One of my favorite parts of my trek through Vietnam was the half day we spent on a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. It was fun but also helped me gain some perspective, always a worthwhile endeavor. The tunnels are remnants of the Vietnam/American War, an intricate system built by Vietcong supporters living in the South. While looking at the war from the Vietnamese side is already eye opening, seeing it from the viewpoint of “the enemy” was both terrifying, guilt-riddling, and upsetting. I have to admit that I knew nothing about the tunnels before this expedition, in fact I wasn’t even aware it was Vietcong territory until I was watching the informational video at the start of the tour. I’ll fill you in on some facts so that if you aren’t quite sure what went on there you won’t be confused like I was.
Cu Chi is an area that lies northeast of Saigon (which was the main American base during the war). The massive tunnel network lying beneath Cu Chi was used by VC soldiers and citizens who supported them to hide in during the day so Americans wouldn’t be able to bomb them. American troops attempted a number of times to clear out and destroy this tunnel system so as to flush the VC element from south Vietnam, rigging the entrances to blow up or flooding the tunnels with hot tar or flames. Due to the extreme danger and fact that American soldiers were too bulky to fit in the Vietnamese-sized tunnels, they never tried to invade or take them over. The tunnels remained operational throughout the war, much to the frustration of American strategists.
History lessen over, back to my present day tourism. The first thing we did upon arriving was watch an educational video about the tunnels. Due to my lack of prior knowledge that the VC ran the system it took me longer than I would like to admit to realize that the video I was watching was a Vietcong propaganda film. They glorified the success of the tunnels in deterring American soldiers, gave special attention to the ways in which ordinary citizens would assist the subversive attacks of the VC, and detailed ways that American soldiers were killed. The part that affected me most was when the narrator mentioned awards given to soldiers for number of Americans killed; the almost gleeful tone in her voice as she talked about the “American Killers” made me wince. Until that point I had been trying really hard to not let my extreme bias cloud my judgment, but I know that while Americans do horrific things during wartime as much as anyone else we would never give out a special award for killing enemy combatants. We award bravery and protecting fellow American soldiers rather than brutal attempts to wipe out as many lives as possible. I couldn’t help but feel disgusted at the malicious savagery of the VC’s ideology and an overwhelming sadness that humanity could ever reach a point like that. I was also mad at myself for so quickly retreating away from a different mindset to my own entrenched biases. What can I say, my associations as an American took over my attempts to remain impartial. I’m still unsure how I feel about and how to interpret my experiences, so feel free to give me a new side to consider.
However the tour wasn’t run by ex-Vietcong or American haters, and so after that jarring video one of the tour guides gave us a thorough history of the tunnels (you can thank him for many of the facts in this post) and explained his role in assisting the American forces. At times his accent made him a little difficult to interpret, but for the most part he was an excellent teacher and very informative.
Now for the best part of the tour: our guide. He had introduced himself on the car ride over by his real name but immediately followed that with, “But you can call me John Wayne.” He was a medium height pot-bellied man with a loud raspy voice and a stiff walk that involved moving his whole body but no bended knees. He liked to poke fun at us and laugh his distinctive gravelly stutter, and when he wanted us to follow would yell, “John Wayne, follow me!” Of course our favorite part was when, as we gradually made our way past various exhibits toward the tunnels, he would signal it was time to move on with a hearty “TO THE TUNNERS!” Without John Wayne our time in Cu Chi would not have been quite so humorous or memorable.
John Wayne showed us the drainage system the VC set up and the tiny camouflaged vertical shafts used to peak out and look for Americans. He let us climb on an old tank and demonstrated how the various traps designed to capture American soldier worked (they all involved spikes, and as an utter wimp in the face of pain I felt vaguely sick after thinking about it for too long).
Then he took us to the shooting range where I chickened out of shooting an AK47 (I’m still mad at myself) because of the complete lack of safety precautions or training. My two friends both did it and made it out unscathed, so I’m upset that I didn’t take advantage of such a rare opportunity. After the shooting practice we finally made our way to the real tunnels. Apparently during the war there were exits every 100m but due to tourist claustrophobia this was decreased to every 20m and lights were added. There are three levels of tunnels, getting progressively smaller the further down they were constructed. Entrance is only allowed into the largest of these systems. I was surprised by how many people decided to not crawl in; after all, wasn’t that the whole point of this excursion? The height was just enough that crawling on all fours felt unnecessary but I was still bent over at a right angle and crouching. I made it 60m before starting to feel trapped and clambering out, but my friends did the entire available route. I unfortunately (but logically) didn’t get any pictures of the tunnel itself because (A) I couldn’t reach my bag and (B) it was dark and (C) I was only in there for about two minutes.
The day finished up with a tasting of tapioca root, a main food source for the tunnel dwellers, and then a reversed repeat of the 2.5 hour bumpy van ride from early that morning.
For the rest of the day we explored some more of Saigon, eating at a fairly fancy French-influence restaurant for dinner and trying out a bar on the roof of a hotel. All in all it was a great and slightly overwhelming day.