Lots of the time, travel is filled with exciting adventures and fun activities. But sometimes you have to check back in with the realities of the world and the not-so-nice parts of history. Yesterday was one of those days.
I spent the morning visiting the Cu Chi tunnels, which were used by the Viet Cong (VC) to fight against the Americans and South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Then, in the afternoon, I visited the War Remnants Museum, to learn more about the abhorrent treatment of the Vietnamese people and land by the U.S. military. Not the most pleasant topic of the trip, but an important one.
I don’t claim to be a history buff and can’t really tell you a whole lot about the Vietnam War. I only vaguely understand why it happened (the U.S. trying to stop the spread of communism) and am still confused about the details of how it ended (I’m pretty sure we bailed when the shit hit the fan). But none of that is the point today.
The point today is that everyone involved in this war, including many who were involved thanks only to bad luck and proximity, suffered immensely. Men, women, children, animals, and the environment were brutalized beyond comprehension. Soldiers on both sides faced severe physical and psychological traumas and I can’t even imagine the intensity of the war and the long-term damage of those who were here during these awful years. I wish that there was some way to turn back the clock and stop these tragedies from occurring. Unfortunately, there isn’t, but hopefully we will never again try to wipe a country off the map, with no regard for the innocent lives lost or ruined, as a military strategy.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi tunnels are tiny. The network is huge, but the tunnels themselves are very small (and I only saw the 120 meters that have been expanded to accommodate tourists). They are hot, they are dark, and they are the worst nightmare of anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. Yet the VC lived in them for years, navigating over miles before popping up randomly to attack the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies.
Outside the tunnels, the traps set for the U.S. were brutal. Although there were many variations, almost all involved stepping into or onto something that would cause pointy metal spikes to skewer you, whether in your stomach, under your arms, in your leg, or elsewhere. If you survived the initial injury, removing yourself from the situation (if even possible) would have caused additional damage and the risk of either bleeding out or developing a fatal infection. Pretty horrific.
Visiting the tunnels
The easiest way to see the tunnels (which are several hours outside of Saigon) is on an organized tour. Personally, I think the half day tour was plenty, but if you’re very interested in history and/or military strategy, you might want a full day.
I booked with YTC (Youth Tourist Joint-Stock Company) for ~$6 (for the bus ride and guide; the entry fee of ~$5 is separate) and had an amazing guide named Mr. Binh. If you get a boring guide, this trip could be rough, as it’s really all about the info your guide conveys to you. Mr. Binh provided an interesting perspective on both the war as a whole and Cu Chi specifically, as he fought here with the Americans against the VC. This view added a counterbalance to the built-in rhetoric, which is decidedly anti-American. Despite the very serious nature of his stories, Mr. Binh managed to relay them with a lighthearted and fun attitude (and occasional song), repeatedly reminding us that one of the Americans’ biggest problems was that we are ‘too fat’ (and, therefore, we can’t run, hide, or fit into tunnels as easily as the tiny VC fighters).
As you make your way through the forest (which is still recovering after being wiped out by Agent Orange), the sound of machine gun fire from the shooting range fills the air, giving you a small glimpse into what this must have been like during the war (without the risk of being maimed or murdered). That said, the vast majority of the tunnels and underground bunkers are not accessible, so replicas of tunnel life have been added above ground. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the exceptionally close confines of the dark, dangerous tunnels when you are viewing these exhibits in large, open air tents. Together, this creates an overall feeling that is a bit artificial and touristy.
The two most interesting things I learned (according to me):
- Despite the way the war is often portrayed in the movies (so I’m told…this isn’t my genre of choice…), the Americans preferred to fight during the day because the nighttime posed very significant threats from mosquitoes (malaria) and cobras.
- The VC made sandals from old tires and shaped them ‘backwards’ so that their footprints appeared to be going in the opposite direction, making them more difficult to track.
I was personally uncomfortable with the encouragement to cram ourselves into sniper holes and take novelty photos (and the ready willingness of so many to do it). Nor was I a fan of the (oft utilized) option to shoot machine guns ‘for fun’ in the very place that countless soldiers were shot to death. I think we could all take a day off from the kitschy pics and testosterone-driven urge to play Rambo and instead try to reflect on the harsh realities of what this place represents. This is not an amusement park.
Despite these frustrations, I’m glad I visited the Cu Chi tunnels and feel I owe it to everyone involved to reflect on the conditions faced both above and below ground. If you’re in Saigon, it’s worth the time to see the tunnels.
The War Remnants Museum
This museum, located in Saigon’s District 3, is heavily one-sided (it was previously called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, although the Chinese part seems to have faded away). It does, however, provide a valuable look at how our (American) involvement in the conflict is viewed in this part of the world. Maybe we thought we were helping, maybe we were here only for selfish interests. I don’t know. But I do know that the Vietnamese do not look back kindly on our ‘assistance.’
Beyond the tanks, helicopters, and various artillery used by the U.S., the museum consists mainly of photographs, which are separated into themed exhibits. In the entry hall, there are photographs of dozens of anti-war protests from around the globe. Upstairs, there’s a room full of ‘American War Crimes,’ many documented in horrific and hard-to-look-at photos filled with dead bodies (including many children), mass graves, and soldiers lighting homes on fire. I read stories of entire families being brutalized, murdered, and disemboweled. I saw photos of soldiers dragging Vietnamese bodies behind trucks. You should mentally prepare before visiting this museum.
The exhibit also includes a sobering reminder (or, in my case, first notice) that the (controversial) Bertrand Russell Tribunal found the U.S. government guilty of genocide. Genocide is decidedly not cool and whether that was our intent or not, whether that is a fair depiction of events or not, it’s clear that things went beyond ‘normal’ wartime behavior here.
Next up is the Agent Orange room, where you will learn that dioxin, the active ingredient of Agent Orange is the most harmful and toxic chemical discovered to date. According to the information posted, only 85 grams can kill 8 million people; we sprayed 366 kilograms over the course of ten years. Forests and crops were devastated, stripped bare, leaving both people and wildlife starving. The documented deformities caused by Agent Orange are beyond anything I’ve ever seen. The image that sticks with me most clearly is of a woman whose face looks like it literally melted off of her head. Imagine what her life must be like. Twisted bodies, missing limbs, grossly deformed faces, and severely stunted growth are just a few of the manifestations of this poisoning, which still continues, several generations after the initial exposure.
Recognizing, again, that this is a one-sided interpretation of the events of the Vietnam War, I cannot help but conclude, as so many others have, that horrible war crimes against both humans and nature were committed. This is a sobering and not very pleasant reality. We all like to believe that we (and our country) are the good guys. Sometimes that’s not really the case. We can’t go back and change the past, no matter how much we want to, but I hope that we as a world have learned from the disaster of the Vietnam War.
The Take Away
I remember being told once that ‘dehumanization’ was a key strategy in conditioning American troops to be able to carry out such horrific abuses against the Vietnamese people, who were viewed as sub-human and nothing more than animals (which brings up some very serious issues about the way humans treat animals, but more on that another day). As a result, we saw soldiers murdering babies, poisoning children, and massacring families. Because they were the ‘other.’
It is important to remember that groups we identify as ‘other’ (including human and non-human animals) are not that different from us. In fact, many of us have likely fallen into someone’s definition of ‘other’ at some point in time, whether because of our gender, sexuality, race, or physical ability. We may have differences, but at our core, we are all the same. Dehumanizing anyone is a dangerous tactic that brings out the worst in us and is something we should all actively avoid doing, no matter what ideological differences we may have. And, you know, try not to kill children and stuff.
Important Note: I am a proud supporter of the U.S. military and appreciate the sacrifices that our uniformed men and women (and their families) make every day. Unfortunately, war is a reality of the modern world and military action is sometimes necessary and justified in protecting people and regions from aggressors.
That doesn’t mean, though, that every military action is justified. There are certain things that are always off limits, no matter what. It is important to be able to honestly reflect on our past actions and identify mistakes so that we do not make them again in the future.