The Secrets Within the Cu Chi Tunnels

Debbie Merion
12 min readMay 23, 2020

Part of a Series of Travel Stories: Five Truths and Two Lies

I step forward in line, now it’s my turn. I feel the cool metal of an AK-47 rifle in my hands and sniff the air: a damp mixture of pine, sulfur, and sweat. A human-shaped target riddled with holes flutters on a tree 100 feet away. It’s just a piece of paper, I tell myself. I place the thick rubber ear muffs, flaked from use, over my ears. The rifle lies waiting for me mounted on a stand; underneath the barrel is a pyramid of thousands of gold-colored shells. I know my shells will go on top. The pyramid is shiny. My gut churns.

Spent rifle shells in Vietnam

I am in the Cu Chi Tunnels Park Exhibit outside Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), a traveler with just another finger on the trigger. Not very unusual. Some white fingers, some brown fingers. Some, like mine, with red nail polish. This Russian-built AK-47 has seen the fingerprints of thousands of tourists before me. Maybe this AK-47 was used during the Vietnam War, too, stained with the smudges of a North Vietnamese soldier. Maybe it shot at someone from my Philadelphia neighborhood. Back then I didn’t know anyone in the Vietnam War. But I remember it well — as an American.

I came here not only to bike through Vietnam, now one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but to understand a dear friend, Kim Hoa. She left her hometown of Delat in South Vietnam in 1963. She moved to California not long before the Vietnam War started — what people here call “The American War.” She has only returned once for a visit. Her homeland is wartorn and changed by the years — cars are replacing motor bikes, which replaced bikes. But something must remain of her culture. I am here to discover it. Where did she come from? Who are her people? The Cu Chi Tunnels are as good a place as any to answer this.

Now my right index finger is exploring the ergonomic curve of trigger, my left hand is squeezing the rifle’s magazine like it’s the horn of a saddle on a bucking bronco, sweat is dribbling down the center of my back, and I am staring at the target through the tiny slit of a sight on the barrel of this monster. I squeeze the AK-47 trigger slowly, carefully, and even when mounted on a stand, the recoil makes the wooden butt pound my shoulder hard — the punch of angry prize fighter. The rifle shot has a power I’ve never felt before. I feel the sensation move through my body from my hands and my shoulder through my torso to my feet. It’s exciting, and warms me between my legs. How could that be? What is that rush of pleasure I feel?

Wait a minute, my brain says. That’s not right. I turn my little red Canon camera toward my face and talk into it. My eyebrows knit together, my nostrils flare, the corners of my mouth turn down as I start to talk. Looking at the video now, I’ve never seen myself less attractive; staring, sad, searching eyes. I say, “I just want to say that that was one of the most frightening, upsetting things that I’ve ever done. Taking that shot, the smell of the gunpowder, feeling it ricochet.” Then I flinch, because there is another shot. Someone has already stepped up in back of me to put their finger on the trigger and pull.

As I walk on, I silently berate myself for shooting at a target that is really the ghost of an American GI, and then feeling excited about it. I feel the flush of anger rise up my neck. How dare the Vietnamese manipulate me? I’m humiliated, embarrassed that this Disneyland of Death titillates me. The power has left and in its place is shame, washing through me like a dirty river. I look down at the dirt as I shuffle away from the weapon. I am the vanquished, shamed and tamed by the victor.

As I ride my bike through Vietnam from the warm, wounded South to the prosperous North with my husband and friends, I remember the Vietnam War in 1969. My family in Philadelphia huddled in our tiny kitchen by the radio to hear the draft lottery results. My brother’s March 21st birthday drew 334 out of 365, meaning he likely wouldn’t be drafted. Joy, relief. But two and a half million troops did serve, and about half a million came home in flag-draped coffins. We saw the coffins on the nightly news, but it still feels like a loss too large to fathom.

I met my friend Kim Hoa just eight years after that fateful day, in 1977. She looked like Yoko Ono, petite with long black hair, holding her two-year-old daughter Sarah’s sticky hand. We were two master’s degree students, standing in the office of the University of Michigan School of Social Work. She looked up at me, quizzically. “Would you mind sharing your internship mentor with me?” she asked. I had already arranged to work with a local political feminist activist who was creating a women’s domestic violence shelter. Kim Hoa seemed deferential yet authoritative, assertive but accepting. I felt affirmed by the question. I had never before felt such polite, validating consideration. “Sure,” I said quickly. Years later, after we graduated, Kim Hoa ended up managing the shelter. She remains my only friend from those graduate school years. But we’ve become so close, she feels like more than a friend; more like a sister.

She and I look like sisters too. Right. I am nearly six inches taller than her, much younger, and Caucasian. Kim Hoa’s hair is straight and coarse, mine corkscrews wildly. We look like sisters just like Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger look like twins in the movie Twins.

Now 73, Kim Hoa is still seventeen years older and a head shorter that my 5’5”. But she has the persona of a six-footer. Her ability to laugh at herself for buying jeans in the children’s department and her masterful language abilities in French, Vietnamese and English are so strong that even at 4’ 11”, I do not see her as short — merely condensed.

She is my friend who holds my hand tenderly when we are together, and plays with my fingers with the unassuming intimacy of a child, which sounds like “chil,” rhyming with “while” when she says it with her Vietnamese accent. Her emails to me are flavored with the flowery passion of the French, and a fluency in my native language that may exceed my own. But I can sense her lost country in between her loving words. Now I am in her space, on her land, and I can start to understand her ghosts.

That AK-47 I held and shot for a humiliating, manipulated second could have been pointing at a member of her family, as well as mine. This is a way we are sisters.

The tour continues. Our guide at the Cu Chi Tunnels points to a spot on the green forest floor. Leaves and pine needles suddenly rise up from the ground in the shape of a square, hands grip the sides and then a head appears. It’s the head of another Vietnamese guide, holding a tunnel lid, a manhole cover invisible when it’s in place. This guide looks like a Viet Cong Jack-in-the-Box in green camouflage, some weird and twisted amusement we and thousands of other tourists have come to see.

“Who wants to give it a try?” asks the guide. My husband Bob, fearless, volunteers. Bob squeezes his 5’ 10” body into a tiny space meant for a 5’5” man two-thirds his size.

Bob showing the entrance to a Cu-Chi tunnel

Our group is then ushered to a tunnel to climb through, enforced and enlarged for XXXX-sized American bodies with steps added to make it feel like you are simply walking into a basement that only a child of five could stand up in. It’s too claustrophobic for me, I sit on a log and wait for them to emerge with flushed faces, dusting themselves off.

The tunnels are empty, but the ghosts of the Vietnamese are still in there. What I am about to learn is something Kim Hoa never told me. Deep in these tunnels is a secret. It’s how the Viet Cong –i.e. the North Vietnamese–won the Vietnamese War.

“This is how they did it,” says our guide. She points to two holes ten feet apart. “They’d dig down, then connect the two holes. Women walked miles to carry away the excavated dirt in small handmade woven baskets.” Entire villages dug silently at night, human worker ants following their ancestors. The Vietnamese have been trying to survive takeovers by the French and the Chinese since the first century.

I admire the North Vietnamese who built these tunnels, and it twists my gut to feel that way. They killed my people, and Kim Hoa’s people. Admire them?

But this is part of what I came here to learn: who the Vietnamese are. The Vietnamese culture is a collective society, where the group is valued over the individual. They are not like us in this way. Quiet survival, digging holes together as a family for generations, is not the U.S. way. We are big, we are loud, we are an “an army of 1”. The biggest insult in Vietnam, says Andrew Lam in Perfume Dreams, is for a mother to call her son “a cowboy,” an independent hero who rides away from the crowd. In the 1940s, when the Vietnamese were digging tunnels, we were trying to survive a war too. The difference in our two cultures can light up the desert sky. In the 1940s, we created Los Alamos, then asked our smartest men to leave their families and go live there in desert isolation to build the A-bomb and bomb the crap out of our enemy.

But that’s not the Vietnamese way. Group digging is. The tunnel builders are commemorated here in park exhibit displays. We pass a sign next to a male and female manikin wearing rubber sandals. He is holding a shovel. She is holding a basket. “Every person is a fighter, a hero, that is the powerful force of the Cu Chi guerrillas” says the sign.

In a bunker, a room dug three steps underground, we see a cutaway display of the tunnels, which looks strikingly like an ant farm. It diagrams a city underground with bathrooms, kitchens, bedrooms, hospitals, supply routes to the north, and escape routes to the river. Thousands of North Vietnamese civilians and Viet Cong soldiers survived the “American War” in these malaria-ridden tunnels. It’s hard not to be impressed by their ingenuity, their ability to withstand a tiny space for months that I couldn’t tolerate for two minutes.

Not every one entered the tunnels willingly. At a thatched roof park pavilion called “Self-Made Weapons Gallery,” the air is filled with the squeaking of metal scraping against metal. Guides dressed in camouflage hold rake handles to open and close spiked traps dug into the ground. They have innocuous labels like “window trap” and “the folding chair trap” that don’t begin to label the pain and horror of being impaled with sharp spikes each the size of a screwdriver on such a device. One false step of an American GI mud-covered army boot, the leaves under his soles fell away, and the soldier plummeted down a hole to be tortured, courtesy of village people in the South who supported the North.

Folding Chair Trap — A Vietnam War horror

We stand and watch the guides open and close these home-made traps, helplessly entranced with the mechanism of death, like watching a car wreck.

We paid good money for this tour — three times what the native Vietnamese pay — and we lap up the propaganda like hungry tourists served bitter soup. Next we see a video describing our American heroes with their twist on what happened: “Like a crazy bunch of devils, they fired into women, schools, they even fired into Buddhist statues.” We watch. No one walks out insulted, inflamed.

Such passivity in a place that held so much violence. In 1970, brave American GI “tunnel rats” volunteered to fight in these Cu Chi tunnel hellholes, knowing they might be trapped by the enemy and never emerge.

I feel a shame deep down in the dirt, in these tunnels I am afraid to enter. Though I can show the photos others took.

A Cu-Chi Tunnel

I admire not only our GIs, but the enemy tunnel builders. The tunnels represent to me a culture unified in purpose among generations, like the Spanish who have been building Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia Cathedral since 1882.

That is the odd and twisted shame of it, like feeling manipulated by the propaganda of the victors of war.

There is a flip side, too. Something good. That sense of unity I perceive and admire is also in the loyalty I see in my friend of 33 years. She speaks in every conversation of our two families unified with the glue of love. We’ve danced at each other’s children’s weddings, have brought up children who are friends too.

It’s a mind twister to compare the North Vietnamese to my dear friend who lived in the South, whose family and friends suffered mightily after the war. They starved. They were sent to “Reeducation Camps” by the North. They fled in overloaded fishing boats and jets. They dispersed in the Vietnamese Diaspora. Kim Hoa’s schoolgirl friends now live in France, Australia, Germany, Sweden and Norway, and in the U.S. in Minnesota, Michigan, Alabama, Tennessee, Boston and California.

But that is why I came to Vietnam. To understand.

When Kim Hoa learns that I went to see the Cu Chi tunnels, she says, “Holy cow, you were at my father’s grave.”

I’m confused. “I thought you said he died in prison.”

“He died in the Cu Chi tunnels, in the arms of a family friend,” she says, and tells me the story. “When Ho Chi Minh started the revolution, they targeted my father because he had a business partner who was a Frenchman. One of the workers at my home pointed him out, and the movement kidnapped him, took my parent’s jewelry, and my father never came back. It was the summer of 1944, and he died in summer of 1945. We knew because the doctor he was kidnapped with came home, and told us the story of their capture.”

I think again of the AK-47 I held, and I have a chilling thought. Could it have been pointed at Kim Hoa’s father?

Kim Hoa says, “When they first started the tunnels in 1944, they used them for a quick disappearance underground in case they were pursued, so that is where my father died, probably from malaria. I’ve carried a lot of anger, but I don’t hate the Viet Cong now, even though they killed my father. Now I say, ‘these are my people, no matter what.’”

My shame can float away in relief. I’m breathing again. It’s OK for me to admire the tunnelers; to compare the North Vietnamese to my dear friend. She says they are her people. She has forgiven them. I can too.

It’s clear that Kim Hoa fits in seamlessly in her country, now that I have been there. My 98 lb, 4’11” friend is an average-sized woman in Vietnam. Americans aren’t only much taller, Vietnamese have an obesity rate of 0.5% and ours is 36%. It’s easier to understand Kim Hoa’s insistence in dressing in a traditional handmade Vietnamese silk outfit at her son’s wedding, after seeing and feeling the sumptuous cornucopia of silk in Vietnamese shops. Trim, stylish women wear silk ao dais — the traditional outfit of a sensual skin-tight tunic over flowing trousers.

And it’s easier to appreciate a painting on my wall that Kim Hoa gave me years ago. In it, two Vietnamese women, both with their long black hair up in a bun, look into each other’s eyes while shaking hands. One woman extends a bouquet of yellow, white and pink anemones, clearly picked from the flowers that surround them at their feet.

When Kim Hoa gave the painting to me, she told me that the two women in the painting represented the reunification of South (on the right in the blue, the woman holding the flowers) and the victor North Vietnam, dressed in communist red. But I’ve always thought of it differently: that the two women in the painting are two sisters, Kim Hoa and myself, grieving the war where so much was lost, trying to understand their confusing world together.

This story is part of a series of travel stories: Five Truths and Two Lies

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Debbie Merion

EssayCoaching.com owner, author, and fun-loving female in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Read her latest book, From the Period. To the Colon: Memoir of a Child Writer.