Cu Chi Tunnels
I have avoided the “war” as much as possible during my time in Vietnam.
Of course, the articles about agent orange and its lasting devastation, dioxins in the soil, birth defects, and the blank expression offered by some (on both the “winning” and “losing” sides of the conflict) in response to my questions about “what it was like then?” are more than subtle reminders.
But, I have not been driven to see the war museums and recount the atrocities or the propaganda attendant with them. I have even avoided Cu Chi (the tunnel network that the Viet Cong developed, literally under foot of American soldiers and bombers). The Cu Chi I know is the gentle flowing Saigon River and the great fruits and vegetables birthed from its soil, not the remembrances of war. However, visitors from the US wanted to see the tunnels as did some of my students so we braved Saturday traffic for the trek out to the countryside.
At first I had some trepidation. Was it going to be a “theme park” feel (Cu Chi does already have a nearby water slide park!) or perhaps another retro anti-American attraction? It as neither. Cu Chi was tasteful and the tour of the many tunnels, fascinating. To imagine the horrors of living underground to avoid bombs; to eat, sleep, learn, live while the enemy was footsteps away, was incomprehensible.
While our Western guests were intrigued (although too intimidated to descend into the now-widened tunnels), the Vietnamese students response was more nuanced. The boys headed off to the firing range where, for a dollar a shot, they had the chance to fire weapons at targets. The others stopped at the snack bar and debated ice cream prices or complained about the heat. Those who worked at the Cu Chi complex were allegedly, descendants of those who survived the war as Cu Chi natives.
At one point we sat in a thatched hut and watched a 1967 propaganda film of the US bombing of Cu Chi and the surrounding area. It was grainy, black and white, and accompanied by smiling peasants, heroic warriors, and perseverance. I took no umbrage at this as an American (it was propaganda but also true) and as the film ended, the black pajama clad tour guide turned to me and said, “where are you from”? I answered, “America”. “Good” she responded ” here is some fruit from Cu Chi” and handed me an apple. “I hope you like Vietnam”