Travels In Vietnam 2011: The Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi tunnels are an hour’s bus ride out of Saigon, in an area in which there was heavy fighting during the ‘American War’. The Viet Cong burrowed an extensive network of tunnels (120 km!) beneath the heavy clay surface under cover of night, disposing of the diggings in the nearby river so that there was no trace of their nocturnal activity. There are 3 levels of tunnels, each progressively deeper, tighter and stuffier, we were told. Some of the Viet Cong guerillas spent months underground. When they finally emerged, many had permanently impaired eyesight and respiratory function, and other enduring health problems.

I went into the entrance of one of the tunnels but backed out, partly because of claustrophobia, and partly because I have back problems and feared the nightmare scenario of my back going into spasm half-way along and being stuck underground unable to move. I had only the merest taste of the tunnels, then, but I can say that it is incomprehensible to me that anyone could spend more than an hour at most down there.

Consider this: the tunnels on display to the public have been widened to allow easier access by tourists who want to crawl through 20 metre sections to sample the conditions under which the Viet Cong lived during the war. According to our guide, the third and deepest level of tunnels, which he claimed were 30 metres underground, can only be negotiated by belly-crawling. How could the Americans ever hope to beat an enemy prepared to go to those lengths to defend their cause? Of course, the question is rhetorical…

Also on display are the trapdoor booby traps fashioned by the Viet Cong. There were multiple varieties, all designed to ensnare and torture their prey. It was impossible to get good pictures due to the number of tourists crowded around the traps, but here are a couple I managed to snap, along with two rather primitive paintings depicting entrapped American soldiers.

The traps were not intended to kill, but to maim and entrap, and thus demoralise and instill fear into the enemy. In all but the simplest traps, the spikes are angled to act like huge barbs, making rescue extremely difficult; pulling an entrapped soldier out against the lie of the spikes would shred the flesh and cause terrible injury, not to mention unbearable pain. Horrendous yes, but oh so ingenious to turn crude equipment into devastatingly effective weaponry against a technically far superior occupational military force. Clearly, the physical injuries of trapped soldiers were horribly severe, but the psychological effects on the rest of the unit must have been devastating. Every step held the threat of a concealed trapdoor…

Along with the traps and tunnels, there are trophies of war on display. This American tank, for example.

It was sobering to reflect that young soldiers must have perished in this metal tomb. Apparently this did not occur to the young tourists who clambered around the body and turret, draped themselves over the cannon, and struck playful poses for cameras.

As you troop after your guide, you hear loud bursts of gunfire coming from somewhere not far away. It’s only a small leap of imagination to envision how it might have been for soldiers engaged in combat in this region. The gunfire seemed to summon ghosts, to prise ajar the lid on the hell it must have been for those soldiers, whichever side they fought for. Quite unnerving.

The source of the gunfire is a range where tourists pay 200-300,000 dong ($10-15) to fire off 10 rounds from rifles and machine-guns used during the war (eg: carbines, AK47s, M16s and M60s).

This is undeniably tacky and in poor taste, but the bucks pour in as the tourists line up to bang off some lead. And I confess, I have long wanted to fire an AK47. I would never have another chance. I decided that today was the day.

I went down to the range, where the guns were fixed to pivots. That was disappointing, that pivot stuff. I wanted to hold an AK47 and spray bullets around from the hip, as soldiers do in the field. Really, though, it was the most fleeting of disappointments. The truth is, I was taken aback – stunned, actually – at the ear-bursting loudness of the exploding shells. Unbelievably loud. Painful, in fact. You couldn’t bear not to cover your ears. The sheer brutality of these fucking things, the monstrous shattering percussion, was horrifying! When guns are fired in the movies, you don’t get any real sense of their deafening force.

Shocked, appalled, suddenly the stupid romance of firing an AK47 was gone for me – and, I am certain, gone forever. I got as far from the obscenity of the range and its bullshit macho fantasies as I could, but the blasts were unremitting, inescapable.

I heard those guns long after we left the Cu Chi tunnels for Saigon. I hear them still. And the impact they had on me was far more powerful than anything else I saw or experienced at Cu Chi. May I, may you, never hear shots fired in anger. Or at all, as far as I’m concerned.

More posts in this series on Vietnam:
Travels in Vietnam 2011: Intro
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: War Remnants Museum, Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Mekong Delta
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Dalat
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Nha Trang
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hoi An
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Sleeper Bus Nightmare!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hue
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Eating and Drinking!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hype vs Reality
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Reflections & Wrap-up

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