“Not A Word of Warning From Anyone:” The Tet Offensive, the Vietcong, and South Vietnam’s Peasantry

Millions of South Vietnamese peasants assisted the Vietcong in its preparations for the Tet Offensive.

Sympathetic peasants provided the guerrillas with intelligence on Allied troop movements, gave the insurgents food and money, and hid the Vietcong in their rural homes. Refugees, many of whom lived on the edges of American bases or on the fringes of South Vietnam’s major cities, allowed the Vietcong to use their shantytowns and slums as jumping-off points for attacks on Allied military targets. South Vietnamese Tet travelers furnished the Vietcong with a degree of civilian cover, making it impossible for the South Vietnamese police to weed out the guerrillas from the general population.

In the days prior to the start of the offensive, Vietcong units succeeded in bypassing hundreds of Allied foot patrols then taking place across rural South Vietnam; the guerrillas even breached the tight security cordons, with their manned watchtowers, pillboxes, and checkpoints, that stood alongside the roads leading into South Vietnam’s towns and cities. None of these Vietcong movements could have been accomplished without the assistance, or acquiescence, of large numbers of South Vietnamese peasants.

A secret network of trails and waterways, used mostly at night, obscured the guerrillas from Allied observation planes and helicopters. Abandoned, bombed-out hamlets, converted by the Vietcong into mini-bases, acted as rest stops, supply depots, and jumping-off points. Moving from mini-base to mini-base, the guerrillas hopscotched from the highlands through the denuded coastal plain toward towns such as Tuy Hoa, Qui Nhon, and Quang Ngai City.

Superb camouflage techniques, a logistical system that placed supplies in front of advancing units, and thousands of miles of tunnels stretching across strategically-important areas further assisted the Communists in entering undetected Saigon and a host of other cities. Adverse weather played a role too, especially at Hue.

The Communists decided to strike at Saigon because of the high-value military and political targets within the city, including the U.S. Embassy, Presidential Palace, Saigon radio station, and the Joint General Staff Headquarters. Hanoi’s strategists reasoned that a series of well-coordinated and successful attacks in Saigon would have a tremendous shock effect, demoralizing both the South Vietnamese and Americans. The adverse reaction to the offensive by the American public proved Hanoi’s prediction to have been correct.[1]

Communist sappers and Vietcong infantry arrived in Saigon from a number of different directions. Employing separate infiltration corridors guaranteed that some guerrillas got through to their targets, even if the Allies captured or killed others.[2] A key infiltration route ran from the Vietcong’s border sanctuaries situated north and northwest of Tay Ninh down the Saigon River toward Saigon. This route passed by the U.S. bases at Lai Khe and Cu Chi. Another major infiltration corridor paralleled the Be River. It conveyed Communist troops to the Bien Hoa area. The Dong Nai River Valley served as an additional Vietcong transportation route.[3]

Although the Americans had long tried to keep the Vietcong out of war zones C and D; in the weeks prior to the offensive the Communists were able to use a system of tunnels and hidden trails through those two areas to move men and supplies toward Saigon. Once the guerrillas emerged from the bomb-blasted, bulldozed, and defoliated war zones, they hurriedly transited toward the sprawling slums located northeast of Saigon between the city’s edge and Bien Hoa. From the cramped, maze-like slums, the guerrillas had access to Cholon and downtown Saigon.

Other guerrilla units moved out of the Plain of Reeds toward their assigned targets. To avoid detection by U.S. and ARVN mechanized patrols and American spotter aircraft, the insurgents avoided the main roads. Instead, they walked across hard-packed, recently-harvested rice paddies or they marched along the tree-lined edges of the delta’s many canals. In heavily-patrolled areas, the Vietcong waded directly down the center of irrigation ditches.[4]

Shallow-draft wooden sampans carried still more men and supplies. Canals west and south of Saigon acted as Communist lines of communication (LOCs). The Vietcong navy, which consisted entirely of civilian watercraft dragooned into service, relied on these LOCs before and during the Tet Offensive. The Vietcong used well-traversed civilian water routes, as well as secret watercourses. On the heavily-trafficked canals and rivers near Saigon, where the Allied brown water navy regularly patrolled, Vietcong vessels hauled small amounts of war material – amounts that would not raise the suspicion of Government inspectors. These vessels eventually deposited their supplies at collection points, where land-based porters carried the materials further afield.

The Allies had no idea of the number of secret Vietcong water routes in existence across the delta. For example, in 1967, the Americans discovered that Vietcong laborers had dredged an abandoned canal in Hau Nghia Province. This canal, long thought by the Allies to be in disrepair, floated enemy sampans out of the Plain of Reeds toward the populated regions to the east.

Canals and rivers played an important role in Vietcong logistics throughout the Tet Offensive. In mid-February 1968, while fighting raged across South Vietnam, American helicopter gunships intercepted a flotilla of 300 Vietcong sampans on a canal twenty-eight miles south of Saigon. The choppers, armed with rockets and mini-guns, sunk many of the slow-moving, exposed watercraft.[5]

Communist troops based in the Plain of Reeds transited toward Saigon through Long An, Hau Nghia, and Dinh Tuong provinces – three provinces with high numbers of Vietcong sympathizers. Villagers in those provinces supplied the guerrillas with food and drink and a place to sleep at night. They also told the infiltrators when and where they could expect to encounter Allied foot patrols. Additionally, civilian porters carried Vietcong supplies. But most importantly, and most damaging to the Allies, the peasantry kept quiet about the guerrillas in their midst, refusing to tell the Allies of Vietcong plans.

On the southern outskirts of Saigon, small guerrilla cells passed through several Catholic villages, built on the approaches to the city during the Diem years to preclude a Communist assault on the capital – an assault that the Vietcong were now about to carry out. Surprisingly, many Catholics aided the Vietcong. They, like their more left-leaning Buddhist neighbors, offered the Vietcong food, shelter, and vital intelligence. They also remained quiet, not telling authorities of the presence of the guerrillas in their villages. The Catholics south of Saigon understood that if they informed the police of the Vietcong passing through their neighborhoods, the guerrillas would return someday to punish them. Few doubted that the Vietcong would seek violent retribution. If the guerrillas could enter a Catholic village located right next to the capital city, they could certainly come back later. A desire for self-preservation, rather than pro-Communism, along with an appreciation for the Vietcong’s well-known vengeance, ensured the silence of the otherwise pro-Government Catholics.

Saigon’s District 7 spread out across the southwest edge of the capital. Beyond it to the south and west flowed the Vam Co Dong and Vam Co Tay rivers, two long-established Vietcong transportation routes.[6] On the uplands adjacent to the two streams lay a checkerboard of dry, grey-brown rice paddies. The guerrillas came into District 7 over those paddies. The district’s refugee population hid the guerrillas inside their cardboard, tin, and crate-timber huts. Lying in wait in the slums, the Vietcong prepared to strike at Cholon.[7]

District 4 sat immediately south of the Ben Nghe Canal on Saigon’s southern edge. A massive slum, filled with pro-Communist refugees, sprawled across the district. Residents living on the south bank of the rancid canal could see from their shacks the buildings of Saigon’s Central Business District. With the assistance of thousands of angry, desperate, and dispossessed peasants, the Vietcong, in the days before the offensive, readied themselves for attacks against the centers of U.S. and South Vietnamese power in districts 1 and 2. As early as January 1965, South Vietnamese officials acknowledged that it was all but impossible to keep the Vietcong out of the Central Business District so long as they had access to the slums across the Ben Nghe Canal in District 4.

Additional Vietcong infiltrators came into Saigon from the south, east, and north. Across the Saigon River from the city’s main waterfront sat an overgrown swampland frequented by the Vietcong. Crossing the Saigon River from this marsh, insurgents entered directly into downtown Saigon. Still more guerrillas found entry into the city from Vietcong-controlled hamlets on the eastern and northern edge of the capital. General William C. Westmoreland acknowledged that Saigon’s unwieldy size, along with the difficult terrain encircling the capital, impeded the city’s defence. He stated, “In the areas around Saigon the terrain facilitated infiltration by large enemy units. Except for the few radial roads emanating from Saigon, the city is bounded to the north, west, and east by a combination of paddies, jungles, and swamps.”[8]

With Saigon’s defenses leaking like a sieve, Communist soldiers poured into the city during the month of January. Not all the Vietcong made the arduous cross-country journey on foot or sampan through swamps and paddies. Some Vietcong special forces personnel and an unknown, but possibly high, number of combat soldiers came into the city on the backs of bicycles and Japanese cyclos. The cyclos were so common in Saigon that security personnel did not notice the young Vietcong darting down the streets on Hondas and Yamahas on their way to a rendezvous with history. Vietcong troopers also passed through the city’s military and police checkpoints on board buses and in the comfortable seats of American and French sedans. Dressed in civilian clothes, holding forged identity papers, and passing themselves off as Tet travelers returning home for the holiday, the insurgents did not raise any suspicion.[9]

When the White Mice (the derogatory named given to Saigon’s white-uniformed police) discovered someone with dubious identity papers, the Vietcong frequently bribed them to forestall their incarceration and interrogation. Amongst the American legation, the Saigon police had a well-deserved reputation for corruption. That the police failed to learn of the coming Vietcong offensive surprised no one at MACV or the U.S. Embassy that had spent any length of time in South Vietnam. After the offensive, Westmoreland, who was always ready to excuse the shortcomings of the South Vietnamese, said this of the Vietcong’s success in infiltrating Saigon, “The use of public roads and civilian disguise made it very difficult to detect the infiltrators…Many were riding public buses and bicycles in civilian clothes.”[10]

Communist logisticians smuggled supplies into the city in rice sacks, beneath vegetables piled high in the back end of oxcarts, and inside secret compartments in the hulls of sampans. Weapons, food, and ammunition went into the shanties and apartments of sympathizers. Much of the food to support the infiltrating troops came from markets in Saigon and outlying communities. Authorities, always on the lookout for an uptick in civilian food purchases in a local market as a signal of an approaching Vietcong operation, did not discern any suspicious increase in food sales in the days before Tet; the reason: thousands of civilian sympathizers bought small amounts of rice, vegetables, and meat destined for the guerrillas. Those purchases, spread out amongst a large number of buyers, could not be attributed to the Vietcong. The impending Tet holiday season, with its tradition of feasting, also concealed the purchase of extra food supplies for the guerrillas.[11]

South of Saigon, in the heart of the delta, the Vietcong depended almost exclusively on the region’s rivers and canals to move troops and supplies into position for the offensive.[12] Back in 1965, the U.S. and ARVN operated seven River Assault Groups (RAGs) in the thirteen delta provinces. Each assault group consisted of nineteen vessels of various types, including gunboats that possessed .50 caliber machine guns and 81-mm mortars, as well as converted World War II-era Higgins boats that served as miniature troop ships. The 133 boats of the Allied brown water navy had been given the impossible job of interdicting the Vietcong on the delta’s thousands of miles of canals and rivers.

Because of the small number of Allied vessels relative to the number of miles of waterway in the delta, the RAG patrols represented more of a nuisance to the Vietcong than a real threat. For example, RAG 23, and its nineteen boats, was tasked with securing the water routes in the three delta provinces of Vien Long, Vinh Binh, and Kien Hoa. Nineteen vessels, moving slowly through narrow canals, some of which were booby-trapped or mined, could not effectively intercept the Vietcong over such a large area. And local Vietcong sympathizers made Allied interdiction even harder because they warned the guerrillas of approaching Allied river patrols, which could be heard from great distances by the sound of the vessels’ engines.[13]

The number of gunboats in the American brown water navy increased after 1965. But even as late as June 1967, seven months before Tet, U.S. military authorities conceded that Allied riverine forces had secured only twelve percent of South Vietnam’s waterways. With so little of the waterscape under Allied control, the Vietcong moved across most of the delta unopposed and without fear.[14]

In order to position their soldiers inside the delta’s urban centers, the Communists depended, as they did at Saigon, on the refugees living in the dilapidated shantytowns and slums built across the delta since 1965. The residents of those makeshift cities, if not openly supporting the Vietcong, did nothing to thwart them and their Tet preparations.

On January 31, 1968, refugee shantytowns acted as base areas from which the Vietcong sprung their attacks. And then once the offensive went into full swing, these neighborhoods, and their residents, funneled Vietcong reinforcements and supplies toward the frontlines. Reporter Frances Fitzgerald wrote, “In the Delta, Front [NLF] forces moved into the most “secure” of the province capitals – Can Tho, My Tho, Vinh Long, Rach Gia, and Ben Tre – [and] entrenched themselves in the poorer quarters….”[15] The Vietcong did the same in other cities in the delta, setting themselves up in the poverty-stricken districts of Quan Long (Cam Mau), Cham Dac, and Soc Trang.

Tobias Wolff, who served as a U.S. military adviser to the ARVN at My Tho, recalled the days just before the start of the offensive, “They [the Vietcong] had been coming into My Tho for weeks. The Vietnamese army didn’t know, the American advisers didn’t know. The town was full of them and nobody said a word. I couldn’t forget that afterward – not a word of warning from anyone. For weeks they were all around us, on the streets, in the restaurants, gathering for the great slaughter and tasting the pleasures of the town until it began.”[16] The Vietcong could not have entered My Tho undetected without the assistance of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians.

To the north, along the coastal plain, the guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies, concealed by fog, rain, and low clouds, slipped down from the dark, forested foothills of the Central Highlands into the flat, gray-green paddy lands. Once there, the khaki-clad soldiers marched along secret trails next to streams and rivers. In one hamlet after another they received a friendly reception. Peasants aided them as porters and reconnaissance personnel. Boys, girls, and the elderly bicycled or walked out to the front of the Communist troop formations to ascertain the location of Allied units. The following diary entry of a North Vietnamese soldier, who was later killed on the southern battlefield, explained how the peasantry assisted Communist troops at Tet. “My commissar teaches me that so far we operate in the jungle area. We have the trees as camouflage. Now we prepare to infiltrate the populated areas of South Vietnam. We should now consider the people as trees to camouflage us.”[17]

Supported by the peasantry, the Vietcong advanced across the coastal plain, moving from hamlet to hamlet. In places where the land had been depopulated, and the hamlets bombed into oblivion, such as across much of Quang Ngai and Quang Tin provinces, the guerrillas moved into the rubble of abandoned hamlets to rest, hide, and prepare for the next cross-country trek. Eventually, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese reached their destinations – the refugee camps, boomtowns, and slums thrown up next to provincial and district towns or alongside U.S. and ARVN military bases, such as those at Danang, Chu Lai, Tuy Hoa, Bong Son, Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, and Cam Ranh Bay. The guerrillas similarly positioned themselves for attacks in the Central Highlands at Tan Canh (near Dak To), Kontum, Pleiku, and Ban Me Thuot.[18]

The fact that tens of thousands of Vietcong and North Vietnamese traveled unobserved across the South Vietnamese countryside in the days and weeks prior to the start of the Tet Offensive represented an impressive demonstration of the Communists’ popular appeal. Conversely, the inability of the Allies to thwart Communist troop movements, or to learn of the upcoming offensive, pointed to the absence of peasant support for the Saigon regime and its American backers.[19] U.S. intelligence experts later admitted, “Prior to the offensive there were very few cases of civilians volunteering information on the impending attacks.”[20] Communist preparations for the Tet Offensive exposed a hard truth – America had few friends in rural South Vietnam.


[1] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6. (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books LLC, 2011), 33-34; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 91, Notes of Meeting,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 267-271; Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin, eds., Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War, (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 382-384.

[2] S.L.A. Marshall, Bird: The Christmastide Battle, (Nashville, Tennessee: The Battery Press, 1968), 13.

[3] Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller, Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000), 99; Lewis Sorley, ed., Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972, (Lubbock: Texas Tech University, 2004), 38; J.D. Coleman, Incursion: From America’s Chokehold on the NVA Lifelines to the Sacking of the Cambodian Sanctuaries, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 68, 133.

[4] Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 168, 178, 345; Sorley, Vietnam Chronicles,119.

[5] New York Times, “Foe Hurled Back from Key Village Near Saigon Base,” Gene Roberts, February 20, 1968; L.P. Holliday and R.M. Gurfield, “Viet Cong Logistics,” (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, June 1968), 55.

[6] Nhu Truong Tang, David Chanoff, and Doan Van Toai, A Viet Cong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath, (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 132.

[7] Peter White, National Geographic Magazine, “Saigon: Eye of the Storm,” Photographs by W.E. Garrett, Vol. 127, Number 6, June 1965, 834-872, 838-839.

[8] New York Times, “Fighting Flares on Saigon’s Edge,” May 29, 1968; Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 346.

[9] L.P. Holliday and R.M. Gurfield, “Viet Cong Logistics,” 20.

[10] New York Times, “Outlook Assessed by Westmoreland,” Associated Press, February 26, 1968.

[11] Holliday and Gurfield, “Viet Cong Logistics,” x, 19; David W.P. Elliot and William A. Stewart, “Pacification and the Viet Cong System in Dinh Tuong, 1966-1967” (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, 1969), 41.

[12] Holliday and Gurfield, “Viet Cong Logistics,” 48.

[13] Dickey Chapelle, National Geographic Magazine, “Water War in Viet Nam,” Vol. 129, No. 2, February 1966, 272-296, 275.

[14] Douglas Kinnard, The War Managers: American Generals Reflect on Vietnam, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1991), 70; Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6. (b), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume II,” (Nimble Books LLC, 2011), 111.

[15] Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, 1972, Reprint, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2002), 389.

[16] Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War, (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 131.

[17] Al Santoli, To Bear Any Burden: The Vietnam War and Its Aftermath in the Words of Americans and Southeast Asians, 1985, Reprint, (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1999), 154.

[18] Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, 389; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 34, Telegram From the Commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Westmoreland) to the Commander in Chief, Pacific Forces (Sharp) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler),” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 75-77.

[19] William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976), 344.

[20] Directorate of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Committee to Review U.S. Intelligence Prior to Tet (CIA, DIA, INR, NSA, JCS), “Intelligence Warning of the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam (Interim Report), April 1968, 8.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Footer Divider


Follow Us

Join Mailing List

Contact Us

If you wish to contact Eco InTheKnow, please email us or contact us on the number below.

1303 596 1854