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Published: February 8th 2014
This morning we took a 0620 flight to Ho Chi Minh City, about 2 hrs. from Hanoi. We would have loved to have overland traveled between the two, but the trip would have taken over 40 hrs to traverse the distance between North Vietnam and South.
Upon our arrival we hired a taxi to bring us to the Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour and a half west of the airport. Our cab driver who spoke no English evidently had never been to the tunnels, and had to ask for directions a half a dozen times on the way. We did eventually find it, deep in the midst of the jungles.
We had a tour guide assigned to us named Nguyen (pronounced “win”, a name as common as John in these parts). Nguyen was dressed in the traditional Vietcong uniform, and referred to the Vietcong as “we” every time he mentioned them. He was 37 years old so not old enough to have fought himself, but when we asked he did state that his family had represented both sides during the war, his direct family were guerillas, and his uncles were south Vietnamese army, fighting alongside the Americans.
The tour started with a video in an underground grass hut in a jungle riddled with craters left over from intensive bombing. We watched a black and white documentary that immediately sounded and looked like a communist propaganda video. The narrator asked the rhetorical question “why would the Americans put their foot in Vietnam business thousands of miles away from Washington?” “Like crazy devils they fired on everything, women ,children, chickens, pots, pans, why?” The narration was coupled with gruesome images of dead bodies and burned villages. We then learned of one of their heroes “a gentle quiet schoolgirl” whose family was killed by the US, and then became one of the most successful snipers of the war. Several times we have heard of some great history of revolutionary Vietnamese women who have sacrificed their lives throughout the numerous occupations in Vietnam, so many so that an entire museum is dedicated to them in Hanoi.
There were several opportunities throughout the tour for us to crawl into the tunnels, and scurry throughout the passageways that are no wider than shoulder width, and require you to walk through in a full squat. Incredibly Nguyen told us the tunnels had
even been widened significantly to accommodate the Western tourists' stature. There are over 250km of tunnels throughout Vietnam.
The tunnels were used as a means of attack, and also a place of cover to hide from the enemy. There were several displays of the booby traps used, one more awful and torturous than the next, many just created to inflict massive injury instead of death, so that not only the wounded soldier be taken out of the battle, but at least two others in order to carry them for medical treatment.
Most of the traps were a variation of the traditional Vietnamese hunting trap they have used for centuries. The trap is skillfully camouflaged underground in a hole and when stepped upon you would impale your prey on numerous bamboo spikes. The guerillas perfected this trap in numerous ways and used the metal left from shrapnel and downed aircraft to create fishhook shaped spikes instead of the bamboo. Our tour finished with a lunch of cassava stalks and oolong tea as we spoke with Nguyen about his family and life in the Mekong.
We traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, which is still referred to as Saigon
by mostly everyone, even though the name changed when Vietnam fell to the communists (or were liberated depending on your opinion) in 1975. It is the capital city and feels like a modern sprawling metropolis with all the western chains including Carls Jr, Subway and Pizza Hut.
We spent the afternoon in the War Remnants Museum, the most famous museum dedicated to the Vietnam War. Outside were several examples of US military aircraft, all left over when we withdrew in 1973. The 3 story museum documents the atrocities of war with VC tiger cages, and a heartbreaking and sobering collection of photographs of the victims of wars-those who suffered torture as well as those born with birth defects caused by our use of defoliants. There were several incidents of unarmed civilian exterminations chronicled, to include the famous Mai Lai massacre. I am a proud American and a veteran, and honor others who have served nobly, but I walked out of the museum depressed and embarrassed and disgusted of my country and our sense of self-righteous indignation. What have we learned since then? Nothing, as we continue to have our military fight in optional wars driven by economics throughout the
globe. Over 4 million Vietnamese were injured and killed during the duration of the war, with American causalities of over 58,000.
We finished the day wandering the streets of Saigon, eating spring rolls at the food stalls of the Ben Thanh market, getting the most wonderous foot and leg massage for $4/hr. and playing human Frogger crossing the streets among the endless hordes of scooters.
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