Cu Chi – Iron land of Vietnam

General Information:

The tunnels of Cu Chi were built over a period of 25 years that began sometime in the late 1940s. They were the improvised response of a poorly equipped peasant army to its enemy’s high-tech ordnance, helicopters, artillery, bombers and chemical weapons.

The Viet Minh built the first dugouts and tunnels in the hard, red earth of Cu Chi during the war against the French. The excavations were used mostly for communication and transportation between villages and to evade French army sweeps of the area.

When the VC’s National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency began in earnest around 1960, the old Viet Minh tunnels were repaired and new extensions were excavated. Within a few years the tunnel system assumed enormous strategic importance, and most of Cu Chi district and the nearby area came under firm VC control. In addition Cu Chi was used as a base for infiltrating intelligence agents and sabotage teams into Saigon. The stunning attacks in the South Vietnamese capital during the 1968 Tet Offensive were planned and launched from Cu Chi.

In early 1963 the Diem government implemented the botched Strategic Hamlets Program, under which fortified camps, surrounded by many rows of sharp bamboo spikes, were built to house people who had been ‘relocated’ from communist-controlled areas. But the VC launched a major effort to defeat it. The VC were able to tunnel into the hamlets and control them from within. By the end of 1963 the first showpiece hamlet had been overrun.

To deal with the threat posed by VC control of an area so near the South Vietnamese capital, one of the USAs first actions was to establish a large base camp in Cu Chi district. Unknowingly, they built it right on top of an existing tunnel network. It took months for the 25th Division to figure out why they kept getting shot at in their tents at night.

The US and Australian troops tried a variety of methods to ‘pacify’ the area around Cu Chi, which came to be known as the Iron Triangle. They launched large-scale ground operations involving tens of thousands of troops but failed to locate the tunnels. To deny the VC cover and supplies, rice paddies were defoliated, huge rubber plantation were bulldozed, and villages evacuated and razed. The Americans also sprayed chemical defoliants on the area and a few months later ignited the American grass with gasoline and napalm. But the intense heat interacted with the wet tropical air in such a way as to create cloudbursts that extinguished the fires. The VC remained safe and sound in their tunnels.

The USA declared Cu Chi a free-strike zone: little authorisation was needed to shoot at anything in the area, random artillery was fired into the area at night, and pilots were told to drop unused bombs and napalm there before returning to base. But the VC stayed put. Finally, in the late 1960s, American B-52s carpet-bombed the whole area, destroying most of the tunnels along with everything else around.

The VC guerrillas serving in the tunnels lived in extremely difficult conditions and suffered horrific casualties. Only about 6000 of the 16, 000 cadres who fought in the tunnels survived the war. Thousands of civilians in the area were killed. Their tenacity was extraordinary considering the bombings, the pressures of living underground for weeks or months at a time and the deaths of countless friends and comrades.


At the map

Cu Chi was an outskirt district of Saigon during the war, it’s about 65Kim by road and 30 Km by crow fly. Cu Chi was known by other famous name – “iron triangle” because it’s was the main battle with intensive fighting between Cu Chi guerrillas and Us army. We can see Saigon River is running along the east side of the district.

Red colour was liberation zone where most of tunnel system existed. It’s called liberation because it’s quite well controlled by local guerrillas (VC) and also the most dangerous area for GI (American solder) and South Vietnamese soldier with numerous land mines and traps.

Yellow were “peace” areas, where common people evacuated form fighting. People lived under control of South Vietnamese government.

Pink was conflicted areas or also called “Comb” or “rice & bean”. Because they were controlled by both sides. South Vietnamese controlled in the day time and night time belonged to VC.

Blue are Military bases of American and South of Vietnam army. This is “Dong Du” the biggest army base in South East of Asia during 1965-1970. American army arrived here in 1965 and targeted to sweep out VC from Cu Chi area. They tried to level everything on the ground by air-raid, chemical spray and bulldozer. There were about 8,000 troops of 25th American infantry division based in here.

Cu Chi had a very important and tactic position during the war. North east of Cu Chi was next to final end of Ho Chi Minh Trail, while North West closes to the border with Cambodian and South West of Cu Chi could be infiltrating into large Vam Co & Mekong delta. Cu Chi was also the gate way entered into Saigon.

American Army used all means of warfare in order to turn Cu Chi into a dead land of enemy. Local VC had to move all activities to underground. During 21 years, the tunnel has become most complicated system and causes too much headache and casualty to US Army.


Tunnel had no architecture design. Firstly, it was built quite simple with one level only in 1948 with total about 20 Km long. From 1948-1968. The tunnel had been developed to 3 levels with many function rooms, bomb shelter, fighting bunker and fighting trenches.

First level from 3-4 meters deep with various function rooms from right to left. Fighting bunker where VC face on face fighting with GI, weapon depot, special kitchen called Hoang Cam smoke is kept inside of many under ground rooms and release little by little into the air. This is the way to hide away smoke. Relaxation room where can sleep during the day. The A letter bomb shelter could be safety to stay during shell and bomb raid.

The second level is about 4-5 meters deep with water well and bamboo traps. The passage is very narrow and just fit Vietnamese people. American can be stuck inside or taking time to make it bigger.

The third level 8-10 metre deep is very small and tiny. This level is used in emergency case only or if VC wants to escape into Saigon river.

Secret door.

The door is use to get in and out the tunnel system. It highly required well camouflage and not easy to be identified by eyes. It’s small and made by wood. On the top usually covered similar with natural environment such as soil, dry leaves or tree branches.

Ventilation holes:

Ventilation hole is significant to live inside of the tunnel. As same as secret door, ventilation needs to be well camouflaged on the ground. Any natural environment could be used to disguise such as bushes or termite mould. When the Americans began using German shepherd dogs, trained to use their keen sense of smell to locate trapdoors and guerrillas, the VC began washing with American soap, which gave off a scent the canines identified as friendly. Captured US uniforms were put out to confuse the dogs further. Most importantly, the dogs were not able to spot booby traps. So many dogs were killed or maimed that their horrified handlers then refused to send them into the tunnels.

Bamboo traps:

Many different traps have been invented during the war. Trap used for hunting animal now use to hunt the enemy.

Door trap: was setting at the front door with two parts. Upper connects with lower part with a joint. It causes danger to GIs even they react by stopping the upper part of the trap but the lower part still hurt them.

Hom trap of fish trap is souvenir trap. When solder put one leg in but can not pull the leg out because of pointed spikes and have to carry the trap to hospital. another name of this trap is “souvenir trap”

Sticking trap strike hardly to the body from 4 sides.

Meeting room:

Meeting is big enough for the meeting of 20 solders and connects with the tunnel system. On the roof is supporting by timbers and covered by dry leaf or soil. At the corners of meeting room have bamboo trap to kill GI if wanting to get into.

Tapioca and rice were the most popular food during the war. Tapioca is a type of sweet potato and easy growing as well as harvesting.

“Hoang Cam” kitchen.

This famous designation for cooking during “Dien Bien Phu” battle had been copied successfully by Cu Chi tunnel. It aims to hide smoke away from cooking. Smoke is extorted through the long chimney and kept longer in time inside of many small rooms before escaping out. A side from that, strict regulation is applied for this task, cooking in the very early morning so smoke could mix with natural mist. Food can reserved for few days and dried food was preferable. Everything was just for safety and minimized human casualty as much as possible.

“Military hospital”

The mini hospital was simple and camouflaged as meeting room. Only different point was covered with plastic for high sanitation. Lacking of medicine , antibiotics and disinfectant liquid were a real problem and led to many deaths. However, using the war to supply for war is one of effective strategy of guerrilla. Via secret agents in Saigon from business man to doctors, local VC could buy medicines from corrupted officers. Hospital is connected with tunnel system therefore they could move injury to down of level or safety room.


Cu Chi tunnel is quite different to other tunnels because of its function. it’s not only a hiding tunnel but also a fighting one. Local people use the tunnel effectively during the quiet as well as operational time. People were never leaving their tunnel behind, they just stay for short time and on move to better position to encounter attack their enemy. The tunnel is quite accommodated with environment with good skill of camouflaging and strictly in operating and living. Each loss was studied carefully and changes were implemented immediately.  Tunnel system was built by hand only and in hard condition. It was impossible built by army but by the whole community who were working side by side with digging tunnel over 25 years for the final cause. The symbol of tunnel is something over than itself, it represents for the strong will, determination, a thousand year experience of forming and protect our father land.

Thank you for your reading.

Hong Duc


About Insiderjourneyguidehelpdesk

Local guide manager-Vietnam
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