I’ll be the first to admit that I never really knew that much about the Vietnam War, except that it was one of the most controversial and deadly wars in American history. It was not until I was researching things to do during our trip to Vietnam that I found out about the Củ Chi Tunnels, the elaborate network of underground passages stretching from South Vietnam to the border of Cambodia, where the Viet Cong lived, transported supplies, and fought against American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Hailed by Lonely Planet as “a symbol of Vietnam’s tenacious spirit”, the the tunnels claimed large numbers of US casualties and is considered one of the most devastated areas in the history of warfare. However, when you arrive at the Củ Chi War History Museum, you would never suspect that it was once a place of combat. Set in the jungle just 30 miles Northwest of Saigon, there is no obvious evidence of fighting or bombing, because most of it happened underground.

The Củ Chi tunnels were actually first built in the late 1940s during Vietnam’s war against the French, but greatly expanded during the Vietnam War, or the “American War” as the Vietnamese call it. Because American soldiers were much bigger and stronger with more advanced weapons and artillery, the Củ Chi Tunnels were of enormous strategic importance as it allowed the Viet Cong to essentially outsmart their enemies. The entrances to the tunnels are ubiquitous but clandestine, hidden by the thick jungle terrain. The entrances are tiny, not much larger than a sheet of paper, allowing the Viet Cong to disappear underground without a trace. Viet Cong guerilla fighters were only allowed to be familiar with small segments of the tunnel’s complex networks which had nearly had 130 miles of passageways, so that if they were captured as a prisoner they could not reveal the network even if tortured.

The first thing our guide showed us was a terrifying booby trap, a trap door in the jungle where unknowing American soldiers would fall onto sharp bamboo spears. These were all over the area, and surprisingly their intention was not to kill the soldiers, but rather to injure them enough to slow the entire group down, since the mantra “no man left behind” means Americans would have to stop and help injured soldiers, giving the Viet Cong enough time to escape. They also planted ultra-venomous snakes within the tunnels to kill any GIs during raids. In addition to booby traps, the Viet Cong utilized clever tricks, such as wearing boots with reverse soles to leave footprints that appear to be going the other way. To confuse the American’s search dogs, they laced the tunnels’ air vents with pepper or clothes stolen from the GIs themselves. They also used the tunnels to launch surprise attacks as the intertwining passages often stretched beneath the American army base at Dong Du.

Life happened in the Củ Chi Tunnels, which not only contained living quarters and meeting rooms, but schools, playgrounds, hospitals, and theaters. The Viet Cong built kitchens with special diversion tunnels that carried the smoke to a different area as to not give away their location. Life underground was dreadful, and only about 6,000 of the 16,000 people who lived in the tunnels survived the war. Air and water was scarce, and the tunnels were infested with poisonous scorpions, centipedes, and spiders. Sickness ran rampant, with the vast majority of inhabitants catching parasites, and the sticky heat causing severe skin problems that could only be relieved with gun powder. Malaria spread like wildfire and was the second largest cause of death after battle wounds. A real-life purgatory, the tunnel’s inhabitants would typically only emerge from underground at night to tend to their crops or scavenge for supplies, but sometimes were forced to stay down there for days, weeks, or even months at a time. We had the opportunity to go inside the tunnels, via entrances that had been widened to fit Western tourists (haha). I’m extremely claustrophobic and only made it about two feet before I had to turn around. I cannot imagine being forced to live down there for decades!

American soldiers used the term “Black Echo” to describe the tunnels, which to them were booby-trap-filled hell holes impossible to navigate. Some handpicked soldiers called “tunnel rats” specialized in raiding the tunnels. They would crawl into the pitch black in search of Viet Cong guerillas, but very few survived the booby traps and surprise attacks. Frustrated, American soldiers eventually resorted to massive firepower, dropping explosives, pumping Agent Orange, and flooding the tunnels to kill or drive out the Viet Cong, as well as innocent civilians. This all left the jungle wiped out and barren, but Mother Nature has since recuperated and the area is now lush and green again.

The best part about traveling isn’t resorts and beach cocktails, it’s gaining a wealth of knowledge and sparking your curiosity to learn more for the sake of learning, bringing history to life, and opening yourself up to a fresh perspective of things you thought you knew. As an American, it was particularly eye-opening to see the Vietnam war from the “other” side. I am well aware of the psychological trauma the war had on our own soldiers, but never really thought about the Vietnamese until this experience. Literally standing on the soil where this war was fought opened my eyes to how truly horrifying this war was, not just for Americans, but for both sides. I have the upmost respect for all the men and women who fought for our country, and the deepest compassion for anyone affected by such a devastating war.