CNN has listed a system of tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City’s Cu Chi district as one of the world’s top underground tourist attractions. The complex of tunnels was formed between 1946 and 1948 48 during the resistance war against French aggression. During the Vietnam War, the tunnels, built on an area of the so-called “Iron Land” in southern Vietnam, were used as hospitals, communication and supply routes, and living quarters for Vietnamese soldiers. A reporter from Vietnam Investment Review’Timeout finds out more.

A visit to the Cu Chi tunnels is high on the list of most visitors to Vietnam. Now they have the option to put a new spin on the trip by side-stepping the traffic clogged access roads and arriving in serene style via the Sai Gon River.

The Cu Chi Tunnels area is a favourite tourist site for many international travellers. I have been a few times, and after each I return with a new story or dis- cover a lesser known point of interest.

This time I found a whole new way to experience it - via the Sai Gon River and tributeries. Cu Chi is where visitors come to experience what life was like for revo lutionary soldiers fighting in the jungle.

The tunnels allowed the Vietnamese guerillas to control a large rural area only 30 to 40km from Sai Gon. At its height, the tunnel system stretched from the economic hub to the Cambodian border.

While most travellers reach Cu Chi by road, a half day excursion by waterway is are more enticing option.

At 8am my friend Nhan and I joined eight people with a tour guide at Bach Dang Pier in Ho Chi Minh City.

The cruise took just one hour and 15 minutes and there wasn’t a traffic jam in sight as we watched the city’s skyline disappear behind us.

Just a few minutes outside of bustling Sai Gon lies peaceful countryside and an amazing world of water; here it is easy to understand why Vietnam is sometimes called a nation of ‘Dat Nuoc’ - land and water.

The yacht cruise is a new development on the Saigon River, as local busi nesses seek to develop new products to attract travellers to HCMC and en courage them to stay longer. Our yacht was new and comfortable, and had an on board toilet. The uniformed captain welcomed us on board with a smile, and we had a safe feeling on our entire river adventure.

Our guide Chung was a friendly lady and she served us fresh water and fruits. With her excellent English, she guided everyone through the safety regulations and gave an overview of the trip.

We were informed that the favourite trips run by the company are the Sai Gon – My Tho excursion and that to Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta. Besides these, those to the Can Gio biosphere and the Cu Chi Tunnels are also proving hits with visitors. Other tours include cruises from Sai Gon to Siem Reap.

Chung explained that many businessmen prefer the privacy of the cruise or a sunset cocktail and dinner aboard the ship.

After some conversation with the tour guide and tour members, we ar rived at the Ben Dinh Pier near the Cu Chi Tunnels. We then stepped into a jungle of banyan trees and took a short walk to Cu Chi. We had plenty of time to explore the tunnel system and watch a video about them, which included commentary from former soldiers to help visitors better understand the history.

There are two sections of tunnels open to visitors, at Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. The latter are in original condition, while the Ben Duoc tunnels have been recreated for tourists and visitors.

The network, parts of which are several levels deep, once included innumerable trap doors, specially constructed living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories, field hospitals, command centres and kitchens. Also, an impressive temple was built to honour martyrs at Ben Duoc.

Upon request, travellers can meet living Viet Cong veterans, many of whom are ready and willing to tell their stories to the world. Yet, on the surface, Cu Chi is like every other rural district in Vietnam. Women chat over mounds of vegetables at the local market while young men lounge in dusty, open-fronted restaurants.

Today, it is hard to believe that this area occupies some of the most heavily bombed land in the history of warfare.

This area was a free bombing zone, which allowed the US army to bomb at a ny time and anywhere they suspected enemy activity.

Beginning in the late 1940s, resistance fighters dug a series of tunnels into the rust coloured earth of Cu Chi to allow them to evade French army patrols. The old tunnel network was renewed and enlarged when the National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency began around 1960.

Within a few years, the tunnel system became the lifeline of NLF opera tions, snaking all the way from Sai Gon to the Cambodia border. The attacks that rocked the southern Vietnamese Capital during the Tet Offensive were launched from Cu Chi.

In a bid to break local community ties with NLF forces, the southern re gime launched its strategic hamlets program in 1963. Government forces destroyed villages in suspected pro-communist areas and relocated the people to their controlled, fortified encampments.

Instead of isolating the people from NLF influences, the program had the opposite effect, strengthening sympathy for the communists. Thanks to the tunnels, the NLF had access to the strategic hamlets anyway. To try to regain control of the Iron Triangle, as the region was known, the Americans built a larger base camp at Cu Chi.

Only after several months of unexplained sniper attacks did they discover that their camps lay directly on the top of an intricate network of NLF tunnels.

Thousands of Americans, Australians and southern Vietnamese ground troops descended on the Iron Triangle to try and seize control of this strategic area.

Unable to find the tunnels, they decided instead to try and cut off the NLF supply routes. They eradicated and burned villages and destroyed paddy fields. This area was doused with chemicals and set ablaze with napalm. Yet despite the devastation above ground, many NFL fighters survived, tucked away deep inside their earth fortress.

“Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels was a memorable experience. In the pouring rain, we walked around the site where battles were fought and so many lives were lost. Venturing into the claustrophobic dark tunnels was something I will never forget,” a tour member told to me after the trip.

“It was the blind leading the blind into the darkness of those narrow tunnels, relying on the feel of the walls as we were hunched over double. Ten minutes underground felt like much, much longer. It was a relief to come back to ground level, but also gave me a huge sense of appreciation for the amazing survival techniques that the Vietnamese used in this dark period of their history,” said another.

Malcolm and Fran Surman of the UK Embassy in Bangkok, remarked: “Of all the wonderful places that we were taken to, I think that Cu Chi tunnels made the greatest impact as we came to realise the awful conditions that were endured by those who wanted their freedom.”

Also as part of the tour, we arrived at Bach Dang in time for lunch where we walked to the impressive bonsai garden (Vuon Kieng) on the bank of Sai Gon River.

As all the tourists headed back to the city and their next adventure, they all agreed that a tour of this area is a must do for anyone visiting Vietnam.-VNA