In Saigon we visited the Reunification Palace, built in the 60’s for the president, it became a symbol for the triumphant North Vietnamese forces when their tanks broke through the gates in April 1975. This signified the end of the Vietnam War and the building has been left as a bit of a time capsule for that momentous day in Vietnamese history, 1960’s furniture, decorations, dial phones and the tactical war rooms used by the American led forces.
In the Cu Chi district of Saigon is an immense network of tunnels on numerous levels and totalling over 75 miles carved out of the compact clay soil that could apparently withstand the weight of an American tank. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters.
A short introduction to the Cu Chi tunnels was conducted in a bamboo hut with some ageing war footage and constant references to the evil American aggressor. The thick vegetation set the scene and you could imagine what it would be like to be weighed down in combat gear in this draining humid heat with an almost invisible enemy hiding right below your feet. We wandered a well trod path that took us passed various displays of weaponry, tanks, bombs and some chilling displays of booby traps. Mostly set underground and constructed of bamboo and long metal spikes, they were built to inflict fatal injuries that were both simple and vulgar.
Being a long time claustrophobe I purposely didn’t research into this underground maze complex before we got here as the anxiety levels would have given me a whiter than normal complexion. So what possessed me to take the opportunity to drop down through one of these child size holes in the ground I just don’t know, it just had to be done. Getting down to your waist was easy enough, then bend the knees to descend with only your head and outstretched arms left holding the lid to the opening. The final phase was not so easy, having to almost dislocate your shoulders and bend the elbows to complete the manoeuvre. It is at this point when you can’t see anything that the thought you could be sharing this tiny living space with a snake or scorpion pops into the head. Getting out was a relief, the heart rate had gone up a high percentage and it was still pounding a few minutes later.
cu-chiThe sound of distant gunfire had been getting closer to add to the atmospherics of this experience. The sound close up was immense and you could take it a step further and indulge yourself in firing ten rounds from an genuine AK47 for several dollars.
The finale of the visit was to go down into the tunnels and make your way with a guide down a specially widened for westerners section, that said they are still on the small side. It would have been very easy after taking the few steps down a tight little staircase to hit the panic button and back out. The anxiety was intensified at another tight looking descent then the movement was halted for someone phaffing around taking a photograph in the tunnel ahead. Didn’t they know there were some clammy palms developing behind them? Once we actual hunched down and got moving, I could think of nothing more than getting out at the first exit. I was not alone as the majority took this option as we emerged with pounding hearts and cold sweats into the fresher air, only to see we had travelled the length of a badminton court.
We continued this sobering day with a visit to the War Remnants Museum formally know as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. Although the name has changed the sentiment hadn’t and it was a big propaganda exercise against the Americans in particular. On the outside were various exhibits of sterile military hardware standing impotent after many years in their stagnant display. In contrast the inside of this three storey building was a powerful photographic journal of the many aspects of the war; the global protests, the chemical weapons, the guerrilla warfare and of course the people of Vietnam who were killed, maimed and displaced.
The physical and mental conditions that both sides endured were unbelievably brutal, the loss of life was unnecessary and a country was set against itself to ‘protect’ a paranoid West from communism. Phoung said that everyone in the country felt the affect of the war and despite himself being born the year after the conflict ended, he was denied four close family members as a result of this drawn out conflict. I believe him when he says that he and most of the Vietnamese people hold no anger or resentment in their hearts because it would stop them living and loving your life’s now.
The irony is that despite Vietnam still being a one party government, it has adopted a very capitalistic approach and is one of the largest growing economies in South East Asia. Large companies like Canon and North Face are switching manufacturing to this country and big American names like KFC and Starbucks are occupying the busy streets?