If you are old enough to remember the war, you may recall that the region near Saigon was bedeviled by the ease with which the Viet Cong were able to move around and disappear from sight via a network of tunnels. The largest and most elaborate of these by far was the Cu Chi tunnel network, only about 20 miles from the outskirts from Saigon. Total length of the tunnels in the complex was, amazingly, close to 100 miles, which as you might suppose took some time to accomplish; the work began years before the Americans showed up, when the French were the bad guys. (And make no mistake: they were.) The tunnels were built in an elaborate multi-level structure to protect against bombing, flooding, and gas attacks; the Americans and others knew about them but their architecture and extent were so elaborate that despite deliberate flooding and gas attacks, large sections remained intact and operational.
Life in the tunnels was claustrophobic, dark, badly disease-ridden, literally suffocating, and generally exceedingly nasty. Air was supplied through vents poking up to the surface, disguised as anthills and termite mounds. And surface exits were very well disguised trapdoors. Here’s our tunnel guide doing a disappearing act; he popped up again through another trapdoor about 100 feet away.
It was rough going down there, strictly hands-and-knees territory. There were side branches into rooms that variously held supplies or medical facilities at the time. But it was all very primitive, dark, and grungy. It is amazing that thousands fighters spent long stretches of time down there; injured fighters requiring extended medical care could be underground for months. At any given time half the tunnel denizens had malaria and 100% had intestinal parasites.
Some of the tunnels were less cramped than others, and these have been tourist-ized — lit, dried out, and the floor sort of semi-paved — so that everyone could get through without a debilitating amount of crouching or crawling. Here’s Alice emerging from one section.
The region around the tunnels was heavily booby-trapped during the war, and a display area at the tunnel exit contained some samples of these, mostly trapdoors in the ground in the form of disguised rotating or swinging panels that dumped you onto assorted kinds of extreme pointy nastiness. The idea was not to kill, but rather to maim, thereby not only taking the combatant out of action but forcing the enemy army to spend time and resources taking care of him.
So not your typical tourist attraction. And in keeping with the surreal theme, once you exit the tunnel areas you can buy ammunition and rent various weapons to vent your frustration at a nearby shooting range: M-16’s, AK-47’s, and heavier stuff as well so you can get all that pent-up hostility out of your system in a big way. (I can imagine “Build Your Own Booby Trap” workshops as well, but they don’t actually have that.)
Speaking of catharsis, our visit to the tunnels was followed by lunch with two former Viet Cong officers, a major and a captain, at the major’s beautiful home. (He is now in charge of veterans’ affairs in this part of the country.) Neither spoke English; our tour lead Phil interpreted.
Both readily answered questions, the most obvious one being “Aren’t you, like, pissed off?” But they aren’t, which may not be too surprising since they both ended up in very comfortable situations. But the major (on the right) has a son who was disabled by exposure to Agent Orange, and if he is bitter he is hiding it well. He stated (through translation) that they weren’t looking for regret or apologies; they were looking for science and technology, and medicine, and tourists, and investment. All very politically correct, but no doubt true as well.
We had three veterans in our tour group, though only one of them was at this lunch (the guy in blue at the end of the table in the above photo). And at the end of the afternoon, as we shook hands with our hosts, this is what he and the major did:
I asked Phil later about this and other war-related personal encounters. In keeping with OAT’s cultural immersion orientation, we met a number of former Viet Cong and South Vietnamese fighters on this trip, and the meetings were all “kumbaya moments” of one sort or another, all sincere I’m sure, but nonetheless planting a seed of skepticism in my cynical soul. So I laid it out to Phil: we killed roughly a million Vietnamese and basically laid waste to the country for a dozen years. Surely there must be a significant contingent of locals out there who, speaking honestly, would say, “Yeah, Americans killed half my family, and I hope you all die.”
Phil’s answer was enlightening. He agreed that yes, surely there are still some Vietnamese that feel that way. But Americans were only here for a dozen years and despite all the violence that happened during that time people feel that we were basically a historical blip in the grand scheme of things. Before the Americans there were the French (for a century!), and before them there were the Chinese, and before them there were, well, each other. There has long been significant enmity between the northern and southern parts of Vietnam; the relationship mirrors in several eerie ways that between the American north and south, with the latitudes reversed. Southern Vietnam is much more economically developed, technologically advanced, and outward looking; they view the north as backwards, and the people as yokels. There is even a distinct northern regional accent which when heard in the south marks you as the Vietnamese equivalent of a redneck. Phil cited all this, and said it was a civil war, one that had been going on for centuries and which in some ways — very low-key, and without the shooting — continues today. The Americans made it worse, everyone felt, but in the end they were just part of the mix that was a much larger and longer conflict. Which in the end makes it much easier for them to forgive us; better to forget the whole thing and get America to help Vietnam move forward. And if that actually happens — which it seems to be doing, at least in some areas — then those officially-counted 58,220 American deaths might possibly have been worth something after all.