Rumor has it, at least the inklings of info you glean from the Internet while researching your trip to Vietnam, is that is you want to run a tour in Vietnam, one with the government's blessing, that is, you have to include visits to war sites. And as you pretty much need the government's blessing for most anything like this, today is war day.
So much of America's view of Vietnam centers on the war, called the American War here. While you can see remnants of the war throughout Saigon, the people uniformly look to their future. Little about the war is taught in school, and it's discussed only by people responding to questions from tourists and old war veterans sitting around small tables with tall glasses of tea and beer and, well, that happens whenever you have war veterans.
About 65 km outside Saigon is Cu Chi. Today it is a wide area of rice fields and rubber trees surrounding a village that bred many Vietnamese heroes. Sixty years ago it was lush jungle and home to resistance fighters battling the French. They started to dig a series of tunnels, using short hoes constructed of a shovel head and a two-foot stick. By the time the war with the Americans started in the 1960s, Cu Chi had a huge network of tunnels more than 200 km in length including living areas, kitchens, medical areas and booby traps.
It's a fascinating thing to see. The tunnels have three levels, the first at three meters, the second at six meters and the third at 10 meters. That's 30 feet down. Most of the living areas are on the first level but you have to go through the second or third levels to get to them. They crafted ingenious ways to get rid of the smoke created by cookfires, for example. A chimney might have given away their location so they created a series of pockets to disperse the fumes. They had entrances all over the place but placed under trees so falling leaves would disguise them. They had an emergency exit into the Saigon River, an underwater exit.
The biggest protection for the tunnel network from the Americans? It's size. The entrances to the tunnels were often the size of a piece of paper or a laptop computer - about 10 inches by 15 inches. The far majority of Americans couldn't fit down the tunnels. The military did create a unit of so-called tunnel rats to try to infiltrate the system but they had little success with high casualties. The builders of the Cu Chi tunnels also played on that. They built booby traps, pits with sharpened stakes of bamboo, locating them at the bottom of stairs and covering them with a spring board. They also narrowed the tunnels in places, trapping tunnels rats who were just a tad too big. It's an ingenious guerrilla tactic. It's a horrific human practice.
You begin your tour of Cu Chi watching a video. It's a clip from a documentary made in the 1960s about the heroes of Cu Chi. I had to wonder who did the documentary because it was in English but was obviously made by the Vietnamese. It highlighted two people, a man and a woman, who were called American killing heroes and praised for the number of Americans they'd killed during the war. It talked of the people living in the tunnels for weeks and how they survived the bombing and chemical attacks.
America tried to eradicate Cu Chi because it was where much of the Viet Cong organization came from. People would move through Cu Chi to infiltrate Saigon during the war. It's said many of the people who attacked Saigon during the Tet Offensive came through Cu Chi. The military bombed the area but because the soil was mostly clay and solid, only the top part of the tunnel system was affected. And usually the people had time to escape to the lower levels. The Americans tried sending soldiers into the jungle and tanks to flatten the area. But Vietnamese fighters would stand in trenches surrounding the Cu Chi village above the tunnels and fire back. When they were overrun, they'd flee into the tunnels and disappear. The guide related a story of how an American military unit trying to find the people of Cu Chi failed and set up camp. They were attacked while they rested but couldn't find their attackers. The story goes that an American military leader said the Vietnamese weren't there and were all over the place.
Americans also tried Agent Orange, spraying it throughout the area, killing all vegetation, in an effort to find the rebels of Cu Chi. This also failed. You can still see remnants of the spraying 30 years later, although the land has recovered somewhat.
We then received a brochure that said, in part, "It was here that the leaders based the Party Committee of Cu Chi District. It was used for living, dining and meeting. Of course, it's main function was for participating in the resistance against the enemy and for saving the country."
It also said, "The restored work of the Cu Chi Liberation Zone represents how the people of Cu Chi lived and fought before and during the resistance against America. The section is divided into many areas: Liberation Zone competing area, temporarily occupied area (strategic hamlet). Pre-war scenes of Cu Chi village show the village was lively with luxuriant vegetation full of fruits in all seasons. Then scenes of area devastated by American bombs. The model of the strategic hamlet is the place where America and their lackeys controlled people. Finally, the activities of boys and girls joining the army with zeal to fight the aggressors."
Well, it is a Vietnamese historic monument, after all. It would have a certain point of view.
After walking a few hundred yards through a sparse wood we came to the first entrance, hidden under the leaves. Our guide pulled it up by two pieces of rope, a piece of wood about the size of a laptop that fit snugly into the hole. Looking down you can see steps into a dark hole. Nearby was another entrance, this one a bit bigger, the size of a suitcase, maybe, with steps. We walked through the wood, bypassing bomb craters that now had trees and bushes growing in them. The trench was about four feet deep and also had an entrance to the tunnels. Nearby, a bombed out tank with U.S. insignia rested in a clearing. We passed a chilling display of booby traps complete with drawings of Americans falling into them, the stakes piercing their flesh.
Then came the turning point - the entrance to the tunnels that had been widened for Western tourists. You had the chance to crawl through a tunnel, about 30 meters in the dark, one guide with a flashlight in front of you. I would say I considered going into the tunnel but that would be a lie. Crawling through the earth with people in front and in back of you, after seeing pictures of people stuck in too-narrow tunnels, convinced me that this was an experience I'd just have to do without. Three of our group braved the tunnels, although I think one, a man, was sort of shamed into it because the other two were women. They were all adoptees but I felt for him because he's obviously an American Vietnamese, tall and well-muscled with broad shoulders. It was a hot, dirty experience. They were glad for it. I was glad they were glad, and very happy I stayed above ground.
Our afternoon featured a visit to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. It used to be called the War Crimes Museum but when the country opened up to tourists, particularly Western and American tourists, they decided to change the name.
It wasn't a pleasant experience although it was at times fascinating.
I was pleasantly surprised to find an extensive tribute to war photographers from every country who died covering the war. Countrary to current times, the Vietnamese recognized the value journalists brought to the war and to recording history. Certainly, many were Veitnamese but of the 134 journalists they featured, they included half a dozen Americans, people from Japan, Britain, France, India. When I think of the fate of some of the journalists covering the Iraq war, not killed during ongoing fighting or when they chopper was shot down but grabbed off the street and executed for just being there trying to present all sides, I have to wonder.
Then we came to the fun part of the museum, the war crimes room. The famous picture of the girl running down the roadway after a napalm attack was prominently displayed, as was a picture of her today, with scars down her back, holding her perfect child. Picture after picture of corpses and parts of corpses, South Vietnamese executing North Vietnamese, were uncomfortable to see, as were the photos of people damaged by Agent Orange. But the worst were two jars that held the malformed corpses of babies born with defects caused by the chemical. Two Australian women with their school-age children ran through the area, searching for something they could see, relieved to find a display of guns.
Then came the tiger cages, jail cells used to house agitators and political prisoners. Built of stone, during the summer each cell held a dozen people who had to take turns standing by the doorway to get air. In the winter, only one or two were in each cell, shackled to the bed with no relief, expected to eat, sleep and relieve themselves in one place. They received one cup of water a day and one bowl of rice. Specific mention was made of how hard this was on the women during their periods. It also showed pictures of torture and of escavated graves, impressions on the dirt of people with stakes through their eyes, screaming. One photo of a boy included the story of his torture - how his captors first amputated his toes to get him to talk, then his feet, then one tibia, then the other, moving up his body. He was smiling in the photo.
Throughtout the grounds were flotsom from the war, an American bull dozer, a tank, an aircraft, with the note, "During the Vietnam War the USA used 14 million tons of bombs and shells (20 times as much as the quantity used during the Korean War, 7 times as much as the one used during the Second World War), more than 70 million liters of toxic chemicals, among them 44 liters of Agent Orange."
I found the Westerners moving through the museum far more struck by the exhibits than the Asians, although few of the Asians were Vietnamese. A large force of Japanese tourists heard lectures while Germans and Australians and Brits moved quietly through the museum. It wasn't for the weak, this museum. Yet, neither is any war.
We leave for the Mekong Delta tomorrow, a four-hour bus trip to catch a boat to our destination. We'll be sleeping in a home in a village on Army cots with no electricity, I'm told. I'm not expected to find an Internet cafe nearby, much less the wireless connection I'm using now. We return to Saigon in two days.