Vietnam, with its verdant countryside and bustling cities, has a lot to offer adventurous travelers and those wanting to put a face on the Vietnam War.
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is a metropolis that moves like the rapids in a river. Motorbikes putt-putt-putter down the avenues. Artisans sell their wares from street-side stalls. Teenagers line up to get their nightly dose of pho noodles and dancing at the local discotheque. Devotees walk to their churches, their pagodas and their shrines to light candles and incense for someone who came before.
Vietnam - Photo by John Soltes
It’s a city that seems endless. But there is an end to the throngs of humanity — a semi-quieter place where a few lessons can be learned.
On the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City is a network of underground tunnels that was used by the Viet Cong during the war, particularly during the Tet Offensive.
Four decades ago, the tunnels were a harried place of strategizing for guerilla fighters.
Today, Coca-Cola is available in the gift shop.
A visit to the Cu Chi tunnels is chiseled into most tourists’ itineraries. Located roughly a one-hour drive (depending on traffic) outside of Ho Chi Minh City’s center, the underground ravines should be visited as a means to engage with the history of the tumultuous war. It is sacred ground that cost many a soldier’s life — and it should be visited with a respect for the casualties of conflict.
As tour buses pull up to the complex, the first stop is a meeting hall where cool drinks are served as plentiful as the propaganda. Before entering the tour, visitors sit through a video presentation that pushes the Viet Cong’s righteousness and the strategic mastery of the tunnel system.
You’ll probably get more satisfaction out of the cool drink.
Next is the actual tour of the tunnels, which stretch for miles or kilometers, depending on who’s talking.
In this particular area — in between Saigon and the border of Cambodia — where the tour buses corral like vultures, there are several holes that have been maintained for passersby to take a look and even take a descent.
Most groups visit the tunnels with an official tour guide, which can be booked back in Saigon.
Along the tour, you’ll have the chance to see grisly contraptions of torture, the place where the Viet Cong and their families ate and slept and a few demonstrations of what life was like in the tunnels (from eating fresh tapioca to an artillery range where visitors can pay money to shoot firearms such as an AK-47).
A group of tourists in front of me were clamoring at the chance to shoot a gun. I kept walking, slightly disgusted, to where visitors can crawl through one section of the tunnel (widened, rumor says, to accommodate larger Western tourists). The experience of crawling through the tunnel starts off easy enough — it’s kind of like ducking under a blanket to play in the dark.
But when you realize how far the tunnel goes, that the walls and ceiling are made of unsteady dirt and that the light from which you entered quickly becomes a pinhole, fear does sidle up next to you.
When you emerge, sweaty and panting, you’ll be thankful for the light in the sky.
Anyone who visits a sight like this probably has a curiosity for war stories and what exactly happened in this country in Southeast Asia. Visiting the Cu Chi tunnels may not provide any answers, but it may set you in the right direction.
It’s a preserved testament to days of sorrow. And for that, it can boast an importance beyond the ubiquitous gift shop selling war propaganda.