The Cu Chi Tunnels

Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I had no urge to visit the Cu Chi tunnels.  I don't like war stuff all that much, unless it's something I feel I "need" to see.  I'm much more likely to visit an homage to the victims of a war than a monument to its heroes.  The pamphlets on this place advertise that visitors can crawl around in the tunnels (enlarged to fit Western tourists), inspect vicious low-tech traps used to disembowel Saigonese and American soldiers, and for just a little extra cash, fire an automatic rifle.  It would have been a perfect day if I had still been an angry 12-year-old boy who enjoyed torturing small animals and melting snails with salt, and was just itching to get my hands on an M-16.  However, I am not.  But the tour was included in the Cao Dai tour.  I seriously considered sitting in the van, but it was hot and I figured I might as well check it out in the hopes that I could bitch about it later.  And here we are!!

So the area is essentially a celebration of North Vietnamese bravery in the face of a more powerful and better equipped American and Saigonese army.  I can accept that.  The area is only a couple of hours from Saigon and yet was home to incredible resistance during the Vietnam War.  They built a large tunnel system and used it to ambush and escape from U.S. troops.  It's pretty impressive.  But four decades after the war, it's still a little gung ho for my tastes. 

Keep in mind that I don't support U.S. invasion of Vietnam.  But I also didn't enjoy the black-and-white film they show at the beginning of the tour that congratulates the Cu Chi men and women who "killed many crazy American aggressors" and were labeled "Vietnamese American killing heroes."  Now, my patriotism runs about as deep as a rub on tattoo, but hearing the term "American killers" a dozen times in a 6 minute film left a bad taste in my mouth.  I recognize that they were defending their country from perceived aggressors.  It was a brave resistance.  But I most often think of it as failed policy on the part of American politicians, and don't like the celebration of death, particularly this long after the war.  I don't know.  Maybe I've just heard the Star Spangled Banner enough that I'm more defensive than I realize.  Plus, it cost $4 to get in, so I was really ready to dislike it.

The tunnels the VC used were 60-80 cm in diameter.  The tourist tunnel is twice that and has several places to exit along the way in case your knees hurt or you get scared.  It's a truly intimate insight into the experience of terrified soldiers scurrying on their abdomens as tanks rolled over the earth and exploding shells collapsed the tunnels around them.

And did I mention that you can fire an M-16?  I'm from El Paso, so I grew up doing that sort of thing.  But for all the small town kids it was very exciting.

I find it insane that a country like Vietnam and its tragic history can inspire a tourist to fire an automatic rifle.  There was no part of any museum or passage in a book that made we want to use weaponry of any sort.  People amaze me.  I bet if they'd let people fly a plane and drop napalm on some small piece of jungle, someone would do it.  And someone would want to make money badly enough to offer it.  Perhaps you can.  It just wasn't in the brochure.  I heard that in Cambodia you can shoot a rocket launcher at a cow.  Sound apocryphal?  Not if you've been to Cambodia.

So I didn't enjoy the Cu Chi tunnels visit.  It was fascinating that our tour guide was a former Saigonese soldier.  So he takes tours to a site that contributed to his losing a war.  He still uses pronouns like "us" and "them" when discussing the conflict.  That amazes me.  I don't like talking about getting beat up as a child.  I pretend it was someone else.  It's too painful and humiliating to place myself in those memories.  And none of my friends or family died.  So the fact that he speaks without distancing himself was quite a shock to me.  But I guess if you lived through that time in Vietnam, on either side, there is no distancing yourself.  It is immediate and personal, no matter how much time has passed.  It will always be "them."  And it will always be "us."
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