Growing up in the United States, I of course knew about the Vietnam War. It was part of my mother’s generation though and for me it remained confined to the history books. Even there, it got the pushed to the side, added to the very end of a US History course and often dropped completely to give more attention to the “more important” World Wars. In retrospect, I wonder how often this “running out of time to cover the Vietnam chapter” was a deliberate attempt by my school teachers to gloss over what was in fact one of America’s most controversial conflicts. Vietnam is still, many years later, a sore spot in American history. We lost countless lives, impacted a whole generation of young people, and left a country, that most people can’t even find on a map, in ruin.
All of this weighed on me heavily as I planned my trip to Vietnam. I wondered how I would be viewed and treated as someone from the United States. Would the effects of war still be visible? I had never met anyone who had been in Vietnam as a tourist, only those who had fought there. To say I was conflicted about my visit is an understatement.
And yet, once I finally arrived in Vietnam, I felt only welcomed. The people are kind and generous. The country is beautiful and peaceful. Could this really be the place where so many souls, both American and Vietnamese, had lost their lives in blood conflict? And yet, for all the natural beauty and hospitality, the remnants of war were there, just under the surface. As I walked through Ho Chi Minh City I had my first upclose view of the results of Agent Orange. Forty years after the last Agent Orange was sprayed here and still babies are born with birth defects. Many of these children grow up to beg on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and unlike a beggar somewhere else, here I was struck by how responsible I felt. War is a horrible thing and seeing the aftereffects face to face was eyeopening.
I’m probably making Vietnam sound like a horribly depressing place to visit and while there are moments of that, you will also be struck by the absolute beauty of the place. Endless lush jungles, brightly colored markets, and the magical island formations in Halong Bay all stand out just as clearly in my mind. Any yet, part of visiting Vietnam is understanding and exploring this war torn past, especially for US tourists and visitors. That is why I recommend everyone, no matter where you were born, visit the Củ Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are something I had heard about, even before visiting Vietnam. During the war, as more American troops arrived and as Agent Orange poisoned the land, many of the Vietnamese troops went underground, literally. The tunnels formed vast networks – allowing the Viet Cong, guerilla troops from the north, to survive underground, moving both soldiers and weapons. It was the ultimate form of guerilla warfare and in the end it was so effective, it helped to drive out the American troops.
Most people visit the tunnels as part of a day tour from the city. I did as well but I have to recommend, based on my own positive experience and the bad reviews of my fellow travelers that half day tours be avoided. Many of the cheap tours arranged by hostels in Ho Chi Minh City have you spending the majority of your time on a bus and very little time at the site. If you can afford the slightly higher tour cost, opt for one of the private tours or even go independently so that you really get the time to explore and appreciate the site. I’d also recommend that you stop by the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City the day before. Understanding the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese people is vital if you are to get the full experience out of the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Every tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels starts the same way, with an education video. I will warn you now that it is a bit anti-American. However, keep in mind that this was not a war we won and as they say, “the victor writes history.” Considering all the people lost on the Vietnamese side of the war, the anti-American attitude is actually quite mild. The Vietnamese seem to have a better understanding of war than most people – as a bloody conflict, fought often at the command of a powerful few, and which hurts everyone in the end. The real purpose of the video is to try to explain why the Vietnamese created the tunnels and how it helped in the war efforts but until you see the tunnels yourself, you just wont understand.
As I began the tour of the actual tunnel area, I was struck by how much ingenuity the Viet Cong soldiers had. The American troops had better equipment – guns, tanks, bombs – and better military strategy and yet for the Viet Cong, the war was about “liberating” their homeland. They fought with what they had, made due with much less, and ultimately succeeded despite the odds stacked against them. From booby traps to hidden tunnel entrances, they effectively hid a whole army from the US soldiers, right under their feet.
There are a lot of “photo ops” as you walk around the site – posing on an old tank, squeezing into a tunnel entrance – but it all seems a bit cheesy until they ask if you’d like to head into the tunnels yourself. This is NOT for anyone who is claustrophobic and probably not a great idea for anyone extra tall. The Vietnamese are small people, these tunnels are TINY, and you won’t believe it but they have actually been widened so tourists can make it through. That being said, nothing will help you understand the dedication and will of the Viet Cong to win than seeing the conditions they lived in underground in these tunnels.
The tunnel entrance is tiny but it looks far from scary. The guide leading you through will tell everyone that it isn’t as easy as it sounds and that anyone not sure about the tight space should sit this one out. Even then he makes sure everyone in the group knows there is an “early exit” option about 20 meters in. It all seems a bit much – it’s just a tunnel right? But then, you get inside.
The tunnels are small, dark, and so hot. The guide is an expert at this and races ahead with the only flashlight. He can somehow both crouch and run in the narrow space while the rest of the group pants along in the humid crawl space. Taller people have to get on their hands and knees while shorter people can crouch on their heels but no matter how you get in, the real challenge is how to get out. Every inch of my body was saying no – no to the heat, the darkness, the psychological pressure of all the earth above me, and the endless dark tunnel before me. At the 20 meter mark I almost gave up, many people did but for some reason I decided to push on. Never will 100 meters, the total length of this tunnel section, ever feel so long. Add to that the eerie sound of gunfire from above. Yes, gunfire! When the US soldiers left, many military rifles were left behind and as a tourist attraction at the Cu Chi Tunnels visitors can pay to shoot the old AK47s. Nevermind that nearby a few poor souls are now trapped in a seeming endless dark tunnel with the only sound penetrating the ground that of gunfire.
When I finally saw the sunlight at the end of the tunnel, I could have almost cried. My knees shook as I exited the tunnel and I found myself pale and weak. The experience was more intense than a rollercoaster and more emotional than I’d ever have imagined. War drove these soldiers underground and whether they were the “good guys” or “bad guys” they believe enough in their mission to endure months, even years in those tunnels. In the end, I think war shows us both the cruelty of men but also his will to survive.
While I highly recommend visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, I also realize the site is not for everyone. The anti-American views, seeing up close the ways people were killed and tortured, the claustrophobic tunnels, and the emotions such a place can evoke is not really most people’s idea of a vacation. But for those that are willing and able, no place in Vietnam will make you think about the issues of war and peace, life and death, more than the Cu Chi Tunnels.