The Vietnam War stretched out from 1955 to 1975 entailing millions of fatalities including some in the neighboring (non-participating) countries of Laos and Cambodia. It was a war waged between the United States and two opposing parties in Vietnam: the North and the South. The Northern party wanted to maintain a Communist regime throughout the whole of the country. The Southern party wanted to free the Vietnamese from the claws of the Communist stronghold.
Gradually the United States withdrew its troops and officially ended its involvement in the war in 1973. The fighting continued between the North and the South until the Northern army successfully overtook Saigon in 1975. The following year in 1976, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the late Communist leader bearing the same name. Since the war ended and until this day, both halves of Vietnam, namely North and South, have been reunified under a Communist regime.
So when I went to Vietnam, more specifically to Ho Chi Minh City, I was looking forward to visiting the infamous Cu Chi tunnels which played a pivotal role in the Vietnam War. The Cu Chi tunnels are an elaborate network of underground tunnels snaking 250km that were painstakingly dug (mostly) by hand by a group of rebellious guerillas known as the Viet Cong (siding with the Northern Communist fighters but strategically stationed in the South near Saigon).
The tunnels were, of course, used as shelter from their opponents but also served as headquarters for the Viet Cong where they would scheme and lay out their plans. Wanting to flee the imminent dangers above ground, the tunnels inevitably became homes not only for the fighting rebels but for whole families as well. Living quarters with functioning kitchens, sleeping cots and electricity were set up. The dark, damp tunnels also acted as hospitals where many babies were born and playgrounds where children ran around oblivious to the terrors of the outside world.
Sickness often took over and malaria became the second cause of death after wounds caused by the war. Those living in the tunnels shared the closed, airless compounds with a variety of vermin, ants, poisonous centipedes and other undesirable insects. Although the tunnels procured a safe haven from the war blazing above-ground, it was also filled with unimaginable challenges.
At first, I was very excited (see my exaggerated smile in the pic above) to be visiting this historical place; scenes from the movie Platoon kept flashing before my eyes. But soon after entering the jungle where the tunnels were located, my curiosity and eagerness started to fade. I willingly smiled for the camera but without a lens pointing at me my demeanor was taking on another façade – one of furrowed brows and perplexed frowns.
An uneasiness came over me.
Seeing firsthand the medieval contraptions and calculated methods used for torturing the enemy, being in the exact place where such horrors (and people) were executed and realizing that everything around me was once a horrific reality for many would make anyone feel uneasy.
Or so I thought.
I, of course, can’t say how each person truly felt but judging by the overall giddiness, unabashed laughter and occasional jokes, most visitors seemed to be taking everything that was said and seen all too lightly. Now, I’m not saying we all should’ve been crying our eyes out but I did expect some sort of graciousness, some duly-owed empathy, a discreet solemness or some whispered concerns. Maybe I was being just a little too sensitive so I didn’t dwell too much on how others behaved. Instead, I decided to concentrate on my own mixed emotions about being there.
Following the neatly cleared paths brought us to something I really didn’t expect to see. There in the middle of the jungle where one of the most controversial wars took place was…..a souvenir shop – selling all sorts of paraphernalia a lot of which had nothing to do with the Vietnam War. I didn’t think this was the right place to be selling souvenirs we had seen repetitiously all over Vietnam. It was really starting to feel like an amusement park.
But the worst was yet to come.
I heard gun shots.
I thought they were coming from a video being shown nearby but they sounded very real. Then I heard a voice ask me if I wanted to shoot a gun. What?! I couldn’t believe there was an actual shooting range on the exact same premises a very bloody war took place! How inappropriate is that?!? It seemed many visitors thought otherwise. The sound of several consecutive shots coming from AK-47’s (or whatever assault weapon was chosen as there were a few models) echoed in the surrounding jungle and through my entire body. Once again, a certain uneasiness resurfaced.
Now it definitely felt like an amusement park.
Some of the underground tunnels were made higher and wider to accommodate visitors who wanted to experience crawling (or more like bent over) through a tunnel from one end to the other (I think it was about 30 meters long). I cautiously stepped forward and went down the narrow stairwell with a cloud of doubt hovering above my head. I could see in front of me an endless line of people hunched over and closely huddled with no space to even scratch your
Slowly, I started to make my way in the line neatly formed like a troop of ants diligently following their leader. When it came time to enter the tunnel, I suddenly changed my mind. I could barely turn around but I made my way backwards mouthing a series of almost inaudible excuse me’s on my way up the stairs and into the open air. I’m not usually claustrophobic but I started to feel really uncomfortable (is that what claustrophobia feels like?). Upon reflection, I honestly didn’t think this seemingly ‘educational’ activity (accompanied by a swarm of laughter and nervous giggles) would even begin to remotely give me a idea of what it was like for those who had to rely on the tunnels for survival. In the end, I was glad I didn’t participate in this activity.
Next our guide brought us to one of the many trap doors scattered in the jungle leading to the tunnels. These trap doors were only used by the Viet Cong (and others living in the tunnels) who knew exactly where each one was located. When closed shut and camouflaged under piles of foliage, the trap doors (measuring approximately 12″x18″) were undetectable by the enemy.
Again, I hesitated going in. I worriedly stepped down one foot at a time. With my stomach tightening, my dangling feet desperately searched for the platform to settle on (this platform was only installed for the purpose of taking pictures). Once in, my body felt constrained, my freedom felt like it was withering away; I couldn’t bring myself to close the cover completely (or partially for that matter!). I smiled nervously to capture this awkward moment on camera.
In just a few seconds, random thoughts ran through my mind: How could anyone go down (let alone live) in these suffocating tunnels? Why is this presented as a fun tourist attraction? Why am I doing this? I didn’t have the answers but as far as having to go down the tunnels, I imagined that only a desperate need for survival could give someone such courage.
Throughout the site are re-enactments of how the Viet Cong used to live and operate above-ground. Here you can see the mannequins wearing their khăn rằn (black & white checkered scarves) which identified them as Viet Cong soldiers. I’m thinking a khăn rằn would have looked really good with my outfit!
Whenever possible, soldiers also busied themselves making the necessary tools needed for everyday living but also cleverly concocting deadly weapons using only rudimentary materials.
After about 2 hours, our tour came to an end. With each step I took, I found this place to be way too commercialized – a definite money-making machine. I did enjoy seeing firsthand the infamous Cu Chi tunnels and learning more about them (they are, after all, a very significant part of Vietnamese history) but what I didn’t like was the whole almost festive atmosphere. I really couldn’t help but feel like I was at an amusement park.
Sure with all the genuine artifacts, the short documentary shown at the beginning of the tour and the original military gear there was no denying the Vietnam War actually took place in that dense jungle but, in my opinion, it could be presented in a much more respectful and dignified manner (removing the shooting range would be a good start).
My visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels left me perplexed and filled my mind with questions. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it but I can safely say I didn’t like how it was presented. The whole place lacked empathy, it lacked soul.
Read all about my travels in Vietnam
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