Just outside of Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam lie the Cu Chi Tunnels. During the Vietnam War, the Cu Chi Tunnels were part of an enormous tunnel network connecting much of the country. Viet Cong soldier would use the tunnels to hide from American troops, sometimes for days or weeks at a time, as well as to smuggle supplies in and out of then-Saigon. These same tunnels were used to great effect in the Tet Offensive.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are still in use today as a tourist destination. We spent an afternoon visiting the site by booking a tour from Ho Chi Minh City.
After a long bus ride from the center of town, complete with an obligatory gift shop visit at a "pottery center," we arrived at the site. As an aside, we learned very quickly into the trip that any day long tour we booked in Asia would come complete with an unadvertised visit to a "local craft village," "local textiles factory," or other similar "destination." These destinations were almost unfailingly shops built for tourists and had bus after bus visiting throughout the day because the shop paid the buses to stop there. For us, these packaged daylong tours were often the most economical ways to get to destinations not easily accessible on our own, so we learned to put up with them, as well as the disappointing buffet lunch stops that sometimes came after.
Once we finally arrived at the tunnels, we entered the Ben Duoc visitor's center and were grouped with other tourists for our guided tour. The introductory video and lecture heavily emphasized the glory and resilience of the Vietnamese people during the war and paid considerable attention to the killing of civilians by the United States (notably the My Lai Massacre). While understandably the conflict with the United States was a major point of pride in the presentation, we felt uneasy to have such a gloating tone used for a period of violence with such a high death toll.
After the introduction, we followed our tour guide through a trail where we saw a series of tableaus about day to day life of the Viet Cong living in the tunnels. including small exhibits about the war, a captured American tank, and the tunnels themselves.
The whole thing was tourist-ified and a bit creepy, with an overall atmosphere of spectacle and enjoyment among the other visitors and our guide. The American tank was dated with the day it was hit and made inoperable by the Viet Cong. Presumably, the soldiers inside were killed in action. For our visit, tourists lined up to climb on top of the machine and pose for photos. Everyone in our tour group had the opportunity to jump down into a hole in the ground and pop out of the trap door as a Viet Cong would have done, springing up as if playing hide and seek. Our guide told us that these doors were often used to ambush enemy patrols. A line of booby trap demonstrations (all variations of falling into a pit of spikes) were on display, and our guide grinned mischievously as he demonstrated how the the traps maimed and wounded wandering foot patrols.
We declined to participate in each of these photo ops.
Perhaps because the last major historical site we visited was one of the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, but the contrast between the Cu Chi Tunnels and what we saw in Cambodia was quite uncomfortable. Although we learned quite a lot about daily life for those in the tunnels, most of the experience had the feel of a Disney recreation of Vietnamese War sites than an actual historic site.
I tried really hard not to judge the presentation. Every country has the right to dress their history the way they want to, right? I've been to many American War Memorials or battle locations that put much more historical emphasis on the resilience of the combatants or the ideals they fought for and much less on the emotional and human cost of war. However cartoony I found the dispalys, it is right to try to have respect for Vietnam's method of showcasing their own version of events?
As much as I tried not to judge, the theme park feel and the tourists, unperturbed by the war's bloody history, happily lining up for photos made it hard for me not to feel disgusted.
When we got to the shooting range, I stopped trying to pretend the place was simply poor taste and decided it was offensive.
The combined gift shop/shooting range was an unexpected stop on our tour. The popping sounds that we heard touring the park became more clear and pronounced as we drew closer. The gunshots were ringing clearly by the time we saw the sign above. In the gift shop you could buy shirts, hats, trinkets, and a chance to shoot machine guns where you pay by the bullet. The guns were all used in the Vietnam War era and many were used in battle on the site of the current shooting range.
In the gallery below, you can see the price list of the bullets. $1 is equivalent to about 22500 Vietnamese Dong. Even at those bargain basement prices, however, if you selected an automatic weapon such as an M30, I bet you could chew through a lot of money pretty quickly. Most of the fellow tourists in our group thought this looked like a fun activity and signed up to participate with excitement and a bit of a swagger.
We waited awkwardly in the shop as others in our tour group took their turn shooting M16s and AK47s. While I see a certain appeal of trying a gun that was used in the Vietnam War, something about shooting those guns on the very same site where scores of people died from the same weapons disturbed us. Again, I thought about the Killing Fields we saw a few weeks prior. The narrative presented at the sites is vastly different - in Cambodia, the site was a somber memorial to people who were clubbed and beaten to death in genocide; in Vietnam, the park was a gleeful shrine to the resilience of the Viet Cong. Perhaps it was the memory of the Killing Fields visit that made me react so strongly to the gun range, but whatever it was, sitting in the gift shop listening to live gun fire was one of the most uncomfortable moments we had in Southeast Asia.
After the gun range we had the opportunity to walk through a short section of the tunnel system that had been widened for tourists. Even widened, the tunnel was still pretty tight and the 20 meters we traveled through it was enough for me to be glad that I didn't live there for weeks at a time. It did provide a glimpse into the unpleasant nature of life in the tunnels and made me respect the effort that must have gone into living there.
On the way out, the park proudly displayed some of the accolades it has won... Although they did seem a touch dubious in nature.
I'm glad that we visited the tunnels. Although I felt disgusted as I left, visiting the tunnels hammered home what travel is like for many people and reinforced my conviction for the type of tourists sites I want to see in our adventures.
Additionally, I also developed a kind of disgust for poorly crafted war memorials in general. Especially those that win tourism awards for best gift shop and firing range.