The American war, as they call it in Vietnam, ended more than 40 years ago. But it still looms large in the Vietnamese consciousness. And one of the places a tourist can get a taste of those memories is the Cu Chi Tunnels.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are an extensive system of underground passages and living spaces where the North Vietnamese army hid from the Americans during the war. And while many of the old battle grounds are now rehabilitated, the tunnels have been preserved as a reminder of what was done back then, and the ingenuity it took to do it.
The tunnels are about two hours outside Ho Chi Minh City — the first hour of which is spent crawling through the city’s ever-hectic traffic. Even on a Saturday morning, it’s gridlock. Then, there’s a pleasant drive through countryside that looks much like the movies we’ve all seen of Southeast Asia: farmers tending rice fields in conical coolie hats while water buffalo graze here and there.
In the meantime, your tour group is treated to a little background talk — in my case, by Nia, our knowledgeable and animated guide. And it’s a remarkable story to tell: faced with a bigger, more powerful opponent, the Vietnamese dug 120 kilometres of tunnels to stay out of firing range. The tunnels were scarcely big enough for a person to crawl through – and a small person, not as big as you or me. But there were also rooms big enough for a family to live in, as well as storage spaces, kitchens, and everything else a colony of people needs to live.
And they did live in the Cu Chi Tunnels, in every sense of the word: children were born there, spending their first years completely in darkness, like moles. They emerged later with light skin and eyes that couldn’t bear the brightness of the sun.
They weren’t the only casualties of the war, however. The first stop on our tour was not at the tunnels but at a sheltered workshop where people with physical problems made beautiful lacquer ware decorated with eggshells and mother of pearl. The war is long over, and some of these artists were too young to be its casualties. But there are still many thousands living with their war wounds. And according to Nia, the DNA damage caused by weapons like the defoliant Agent Orange can last up to five generations.
Then, on to the tunnels, where we all filed down a ramp into a compound that is equal parts theme park and horror movie. Palm-thatched buildings led to a small clearing where we witnessed the odd sight of a middle-aged Japanese man emerging from a hole in the ground. At least, trying to: this was a mock-up of a typical escape hatch, built just big enough for a Vietnamese to squirm through, and this portly fellow needed a pull from two people to get out.
Any other takers? I volunteered, and a minute later was practising the art of disappearing under ground. First, rearrange the leaves on the little hatch cover so no one sees it. Then, hold it straight over your head to create the slimmest profile, and squat down until it settles in place.
I got the knack pretty quickly, and then I was under, stuffed into that tight, tiny space. It was damp and dirty, but not as claustrophobic as I expected: a little light penetrated around the edges of the cover to keep it from being too spooky. But the tricky part was still to come: getting out. Once you push the cover off, you naturally bring your arms back down – and you’re stuck. Push them straight up again and you climb out, unscathed.
Next was a demonstration of the art of deception. There were mounds of earth along the path that looked like termite mounds: they weren’t. Normal ventilation holes would have stuck out like a sore thumb, so the Vietnamese used the dirt they excavated for the tunnel to build these artificial mounds instead, and bored holes to let the air in.
Then, a set of gruesome examples of the traps used to catch enemy soldiers coming down the forest path, many of them featuring nasty-looking spikes to impale whomever fell in. Not an easy sight to see, and I can imagine some American visitors blanching at the thought of their friends or relations falling victim all those years ago.
As we walked through the woods, the sound of gunshots became louder and louder. It wasn’t a sound effect: just to give visitors the real feeling of being involved in the war, the museum allows them to fire real guns. For about $1.50 a bullet, you can take an AK-47 or a machine gun in your hands and blast away at a target. We declined, but many visitors don’t: some order hundreds of rounds, said Nia.
The climax of the tour was, of course, the Cu Chi Tunnels themselves, and a chance to go down in them. So in due time, those of us who weren’t oversized or suffering from claustrophobia trooped down a tight staircase into an opening just big enough to squeeze through. It was an eerie experience to be creeping through this stifling hot space, bent over at the waist, with my back scraping the ceiling every foot or so. (Carrying a camera to get shots like the one below didn’t help, either.)
So when the first exit presented itself, I took quick advantage; I’d seen enough to know that this wasn’t meant for people with legs as long as mine. In fact, the two- or three-minute crawl was as much as most of our group could handle. Which says a lot, since the tunnel we crawled through was bored out to about twice its regular size so we could fit through.
As a reward for meeting the challenge, we got a snack: steamed cassava root, the principal food of the tunnel inhabitants. They did get some rice and peanuts, but little or no fruit or vegetables, and nothing to make the stodgy cassava any tastier. Cassava, also known as tapioca, is a little like potatoes or chestnuts, depending on how it’s cooked. I don’t mind it – but I wouldn’t want to live on it.
But then again, I wouldn’t have wanted to be involved in that war, on either side.