Once place of terror for American soldiers and lives forced underground for the Vietnamese people, the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam have been converted into a place where history and tourism collide in a way that makes no sense.
At the Cu Chi tunnels, you can see where the Viet Cong forces, working with the local people (or not, it’s not clear) dug out an extensive underground complex that reaches from the outskirts of Saigon all the way to Cambodia. You can see examples of the terrifying traps the VC built to snag the American soldiers and you can buy an ice cream cone. You can crawl on your knees through a dark hole and then, for fun, you can shoot an AK47 at the firing range. You can watch a movie about the “American Killer Heroes” and you can sit under a leafy shelter drinking tea and eating manioc dipped in peanuts and salt. You can see murals that depict American soldiers being maimed and brutalized by traps and you can pick up a pair of sandals made from old tires. The Cu Chi Tunnels visitors complex is possibly the weirdest place I’ve ever been.
The problem with the compound is not just the collision between tourist trap and the horrors of war, though that has an awful lot to do with it. There’s also almost no interpretive material so you’re left with what you remember reading in your guidebook the night before, which, when you’re travel addled, isn’t that much.
And when your guide is provided by the state, she's not exactly willing to stray into anecdotes that provide context. The complex was home to 16000 people, 6ooo of them survived and there are, according to our guide, many still alive. “What was it like for them?” I asked. “Do they talk about it?” “It was dark.” she said. “They had schedules for the times when they could use light.” Then she moved on. "This way to the underground hospital! Everyone! Please! This way!"
It’s not quite a wasted experience, but there could be so much more to offer, even without conflicting with the party line on what the Vietnamese call “The American War.” The complex is staggering - you really get a sense of how resourceful and wiley the VC were and how terrifying it must have been for the American soldiers. They fell in to pits full of spikes, every snap of a twig could be a home made land mine or trap - and their opposition? Invisible. No wonder they went crazy.
But there’s no story telling here, just a weird packaging of the inventiveness of the VC and oh, look, a t-shirt that says Cu Chi Tunnels in English. We bought ice cream cones out of a freezer next to a display case full of lacquered decorative plates. The we wandered back to the bus while the sound of gunfire at about a dollar a bullet faded into the background.
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