It is bad enough to live in cramped quarters without any electricity, how much more in a tunnel shared with thousands of other people. Impossible as it sounds, but this was how more than 16,000 Vietnamese lived for many years in what is now known as the Cu Chi Tunnels during their war with America between 1956 and 1975.
They are not your regular tunnels, but a very complex network of tunnels which served as hospitals, living quarters, communication and supply routes, as well as storage areas for the weapons and food of the Viet Cong guerrillas. They were constructed without using any sophisticated machines or tools but only crude tools and human resilience. The Viet Cong guerrillas began building them during their resistance against the French in the late 1940s. Its original purpose was for communication between villages without getting detected by the French army. In 1960, however, Vietnam’s National Liberation Front began excavating and extending the tunnels. The tunnel system was very strategic contributing to the victory of the North Vietnamese Army against the Americans.
Most of these secret tunnels were built underneath American bases. Its importance was not only limited to military purposes but also became the hub of the Vietnamese community life as the Americans burned and destroyed villages. Everything proceeded as normal for the Vietnamese in these tunnels where lovers met, couples got married, children went to school, and performances were held.
All was not normal, of course. The Vietnamese had to face the challenges of living in cramped quarters where ants, scorpions, vermin, and poisonous centipedes thrive. Aside from that, they have to ration everything because food, water, and even air were scarce. Most of the time, they only got out of the tunnels at night to scavenge anything that would be useful for the community whether they were supplies or food. At times when the Americans bombed and infiltrate villages, they had to remain in these claustrophobic quarters for what seemed like endless days. Those living conditions made sickness, especially malaria, rampant. In fact, it has become the second major cause of death among the Vietnamese during that time. Aside from that, most of the tunnel inhabitants had serious cases of intestinal parasites.
While the Cu Chi tunnels had been a haven for the Vietnamese, it became a source of frustration for the Americans. They had tried various methods of detection and infiltration which were all a failure. The American troops conducted large scale operations burning villages, bulldozing jungles, and destroying rice paddies. They deployed planes which sprayed chemicals to defoliate the areas burning it afterwards. Through all these offensive attacks, the Vietnamese guerrillas, along with the rest of the villages, remained safe and secured in their tunnels. Despite this, only 6,000 Vietnamese from the original 16,000 tunnel inhabitants were able to survive after the war.