CU CHI, Vietnam (AFP) — If war is like hell, the fighters of Vietnam's Cu Chi tunnels were several metres (feet) closer to it than most.
For years, Viet Cong guerrillas lived in a network of tunnels three storeys deep, a labyrinth that spanned over 300 kilometres (186 miles), connecting villages in virtual underground cities in this district north of Saigon.
While US air attacks, artillery, napalm and Agent Orange defoliants turned the land above into a moonscape, guerrillas launched hit-and-run attacks and even readied the January 31, 1968 Tet Offensive from the tunnel system.
Dubbed the "Land of Fire" in Vietnamese during the war, Cu Chi became "the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare," wrote authors Tom Mangold and John Penycate.
Communist forces in the 1960s expanded tunnels that anti-colonial rebels first built in the late 1940s, creating a vast complex with sleeping quarters, arms caches, kitchens, hospitals and even propaganda theatres.
Entrances were concealed and booby-trapped to stop the "tunnel rats," US and Australian soldiers of narrow build, who crawled into the deadly holes with only a torch and a handgun to ferret out the black pyjama-clad enemies.
The elusive underground guerrillas -- once dubbed "human moles" by US commander General William Westmoreland -- terrified US and South Vietnamese forces like no other communist soldiers in the conflict.
Viet Cong veteran Nguyen Thi Nghia, who joined the revolution when she was 13, recalled how her village "went underground" and how she once spent five days in a hot and claustrophobic tunnel during a heavy bombing raid.
"The earth was swaying like a hammock," said Nghia, 61. "We were crouching in the tunnels with only one candle. We tried not to speak to save oxygen and limit carbon monoxide. We tried not to move. We were soaked in sweat."
Today, Americans are back, firing M-16s at Cu Chi -- but this time they are among the tourist crowds blasting away for 1.30 dollars a bullet at a shooting range set up at what is now the Cu Chi tunnels tourist park.
A souvenir shop sells war kitsch, including mock hand grenade cigarette lighters, keyrings made from assault rifle rounds, fake GI Zippos engraved with gung-ho war slogans, and plastic figurines of VC guerrillas.
As the gunfire echoes through the woods -- hardy eucalyptus trees planted in the dioxin-soaked earth -- a guide regales visitors with tales of Viet Cong derring-do amid the horrors of an industrial war.
There are terrifying "tiger traps" with sharpened bamboo punji stakes, and recreated hole-in-the-ground workshops that once recycled explosives from dud bombs and soft-drink cans into landmines that killed and maimed GIs.
Tourists now photograph each other atop the rusty carcass of an M41 tank claimed by a landmine in 1971 and crawl through a section of tunnel that has been widened to accommodate the larger bulk of many Westerners.
A group of VC mannequins in olive uniforms and grey VC neck scarves take a rest in a jungle shelter, listening to revolutionary news on a field radio and drinking, the guide says, rice whiskey to ward off malarial chills.
The guide points out the swimming-pool sized crater of a B-52 bomb that once served as a fish pond for the peasant fighters, and a ventilation shaft hidden inside a termite mound to keep away the enemy's sniffer dogs.
"The Americans sent in over 2,000 dogs," says the guide. "We said, thank you very much. The Vietnamese eat dog meat and we really needed the protein."
The tour is full of gallows humour, but to most Vietnamese, Cu Chi still epitomises the horror and heroism of war.
When B-52s carpet-bombed Cu Chi in 1968, most tunnels collapsed and became the graves of those inside.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »