While I’m having a Remembrance themed week I thought I’d continue with the more historical visits of my tour round Asia, specifically in Vietnam. This post is remembrance for the Vietnam War – far away, but not that long ago. A little disclaimer though, unless I can miraculously recover my hard-drive, most of my photos from that trip (and almost every other trip I’ve been on) are lost in the ether, so I’m just working with whatever I uploaded to Facebook at the time and that’ll have to do.
It sounds weird to say that I was looking forward to visiting the Cu Chi tunnels, in Ho Chi Minh City, but I really was. The tunnels encircling the capital of the South of Vietnam, formerly Saigon, were key to the resistance of the Vietnamese fighters against the Americans. The tunnels were fascinating, they baffled and defeated the American army and were not even made by military strategists. The people who lived and fought in these tiny mazes were local people who were fed up with oppression and who joined the Vietcong resistance as an alternative to watching helplessly as their city, and their province, was torn to shreds.
It’s maybe a twenty minute drive out of the centre of Saigon, through farmland and forest, to reach the museum site were guerrilla warfare was once king. Our tour guide for the site, Law – yes Law, like the law, I think that’s how it’s spelt – is a real expert too, and funny and easy to get along with, so I’m instantly enthralled by his knowledge. The local knowledge of the area is great to have too; I ask him some questions about life here, about the graves which I talked about previously, and about the ongoing effects of the chemical Agent Orange.
There is only a very small section of the tunnels open to the public now, about 300 metres maximum, and we all head down as a group. I’m not great with small spaces but I found it fine, I was able to walk bent double mostly. It’s only when we squeeze out, with some relief, that I get it into my head that these tunnels have been more than doubled in size since they have become a public attraction. The original size of the tunnels, visible when you peer down the dark, well concealed entrances, is almost unfathomable. In these cramped spaces they hung hammocks to sleep, housed traps including snakes and scorpions to stop intruding Americans, and built tiny triangular living spaces underground to cook, make munitions and keep non-fighting members safe.
The slick traps set by the tunnels’ inhabitants are like something from a movie set. Concealed doors in the floor drop a soldier into a trap of sharp metal spikes designed to maim not kill and sometimes there are mechanisms to trap him there too. This ensured that not just one soldier, but several, were out of action, as they had to help their wounded comrade back to barracks. The most ingenious, and yet simple, part of the whole system was simply the size of the tunnels though. Vietnamese men, women and children were all much smaller than the bulky American soldiers, especially with all their kit on too, and if a soldier was small enough to get down, all hell awaited him under the earth.
The escape routes from the tunnels lead right into the Mekong, should there ever be need of escape, but you’d only find your way down there if you knew how. Mostly, the fighters spent all day underground and only ventured out at night, their triangular living spaces were mostly strong enough not to be destroyed if a bomb hit. Other fascinating things we learnt included that the American army tried to hunt down the concealed tunnel entrances, from which the Vietnamese would shoot at and evade the ground troops, using dogs. This worked for a while, until the Vietnamese realised they would break into the American bases, which they had been doing anyway to lay bombs of their own, and steal the American kit and bedding. This made their underground hide outs smell, to the dogs, as innocuous as the American base and they were thus undetected.
Okay, I could go on all day about what I learnt at that site. More than I’ve ever learnt in a history lesson that’s for sure. And this is all information from the other side, so prepare to hear things a little different from what you may have been lead to believe by some Western media. It’s a tough one to get your head around, which version of events is biased, what has been covered up on each side, but it’s worth getting as full a picture as possible and this is the place to get it. I would thoroughly recommend a day trip to this site, though it will probably only take half a day. There is plenty of shade in the woods, though no escape from humidity, and keep an eye out for some amazing, rather large, millipedes. There is also a shooting range, at an extra cost, which doesn’t fall into what I ethically like to do at a war history site, but if that’s for you, then definitely give it a shot! (<< hehe see what I did there?)