Saturday, September 12, 2009

David and Goliath

Of course I had heard about Cu Chi, only 30 kms away from Ho Chi Minh City and knew it was a network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong guerrillas. Today I know better: it is an icon that signifies the grit and tenacity of a people. Armed but with just the primitive of weapons and oodles of native wisdom, the Viet Congs took on the global policeman and brought them to their knees. The improvised response of a poorly equipped peasant army to its enemy's hi-tech ordnance, artillery, helicopters, bombers and chemical weapons, the tunnel today is a place of pilgrimage.

It would look like any forest in the rainforest region - swampy soil, huge trees, thick undergrowth and a carpet of grey leaves covering the earth. Till the guide removes the leaves from about four squarefoot of ground to reveal two small hooks at a distance of about 16". He slips his index fingers through them and heaves it. Off comes an 18" x 12" x 4" block of earth exposing a pit. The volunteer in dungarees explains that this is the entrance - one of the many hundred, in fact - through which the Viet Congs entered and exited the tunnel. As we gape at it incredulously, he slides into it, puts back the 'lid' and with a few leaves strewn on top, you cannot distinguish it from the surrounding vast expanse of decaying leaves.

As we walk ahead, the guide explains that at one time, it covered the entire South Viet Nam. The network in Cu Chi district alone was 250 kms long. There were storage facilities, living areas, hospitals, war rooms and kitchens - all underground. Parts of it were several storeys deep. Some exits were into the river Mekong. There were several trap doors and concealed entries like the one shown earlier. An enemy soldier plucky enough to try to enter the tunnel and lucky enough not to be killed by the guerillas after he somehow got in, would die of hunger, as he would not be able to get out.

Not that getting in was easy. The guide showed us a barricaded lawn - about 10' x 6' in area. He poked it with a bamboo-pole. A block of 8' x 5 ' moved and spun around freely about a central axis a couple of times - like a see-saw installed atop a well would. Any enemy who walked on it would fall into the pit. And on the side-walls of the pit were sharp spears. Your joy that you were lucky to escape them would be momentary, for there were more on the floor to skewer you! The guide explained that the guerrillas were kind to the enemies. In order that they did not suffer too long as they lay impaled by the spears, snake poison used to be applied on the spears.

This was only one type of booby trap. There were several such contraptions - cylindrical ones, those with a thin lid which gave way activating two blades - one two feet below the other - which cut the victim into three pieces. I will not go into more gory details of the horrendous death that awaited the GIs trapped and went for a free fall into the pit.

The 'tunnel rats' deputed by the US commanders under General Westmoreland suffered major casualties while, immune from the land and air operations of the US Army, the Viet Congs moved about freely below their very bases, often mounting surprise attacks wherever the tunnels went and retracting as mysteriously as they had appeared. Flummoxed, but unable to locate the trap doors used by the Viet Congs, they trained German Shepherd dogs, known for their keen olfactory sense, to sniff out the guerrillas. They began washing themselves with American soap which the canines identified as friendly. The uniforms of captured GIs were put out, which confused the dogs further.

Life in the tunnels was not a party, though. They lived in extremely hostile conditions. Light, air, food, everything was in short supply. The only source of light and air was the cavities made in the trunks of trees.If food was found, cooking it was difficult because the smoke emitted would give them away. They devised smoke exhausts with vents located meters away from the kitchen. Americans pumped poisonous gas through these, resulting in casualties in scores of hundreds. In addition to the pressures of living underground for months on end, the guerrillas had to cope with the death of countless civilians among whom were friends and relatives. Only 40% of the 16,000 guerrillas in the tunnels survived the war.

There are mines and shells lying about in the area and it is believed that some of them may be live. The guide warns you against straying from the group, lest you should step on one of them!
PS: I forgot to add that for the benefit of tourists and visitors, one of the entries at the Ben Duoc end of the tunnel has been enlarged so that even the portly and the arthritic can see what it was like to be a Viet Cong in the tunnel. We can step in and 'walk' around through the 'expanded' tunnel. These are about 4' high and 2' across and one has to crawl to proceed. Being unlit, the tunnel was too claustrophobic for me. Exits have been provided at 20 meter gaps so that when you feel you can't take it any more, you can give up your sub-terranean avatar and breathe easy!


Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

If someone read this after a few hundred years, they wouldn't know whether they were reading fact or fiction. Even now, to me, the whole thing seems impossible.

Just as truth can be stranger than fiction, some people can do things others cannot imagine. No wonder the Vietnamese won the most asymmetric war in the history of mankind.

philip said...

The wars in the tunnels - what a claustrophobic nightmare ! The tunnel rats were a heroic lot.

The North Vietnamese and Vietcong were really fighting a war of indepenence. But, there were also hundreds of thousands of ordinary South Vietnamese who fled rather than stay on after the Communist takeover.

paramgiri said...

Sir, please write such things of our Pazhassi raja also

முகுந்தன் said...

Vietnam travelogues are great..especially he one about buying broccoli! I just love your style!!

subbu said...

I had always wanted to visit 'nam. Had heard about the tunnels and tunnel rats. mostly seen thro the American eyes. a different view point , a different interpretation. mmm snake poison as a means of kindness , a new twist.
keep it flowing.