I know I’ve been talking about Vietnam for ages now. What I’m about to rabbit on about today actually occurred more than two months ago; our visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, just outside of Ho Chi Minh City. But I promise, this is the last thing I’ll post about Vietnam.
Well, at least until we head back again one day.
Oh, and in truly excellent more recent news, a Vietnamese bakery has opened on my street! I have graced the newly-opened establishment three times in the past week and I can honestly say that their banh mi (delicious crusty rolls) are up to scratch. I have been fossicking around Europe for banh mi for the past two years and now I can find a €3,25 version three hundred metres away. Life is good.
But back to Cu Chi.
My expectations weren’t high for our visit to the Vietnam War’s famous tunnel system, of which Cu Chi is the most extensive and well-known. I wasn’t so keen to go back to the land of the organised tour so soon after our experience in the Mekong Delta, but a lack of public transport around Cu Chi left us little choice. At least this time we knew to avoid Delta Adventure Tours and instead opted for Kim Travel, located just across the road from Delta.
We’d visited Kim Travel when researching the Mekong Delta but found them a bit too expensive (they were charging over US$100 for our Mekong itinerary, due to smaller group sizes) but the price difference wasn’t as stark for the half-day Cu Chi trip. (We’re talking $10 instead of other companies asking just $6.) It was the best decision we could have made and in retrospect we probably should have just paid for their more expensive Mekong tour in the first place.
Our guide – “just call me Lionel as in Messi or Ritchie” – was the best guide we had in Vietnam and ran the tour extremely well. I’d first heard of the Cu Chi tunnels back in high school when we’d studied the Vietnam War; in fact, this unit was one of the first that really got me interested in history. Before we’d looked at the Egyptians, the Middle Ages and overdone stuff like the goldrush which really just bored me silly. There seemed to be hardly any debate in such topics, whereas the Vietnam War was the exact opposite. We’d have debates about good guys versus bad guys, who writes history and the role of the media. It opened up a whole new world for me; that history had relevance to today and wasn’t just a story about what had already happened.
In simple, black-and-white history, the people who built the Cu Chi tunnel network were the bad guys. They were guerrilla fighters in South Vietnam; members of the Vietcong and locals alike. The more than 120km of tunnels were elaborately planned and constructed, with the iconic hidden entrances leading to countless levels of rooms, shelters and corridors.
Their utilisation drove the Americans mental, really. Aerial bombing did nothing to disrupt their activities and numerous booby traps deterred the Americans from ever gaining access to the network.
It was a strange thing, to see so many Western tourists giggling over the booby traps. Sure, they were ingenious but their victims were our fathers, grandfathers, uncles and friends. We don’t giggle at Anzac Cove. What’s the difference?
The walk around the site, however, was fascinating. It’s been preserved by the Vietnamese Government as an outdoor museum and good on them – these were the images of the Vietnam War the West received from the media; think jungle, mud and heat. It felt more rural than the Mekong Delta, weirdly enough.
Of course, the climax of the tour is the chance to walk through the tunnels themselves. It’s been well documented that they have widened the tunnels for tourists to walk through, but this doesn’t mean that they’re leisurely corridors. I don’t usually get claustrophobic but I was getting that way once in the tunnels; Paul was forced to crawl on his knees due to his height and escaped after only twenty metres.
I didn’t last much longer; finally my shortness paid dividends and I could walk through, hunched over, but I didn’t count on the complete darkness. I used the focusing light on my camera to guide me through (yeah, bad tourist I know). I exited after forty metres, gulping in the fresh air as if I’d been under the ground for days rather than minutes.
I expected big things from the Mekong Delta and was left disappointed. I was prepared to be left feeling tourist-cheated after Cu Chi but left pleasantly surprised. Expect the unexpected in Vietnam.
The tone of Cu Chi is relatively light, which was surprising. It doesn’t feel like a memorial site; soldiers caught in booby traps or locals killed by aerial bombings aren’t remembered here. But I don’t mind that; the War Remnants Museum plays that role.
It’s only been relatively recently that tourists seek out negative histories rather than usual pleasant ones; we used to look for churches, triumphal arches and ancient ruins. In recent years I’ve visited Korea’s DMZ, the Thai-Burma Death Railway, Auschwitz, Flanders Fields and Gallipoli. They’ve all offered a different perspective of the past, often told through locals rather than textbooks and media reports.
When I now read about guerrilla fighting in Vietnam, I won’t just picture a tunnel. Instead, I can smell that damp, cold scent, feel the packed in dirt of the walls and get the slightest idea of feeling trapped below the earth. Yes, the Vietnamese have widened their tunnels for tourists. As a result, they’re widening people’s minds, too.