolution when she was 13, recalled how her village "went underground" and how she once spent five days in a hot and claustrophobic tunnel during a heavy bombing raid. "The earth was swaying like a hammock," said Nghia, 61. "We were crouching in the tunnels with only one candle. We tried not to speak to save oxygen and limit carbon monoxide. We tried not to move. We were soaked in sweat."” <>

Tunnel-based guerrillas launched hit-and-run attacks. The Communist presence in Cu Chi was so pronounced that the Viet Cong staged victory parades in the villages there. The Americans were infuriated that an area so close to Saigon could be so overrun with the enemy. Activity in the Cu Chi area was one of the main reason why the Johnson administration decided to step up American presence in Vietnam. The Cu Chi District is known nationwide as the base where the Vietnamese mounted their operations of the Tet Offensive in 1968.

For many years the Americans weren't aware that the tunnels existed. When they were discovered the Americans and Australians tried numerous unsuccessful methods to smoke out the Viet Cong: trained German shepherd dogs, human "tunnel rats," and crop-killing defoliates. The dogs and humans suffered appalling casualty rates and so many dogs were horribly mutilated by booby traps their handlers refused to allow them to be used.

At one point American troops brought in a well-trained squad of 3000 sniffer dogs, but the German Shepherds were too bulky to navigate the courses. One legend has it that the dogs were deterred by Vietnamese using American soap to throw them off their scent, but more usually pepper and chilly spray was laid at entrances, often hidden in mounds disguised as molehills, to throw them off.

Large-scale American raiding operations used tanks, artillery and air raids, water was pumped through known tunnels, and, according to the Vietnamese, “engineers laid toxic gas.” The US used napalm and Agent Orange and turned the land above the tunnels into a moonscape, Eventually the entire Cu Chi area was declared a free fire zone, where American soldiers had orders to kill anything that moved and planes dropped leftover bombs. An area covering 420 kilometers was pulverized with carpet bombs. Dubbed the "Land of Fire" in Vietnamese during the war, Cu Chi became "the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare," wrote authors Tom Mangold and John Penycate.

Despite all this the Viet Cong hung on for a long time, even though only about 6,000 of the 16,000 guerrillas who lived in the tunnels survived the war. There were also thousands of civilian casualties as one might guess. One American commander's report at the time said: "It's impossible to destroy the tunnels because they are too deep and extremely tortuous."

Layout of the Cu Chi Tunnels

Cu Chi Tunnels consist of more than 200 kilometers of underground tunnels. This main axis system has many branches connecting to underground hideouts, shelters, and entrances to other tunnels. The tunnels are between 0.5 to one meter wide, just enough space for a person to walk along by bending or dragging. However, parts of the tunnels have been modified to accommodate visitors. The upper soil layer is between 3 to four meters thick and can support the weight of a 50-ton tank and the damage of light cannons and bombs. The underground network provided sleeping quarters, meeting rooms, hospitals, and other social rooms.

The entries, exits, and even the sheer scale of the tunnels weren't even guessed at. Chemicals, smoke-outs, razing by fire, and bulldozing of whole areas, pinpointed only a few of the well-hidden tunnels and their entrances. The emergence of the Tunnel Rats, a detachment of southern Vietnamese working with Americans small enough to fit in the tunnels, could only guess at the sheer scale of Cu Chi. By the time peace had come, little of the complex, and its infrastructure of schools, dormitories, hospitals, and miles of tunnels, had been uncovered. Now, in peace, only some of it is uncovered as a much-visited part of the southern tourist trail. Many of the tunnels are expanded replicas, to avoid any claustrophobia they would induce in tourists. The wells that provided the vital drinking water are still active, producing clear and clean water to the three-tiered system of tunnels that sustained life. A detailed map is almost impossible, for security reasons if nothing else: an innate sense of direction guided the tunnellers and those who lived in them.

Some routes linked to local rivers, including the Saigon River, their top soil firm enough to take construction and the movement of heavy machinery by American tanks, the middle tier from mortar attacks, and the lower, 8-10 meters down was impregnable. A series of hidden, and sometimes booby-trapped, doors connected the routes, down through a system of narrow, often unlit and invented tunnels.

Ho Chi Minh's Bunker and North Vietnamese Command Center

Margie Mason of Associated Press wrote: "Behind thick concrete walls and iron doors, Ho Chi Minh and other top North Vietnamese leaders took cover in secret underground tunnels during U.S. bombing raids and plotted key military strategies that led to America's defeat in the Vietnam War... The bunker used by Ho, his military leader, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, and others is in the same building where the 1968 Tet offensive and the fall of Saigon in 1975 were planned from about 30 feet below the surface. [Source: By Margie Mason, Associated Press, October 28, 2004 \\\\]

"The communist military, with help from the Soviets, built its headquarters there in 1967. It housed an elaborate tunnel system, including the underground bunker, which has narrow submarine-style corridors and vaulted metal doors leading into two larger rooms. During U.S. bombing raids, Politburo members and top military brass took cover there and held meetings. Vietnam's Defense Ministry occupied the property until recently, relocating to another site and turning part of the area over to the city of Hanoi. Only a small underground section of the bunker was opened to the public, with most of the tunnels remaining closed and classified. \\\\

"No one knows how long (the tunnels are)," said professor Le Van Lan, a historian with in-depth knowledge of the site. "It's a secret. There's many legends that they go to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum." An army blanket and a simple wooden bed where Giap, now 93, sometimes napped is also on display in his old office along with antique phones used to communicate with his staff and other officials. "It's a very simple room, but from that room, the Vietnamese military strategists issued big decisions for the liberation and unification of the country,'' said Truong Khanh Hao, 71, a veteran who fought the French and the Americans. "It's a pride for all Vietnamese that we have these relics.'' \\\\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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