The underground war
Dear Travel Guru,
My family has decided to take a holiday in Vietnam. I don't really see what we can do there, except go to the beach - which was exactly what we did last year in Thailand. I love the beach, but this time I want to do something a little more interesting and adventurous.
Thanks for your letter, Adventure Seeker. Vietnam has an incredibly long and beautiful coastline. In fact, the country has nearly 3,500 kilometres of coast, and that's a lot of beaches. But Vietnam is a lot more than beaches - the food, for one thing - and, for anyone looking for something a little adventurous, a fascinating outing is a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels.
The Vietnamese have preserved a section of the tunnels they used to fight their enemies, first the French and then the Americans. What's more, you can wriggle down there yourself and experience what it was like to be a Vietnamese resistance fighter or an American 'tunnel rat'. There's no need to worry. The tunnels are perfectly safe and kept clean of spiders and insects. Some of them have been widened especially for tourists. Above everything, the tunnels are an interesting lesson in how determined the Vietnamese were to drive the occupying foreign forces out of their country.
The underground war
In the 1940s, as they fought their war of independence against the French, Vietnamese soldiers began to build tunnels. Over the next 25 years, they continued to dig until the tunnels stretched 250 kilometres from Saigon - now
Ho Chi Minh City - to the Cambodian border. The network had kitchens, sleeping areas, hospitals and even schools. People lived underground as the war turned from a conflict against the French into a fight against the Americans.
The Americans knew about the tunnels. They knew the Vietnamese were coming out of them at night and launching surprise attacks. What they did not know was just how many tunnels there were - or how long they were.
The United States sent special soldiers armed with guns and knives down the tunnels. They called them 'tunnel rats'. They also bombed the tunnels. In the end, this was effective. But it was too late. By the time the tunnels were destroyed, the Vietnamese no longer needed them and the war was over.
A day in the tunnels
You might be nervous about going underground in a tiny tunnel. But the Cu Chi tunnel attraction is about more than tunnels. There is a museum, a short documentary and other war sites in the area that you can explore.
So, go with an open mind and take in all the things to see, then decide if you want to experience the tunnels first-hand. Most people who say they are nervous before they go down say they are glad they did it.
The day begins with the documentary. If it seems a little one-sided, remember it was made in 1967 by the Vietnamese. A briefing by a Vietnam war expert follows, and you can tour the interesting War Museum - which shows the booby traps used in the tunnels to stop US 'tunnel rats'. Then it's time to enter the tunnels. Feeling brave? Go on and be a 'tunnel rat' - just watch your head!
1 Don't worry about having to wear long trousers. The tunnels are high enough, so you can 'walk' through them in a crouch. You do not have to crawl and wriggle your way through.
2 Bring sunglasses and sunscreen for the outdoor parts of the experience.
3 It's best to get up early and travel the 35 kilometres to the tunnels from Ho Chi Minh City to avoid the midday heat.
4 Do pay some money for your own tour guide - around US$4 to US$5. They are informative and can show you things you would never find on your own.
5 Don't go down if you suffer from claustrophobia - the fear of enclosed spaces. Even the tunnels that have been widened for tourists are still narrow.
6 Treat the experience as a learning activity. The Cu Chi tunnels are a fascinating lesson in the events of the Vietnam war.