The Vietnam War was fought over 21 years, between the North Vietnamese and the Americans - resulting in victory for Vietnam. It always fascinated me, how the local Vietnamese defeated the sophisticated Americans. To understand this, my first stop is - Cu Chi Tunnels.
These tunnels run 250 kms long, hand-dug without any tools or electricity, over 28 years. They stretch from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Combodian border.
A jungle-guide points me to a camouflaged patch of land, approaches it and gently moves the top - opening a 30 cm x 50 cm entrance.
He slips into it effortlessly, like a hand in a glove.
A tourist-couple who missed the 2 seconds of action ask me, "where did he go?"
This was the Viet Cong tactic for jungle-warfare, to counter the well-equipped Americans. They used tunnels to hide and attack. Typically they would surface in the middle of night to mount attacks and then disappear into nowhere. It perplexed the Americans till the very end.
A typical entrance of a jungle tunnel is just 30 cm wide, which allows only the Viet Cong soldiers to access.
The first (floor) level of the tunnels is very cramp and small, only for hiding, mounting sudden attacks, transportation, supplies and communication.
Getting into one can get you into a maze of complex tunnel-network, dark and deep.. deep as in 3 levels (floors) - underground. It's worth trying.
The 2nd floor (level) has some room to walk in a bent posture. This is a typical wide tunnel for the tourists (usual tunnels are not so wide).
The sound of selfies soon began to fill the narrow walkways, I see 2 more tourists with me, in addition to the jungle guide. I managed to take some pictures, with sufficient elbow room to move and frame my photographs.
At the 20 meter mark, the guide asks if anyone wants to exit. I look at the exit, but don't think I need to stop as yet (narrow exit shown in photo)
The guide asks me again, if I'm game enough to go further. I decide to go further.. not realizing whats coming next.
The humidity begins to thicken, my shoulders are rubbing against something - the walls.. getting narrower with every step.
This was a Viet Cong design-tactic, to lure the enemy in to a wider tunnel, which gets narrower and narrower - and eventually traps him. There ain't no room to make a U turn.
At this point a tourist behind me asks me to take a picture for him, using his mobile. I gladly oblige, he poses a few times. The flash fills the tunnel, and blank - it goes dark again. In military terms, it's called "Dark Echo" to describe the conditions within the tunnel.
Going forward means crawling at this point. The sides of my elbows and thighs begin to rub off against the walls. The walls are clay, leaving behind a dusty beach-sand on my body. I get that feeling in my stomach, that things are getting serious. But this is not the best time to worry about the dirt, coz we are running short of oxygen - as in breathing oxygen.
I try my best to shrink myself to the smallest as we approach the 40 meter mark. , breathing becomes heavy due to the tremendous physical strength for crawling. Lack of oxygen doesn't help, and every muscle in my lower body begins to cry. The sound of selfies has gone faint. The tourist behind me is no longer asking for selfies and pictures. All we could think of now was getting out.
The guide makes a call again for nearby exit, and at this point none of us can go further (to 100 meters). I take a brief moment of pause, to recollect all my energy before I can exit.
Emerging alive from the 2nd level felt really refreshing.And seeing the daylight felt like a blessing.
The smell of fresh air and breeze of air on my skin reminded me I was out.
I can't imagine how the locals and Viet Cong soldiers lived down there for years. Besides the soldiers, and entire underground city lived there - they had schools, medical facilities, meeting rooms, and dining bunkers. Upto 45,000 local Vietnamese died defending these tunnels. Living conditions were terribly difficult, Malaria was the 2nd biggest killer after the bombs & bullets. To protect their families and communities from non-stop aerial bombing, the only option was to dig deeper and live underground.
It really takes immense physical-strength, patience and perseverance to dig such tunnels, fight in them, live in them, and eventually win a war with respect- which the Viet Cong sure did.