I was nervous about visiting Vietnam, nervous because of how excited I was to see the places that stood out in my memory from my teenage years (when I was mildly obsessed with what we call the Vietnam War), and nervous for whether that excitement made me an insensitive visitor.
Turns out that asking those kinds of questions is kind of like asking, “am I being a good parent?”–the mere fact of asking means you’re on the right track. On my group tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels just outside Saigon, I saw people clamber on captured American war tanks, shooting finger guns and grinning. I saw people line up at the shooting range at one end of the park, paying by the bullet to shoot Uzis and M-21s. I saw a ten-year-old walking around with his family, totally oblivious in an American flag t-shirt.
The tunnels are part of an extensive network the Viet Cong built throughout the Saigon area during the war with the United States. They even managed to get under the American base, which rankled the US Army to no end. The Viet Cong lived in those tunnels; women cooked in them, men ran around in them on missions, children had lessons in there. The tunnels were tiny, perfectly sized for the Vietnamese, and far too small for the “tunnel rat” soldiers the Americans sent in to try to dismantle them. They never managed it, and the tunnels were a large part of the Viet Cong’s success in the war.
We saw the tiny entrance holes to the tunnels, which were so small that the soldiers had to go in feet first, holding the cover over their heads because the entrances were too narrow to fit their shoulders. We saw the small mounds that hid the holes the kitchen smoke escaped from; the mounds were many meters from the kitchens, so even if the Americans bombed where they saw smoke, they wouldn’t hit the actual kitchens.
The Viet Cong set up many traps in the area–tiger traps armed with sharpened bamboo sticks, door traps studded with iron spikes, swinging traps to take a man’s leg off. At the park today, they have a row of the traps set up, and park employees walk solemnly down the row, poking at each trap with a long pole to set it off. We heard the bang! bang! from the shooting range nearly the whole time we were on the tour, which was disconcerting but I suppose actually gave some sense of realism for what it was like.
The original tunnels were too small for Westerners, so they’ve built enlarged tunnels for visitors, but our guide warned us that even these are too small for some. I could go down, he told me, but come out at the first exit; the tunnel gets progressively smaller and I’d be stuck if I tried to go to the third exit. With that cheery news in mind, I descended. I’m mildly claustrophobic, so I considered not going down at all, but I wanted to see what it was like, even for a little.
What it was like was scary. I started crouched down and walking, but that was too constricting, so I ended up crawling. The walls were tight and there was a little light at either end, and I could hardly imagine it half its size, immersed in total darkness. Not to mention the vermin and insects that lived down there with the soldiers and families. I still shudder thinking about being down there.
At the end of the tour of the park, there was a video, more like a work of art in the field of propaganda actually, on the tunnels and the Vietnamese who dug them, cooked in them, slept in them, ran dangerous missions in them, and made them their home for as long as it took until it was safe to come aboveground again.