Today, we head to enemy country, 35 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City to a place once known as the “Iron Triangle.”
Before 1966, this was the capital of South Vietnam’s Viet Cong insurgency.
The Viet Cong weren’t just present here. They ran the place. They were the village leaders, staffed the schools, and collected the taxes. Much of the early American war effort in Vietnam focused on eradicating the Iron Triangle.
Our stop was Cu Chi Tunnel Ben Duoc, a tourist destination with much the same perspective as the Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum in Hanoi. Visitors get to marvel at the ingenuity and determination of the Viet Cong, with some sadistic-looking booby trap displays thrown in.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail, in fact, emptied west of Cu Chi, putting the region at a strategic crossroads where vast amounts of weaponry were stored and distributed.
In an attempt to take control of the region, the US built one of its largest bases in Cu Chi to house the 25th Infantry Division. Sabotage and theft became an immediate problem on the base, even though there was no evidence of the perimeter being breached.
The Cu Chi Base Camp had been erected on top of an enemy tunnel system so extensive that its complete mapping was unknown even to most Viet Cong.
The Cu Chi Tunnels stretched over 250 miles from the western outskirts of Saigon to the Cambodia border. The tunnels had bunkrooms, hospital rooms, kitchens, and even a few classrooms. And there were escape hatches and trap doors everywhere.
The soil of Cu Chi is unique, allowing easy digging by hand but hardening when exposed to air. It was also permeable enough to allow a bit of oxygen to pass through, meaning you could live underground with a minimal amount of ventilation.
Countering the tunnels were so-called “Tunnel Rats,” GIS who entered deep holes with knife, a .45, and a flashlight. Once inside, the soldiers dodged booby traps, scorpions, snakes, and, of course, enemy guerrillas.
Part of the strange display greeting visitors to the Cu Chi Tunnel Ben Duoc is an inexplicable faux tire clock reading 11:15.
Greeting visitors at Ben Duoc is an eerie “Planet of the Apes”-type tableau of wrecked American guns and vehicles, including Armored Personnel Carriers, a tank, and a C-130 with tall trees grown around it.
Our guides—dressed like Viet Cong guerillas–then led us down a trail. You could see immediately see how hard the soil gets when compacted. You also see leftover B-52 bomb craters, reminding you that this part of the country was absolutely bulldozed—literally—in order to make the region uninhabitable for the Viet Cong.
We were led to a thatched pavilion housing a light-up map showing the tunnel network and a diorama looking like a human ant farm that depicted the rooms and levels within the tunnel system. Also shown were the dead-ends, escape routes, and zigzags added to confound American Tunnel Rats.
One of our guides, dressed as a Viet Cong, demonstrates a hiding place in the tunnel system.
There are a few tunnels accessible to tourists. They’ve been widened to accommodate American-sized bodies. Several of us crawled through. We each emerged shaking our heads wondering how anyone could live underground like that.
Andy Glaid, one of our more nimble and svelte travelers, tries out the narrow hiding hole.
“How do you beat an enemy like that?” we asked.
Along the way were displays of diabolical booby traps, including the infamous bamboo “punji sticks,” and mines made from re-purposed unexploded America ordnance.
The trail then took us to a relaxing jungle spot where our Viet Cong guides served us tea and cassava.
Our guide showing us leaves of the Pandan plant, source of our tea.
The tea was unlike anything I’d had in Vietnam. Our guide explained that it came from the Pandan plant and was known in Vietnamese as lá dứa. It’s the most common form of tea in southern Vietnam. Pandan leaves are long, narrow, and pointy. They’re frequently used in cooking, and the Vietnamese credit it in helping to control diabetes.
Cassava is a starchy tuber that feeds hundreds of millions of people living in the tropics and subtropics around the world. Our guide explained it contains little nutritional value, but during the hungry years of the 1980s and 1990s, Vietnamese people depended on it to fill their stomachs when rice bins were low.
The cassava we were served must have been fresh because it was tender and just slightly sweet.
Rubber tree stands are easy to spot. They are lined in rows, and he bark has diagonal scars where the trees were bled.
We started back from Cu Chi and passed through some old rubber plantations where rubber was still being harvested. I thought of some of our veterans, like Ron Worstell, who fought in rubber tree farms like this. For every tree damaged, he told me, the US Army had to pay the Michelin company $1,000.
How do you fight a war like that?
We ate lunch outdoor in a beautiful spot next to a stream.
War seemed far away.