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.

Traveling and Transportation in Vietnam: The easiest way to get most anywhere in Vietnam is through a tour organized in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City or another major tourist town. Usually you can work out something with the staff of your hotel. If you want to shop around there are plenty of tour agencies on the streets of the tourist areas or on the Internet. For long distances you are best taking a flight. Air Asia serves many places but the flights often originate in Kuala Lumpur. Vietnam Airlines, budget carrier VietJet Air and Jetstar Pacific Airlines, a unit of Vietnam Airlines, all operate domestic routes. The trains are okay but the destinations they service are limited. It is possible to take local buses and minibuses but traveling that way is hassle and time-consuming: you have to deal with language issues, scheduling, locating where the buses leave and often crowded, hot conditions on the buses.

Getting There: Trips to the Vietcong tunnels at Cu Chire usually combined with an trip to Cao Dai temple for the daily ceremony. The Cao Dai Great Temple is located some 100 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City and is enroute to the Cu Chi Tunnels. One can take a full-or half-day tour with any of the budget travel agencies in Ho Chi Minh.

History of the Cu Chi Tunnels

The 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.

American Countermeasures Against the Cu Chi Tunnels

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.

Tunnels at Ben Binh

Tunnels at Ben Binh (near the village of Ben Binh, 70 kilometers northwest of Ho Chi Minh City in Cu Chi Rural District.) are very interesting. After paying an entrance fee of around $3, visitors are shown a film that shows Vietcong "killer heros" being given awards for killing Americans and tunnels dwellers outwitting American dogs with pepper spray, clothes from dead American soldiers, booby traps, and American soap.

According to the film, “Cu Chui, the land of many gardens, peaceful all year under shady trees...Then mercilessly American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside...Like a crazy bunch of devils they fired into women and children...The Americans wanted to turn Cu Chi into dead land, but Cu Chi will never die.”

Visitors are then shown various tunnels and booby traps and told blood-curdling stories by guides about the terrible things that happened to both American and Vietnamese soldiers. At the end of the tour, visitors are allowed to climb down and explore sections of the tunnels, crawling on their hands and knees, crouching and duck walking through the narrower parts.

Visitors are also allowed to try to squeeze into a trap door tunnel. In most case, slim Japanese girls are the only ones that can make it and even then they need help from the guides to get out. The guides are often dressed in green fatigues or black pajamas like the Viet Cong.

Tunnels at Ben Douc

Tunnels at Ben Douc is a kind of tourist trap that attempts to give visitors a chance to feel what its like to be a Vietcong. After climbing through tunnels, that are significantly larger and better lit than the ones used by the Vietcong, visitors enjoy a meal of rice congee in the underground kitchen, sample the “beds” in a sleeping chamber with hammocks made form U.S. parachutes, are attended by a doctor in the underground field hospital and search for trap doors and ventilation holes disguised as termite mounds. The entire complex has four levels and a 160 or meters of tunnels that reach a depth of about 40 feet underground.

The tunnel complex is not totally authentic but is still fun anyway. Souvenir shops sell toy F-16s, helicopter gun ships made from spent shell casings, Vietcong black pajama uniforms, “genuine rubber sandals worn on the Ho Chi Minh trail,” fake dog tags, lighters engraved with emblems from American army units (reportedly used to burn villages), pens made from bullet casings pickled cobra wine, and green jungle cap "still stained with sweat."

At a stall with a sign that reads "Please Try to be a Chu Guerilla," visitors can be photographed in a Vietcong uniform and a pith helmet. Nearby is tourist firing range, people pay to shoot off a clip from an American-made M-16 or Soviet-made AK-47. Good shots can win Vietcong-style scarves or hats. Cu Chi Tunnels is still controlled by the army and proceeds from the Tunnels at Ben Douc go to them.

AFP reported: “Americans are back, firing M-16s at Cu Chi — but this time they are among the tourist crowds blasting away for 1.30 dollars a bullet at a shooting range set up at what is now the Cu Chi tunnels tourist park. A souvenir shop sells war kitsch, including mock hand grenade cigarette lighters, keyrings made from assault rifle rounds, fake GI Zippos engraved with gung-ho war slogans, and plastic figurines of VC guerrillas. As the gunfire echoes through the woods — hardy eucalyptus trees planted in the dioxin-soaked earth — a guide regales visitors with tales of Viet Cong derring-do amid the horrors of an industrial war. [Source: Agence France Presse, January 29, 2008 ]

“There are terrifying "tiger traps" with sharpened bamboo punji stakes, and recreated hole-in-the-ground workshops that once recycled explosives from dud bombs and soft-drink cans into landmines that killed and maimed GIs. Tourists now photograph each other atop the rusty carcass of an M41 tank claimed by a landmine in 1971 and crawl through a section of tunnel that has been widened to accommodate the larger bulk of many Westerners.

“A group of VC mannequins in olive uniforms and grey VC neck scarves take a rest in a jungle shelter, listening to revolutionary news on a field radio and drinking, the guide says, rice whiskey to ward off malarial chills. The guide points out the swimming-pool sized crater of a B-52 bomb that once served as a fish pond for the peasant fighters, and a ventilation shaft hidden inside a termite mound to keep away the enemy's sniffer dogs. "The Americans sent in over 2,000 dogs," says the guide. "We said, thank you very much. The Vietnamese eat dog meat and we really needed the protein. The tour is full of gallows humour, but to most Vietnamese, Cu Chi still epitomises the horror and heroism of war. When B-52s carpet-bombed Cu Chi in 1968, most tunnels collapsed and became the graves of those inside.”

Tay Ninh Province

Tay Ninh Province covers 4,049.2 square kilometers and is home to 1,075,300 people (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Khmer, Cham and Hoa. The capital is Tay Ninh Town. Districts: Tan Bien, Tan Chau, Duong Minh Chau, Chau Thanh, Hoa Thanh, Ben Cau, Go Dau, Trang Bang. Tay Ninh Town is 99 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, 224 kilometers from Vung Tau, 129 kilometers from Bien Hoa. There are Moc Bai and Xa Mat border gates to Cambodia. Moc Bai Market is trade center for Vietnam and Cambodia.

Located in the eastern part of southern Vietnam, Tay Ninh shares a border with Cambodia on the north with 240 kilometers boundary, Binh Duong and Binh Phuoc provinces on the east, Ho Chi Minh City and Long An Province on the south. In the north part of the province, there is 986-meter-high Ba Den Mountain. In the south, the terrain is quite flat. The province has Vam Co Dong and Sai Gon rivers and Dau Tieng Lake. The weather is hot and humid year round with an annual average temperature of 27.5 degrees C and an annual rainfall of 1,724 millimeters. The dry season lasts from December to April and the rainy season lasts from May to November.

Coming to Tay Ninh, tourists are able to visit Ba Den Mountain, a famous complex of cultural and historical sites and beauty spots, and Binh Thanh Cham Tower, a monument of the Oc-Eo culture. Every year, Ba Den Mountain Festival attracts many pilgrims come to pray, sightseeing and enjoy the entertainment. Tay Ninh is home of Cao Dai religion with Tay Ninh Cao Dai Temple, a complex of Great Temple, Chanh Mon Gate, four towers and Mother-of-Buddha Temple. The province also is base of revolution of South Vietnam during resistance against the Americans.

Ba Den Mountain (11 kilometers Northeast of Tay Ninh Town and 106 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City) is a famous complex of cultural, historical and beautiful sites covering an area of more than 24 square kilometers. The complex includes three mountains: Heo, Phung and Ba Den, of which the 986-meter-high Ba Den is the highest peak in the south. Ba Den Mountain is also called Black Lady Mountain. According to legends, beautiful Ly Thi Thien Huong, Black Lady, was forced to marry the son of a rich mandarin while she fell in love with a poor man who was fighting the aggressors. Rather than marrying a man she did not love, she threw herself from the mountain.

Several shrines and pagodas were built in the mountain as well as in the caves. Ba and Hang Pagodas attract many pilgrims during the New Lunar Year and Vu Lan Festivals. Ba Den Mountain was where the headquarters of the liberation force of South Vietnam were located. During war time, many tough battles were fought in that area.

There are three ways to reach Ba Temple. If you go on foot, it takes you over one hour to arrive at the destination. Cable cars take you 20 minutes to cover a distance of 1200 meters. The sliding system includes two lines going upward and downward, 1190 meters and 1700 meters in length respectively. It is impressive to take the downward line as it will take you through lots of hair-raising bends and corners.

Cao Dai Temple

Cao Dai Temple (in Tay Ninh 100 kilometers northwest of Saigon) is the Holy See of Caodaism, a religious sect that combines elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Christianity and Vietnamese animism and advocates vegetarianism, anti-sensuality, benevolence and universality.

Founded in 1926, Caodism has several million followers, almost all of them in Vietnam, who believe, among other things, that they receive telepathic messages from certain historical figures, regarded as saints, including Jesus, Mohammed, Joan or Arc, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur and Vladimir Lenin.

The temple's interior, which Graham Greene described as "Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East," is garishly decorated with pink dragons and yellow and purple mythical beasts. Graham Greene was briefly a member of the sect. The Lonely Planet described it as “a rococo extravaganza combining the conflicting architectural idiosyncracies of a French church, a Chinese pagoda, Hong Kong’s Tiger Balm Gardens and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.”

Built between 1933 and 1955, the Cao Dai Great Temple is 140 meters long and 40 meters wide. It has four towers each with a different name: Tam Dai, Hiep Thien Dai, Cuu Trung Dai, and Bat Quai Dai. The interior of the temple consists of a colonnaded hall and a sanctuary. The 2 rows of columns are decorated with dragons and are coated in white, red, and blue paint. The domed ceiling is divided into nine parts similar to a night sky full of stars and symbolizing heaven. Under the dome is a giant star-speckled blue globe on which is painted the Divine Eye, the official symbol of Caodaism. Cao Dai followers worship Jesus Christ, Confucius, Taoism, and Buddha.

Getting There: Trips to the Cao Dai temple for the daily ceremony are usually combined with an afternoon trip to Vietcong tunnels at Cu Chi. The Cao Dai Great Temple is located in Hoa Thanh District, five kilometers southeast of Tay Ninh Town. The Cao Dai Great Temple is located some 100 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City and is enroute to the Cu Chi Tunnels. One can either hop on a public bus going to Tay Ninh, take a taxi (around US$30/RM105 per cab) or opt for a half-day tour with any of the budget travel agencies in Ho Chi Minh.

Cao Dai Temple Ceremony

Every day at noon, members of the sect hold a ceremony, with processions of chanting followers in colorful costume, which visitors are encouraged to attend. Describing his visit to the Cao Dai Great Temple, Revathi Murugappan wrote in his blog: “Like Buddhist worshippers, we had to remove our shoes before trooping to the balcony upstairs to watch the service. The place is painted in a sea of bright colours, and reflects a very happy ambience. The temple is built over nine levels representing nine steps to heaven, and each level is marked by a pair of columns entwined with dragons. At the top is a dome representing heaven and below it is the “all-seeing eye”, which is also depicted on the walls and windows. [Source: Revathi Murugappan]

“Devotees were dressed in white robes while the coloured robes worn by senior devotees denote ranking and function, and indicate the different branches of Cao Daism. Robes come in a mix of yellow (Buddhism), red (Confucianism) and blue (Taoism) but everyone wears white pants. The top clergy also wear hats with a picture of the all-seeing eye in front while the rest wear various types of head gear.

“A bell rang and the children’s choir started singing in Vietnamese as the hundreds of devotees walked in with military precision, according to robe colour and gender. Men entered from the right and women, from the left. They took their positions silently, knelt and waited until another bell rang. “Don’t you feel that someone is watching you all the time?” a tourist whispered to me. “It’s creepy yet reassuring.” Once the choir stopped singing, the acolytes rang the bells again. No one gave sermons and there was no chanting but amazingly, the devotees were guided by the sounds of the bell although I couldn’t sense a rhythm. Seated, they would bow four times in intervals while touching the floor with their hands.

Our guide Sam told us later, “There’s no time limit for their prayers. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to hours. The ultimate goal of the Cao Dai follower is to escape reincarnation and like all religions, you need to do good things in this life.” Hundreds attend prayer services every day, sitting in neat rows according to rank. Prayers are conducted at 6am, noon, 6pm and midnight. At every session, there are a few hundred priests and during festivals, thousands congregate here. Photography is permitted, but it’s polite not to subject the worshippers to a barrage of flashlights. And if you’re taking a picture of a highly ranked Cao Dai clergy (you can tell from their robe colours), it’s best to show them the picture once you’ve snapped it, for approval. They’ll smile and give you blessings.

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.

Last updated August 2020

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