Thursday, May 26, 2011

Day 4 - Vietnam War History (Underground Tunnels and a Museum)

*Warning: Pictures below are graphic*

A must see while in HCMC are the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were underground tunnels used by the Vietcong (South Vietnamese who supported the North during the Vietnam War) to attack American soldiers and ensure easy access to Ho Chi Minh City (through the Saigon River). It was such a fascinating historic site to witness and unbelievable to hear about some of the war stories associated with these tunnels.

We booked a tour of the tunnels through a company and were greeted by Mr. Nguyen Van Nghia, or "Jackie" as he was nicknamed by the American soldiers when he fought with the Navy for America and the South Vietnamese (Republic of Vietnam). He told us he "survived twice" during the wartimes. He spent 6 years in the US Navy, and 3 years in prison when the war finally ended.

He proceeded to tell us a bit of the history of Vietnam, and how he loved being a tour guide because he was able to share these stories with tourists so that they could spread the knowledge back in their home countries. Tourism in Vietnam was only opened up in 1990, and the development of many parts of the country only occurred in the 21 years that tourist revenue was generated. He stated that in 1990, there were only 135 hotels in the city. Now, there are over 8,000.

It was hard to decipher what his position in the war was. Even though he fought for the South, he emphasized that he loved the VC and his Northern comrads as well. For 2,000 years, the Vietnamese were constantly in battle with the Chinese, French, Japanese, and lastly, the U.S. The end of the Vietnam war symbolized for the country the first time it was actually ever truly free from outside rule, and this appeared to be a greater triumph for him than the possibility of ending Communism in the country.

Around 3 million Vietnamese were killed during the war, 2 million of which were innocent civilians, which is why the Vietnam War was called a "civilian war." Around 58,000 US soldiers were also killed during the years 1986 through 1973. I think history from the perspective of both America and Vietnam both agree that the U.S. never should have entered the war because it was a war that could never be won by a superpower country that didn't know anything about the Vietnamese people or Vietnam as a country. Jackie stated that most Vietnamese do not look at Americans negatively due to the war, but rather look forward to building better relations with them for the future.

Arriving at the tunnels, we watched a short, black and white video about the Cu Chi tunnels, narrated and created by the Vietnamese. It was humorous to see their side of the story, and listen to their description of the American troops. They called the troops "ruthless" and at one point a "crazy bunch of devils that shot at women, children, chickens, and even pots and pans." Everyone in the room laughed at this statement. The video also documented some of the brave Vietnamese soldiers who were successful in "killing Americans," thus earning themselves "American killer hero awards."

Later, we walked around a portion of the tunnel system. 75% of the tunnels were destroyed by bombs during the war, but we were lucky to see a portion that was still intact. These tunnels had three levels underground - the first level 3 meters below ground, 2nd level 6 meters below ground, and 3rd level 10 meters below ground. It was incredible to hear of the intelligent and creative ways they made the systems work and the ways they defended themselves.  For example, they used bamboo shoots as ventilation for the system. Pepper and Chili Peppers were sprinkled near the entrances to detract dogs from the area. They slept in hammocks to protect themselves from the bombing that occurred above ground. They cooked underground and had 4 separate chambers to keep the smoke from seeping to the surface. They also developed very interesting (and painful) booby traps against the American soldiers, as well as dead-ends for American "tunnel rats" that tried to enter the tunnels. There was just so much on this tour that you learn that you really have to see it for yourself!

Overall, 18,000 people could have lived in those tunnels. Some people lived in them for up to 26 years, which is hard to imagine, to live in such a tight, enclosed, and dark space for so long.

On the tour, we actually were able to crawl in the tunnels. There was one tunnel system that was modified to cater to tourists. The passageways were widened, booby traps were removed, and lights were installed inside. A second tunnel system was an actual system used by the VC. Crawling in the first tunnel was exciting and safe... We could see everything when we crawled through the space, and were able to walk through (while crouching down). The second one was a little scarier. The space was very tight and the tunnel was pitch dark! I actually had to crawl on my hands and knees and I had absolutely no clue where I was going, but luckily, I went with 2 other people in our tour group and they had a camera that they periodically flashed to get an idea where to go. I had to follow their voices most of the time. I don't think I would have crawled under there on my own - bats and millipedes crawl in those tunnels now. Reminded me of my favorite scary movie - Descent. It was definitely memorable and fun! I love outdoorsy activities where I can crawl or climb terrain.

After that, we continued with our Vietnam War tour by visiting the War Remnants museum. Again, it was very valuable to hear the perspective of the war from the Vietnamese side, although biased. The first floor was dedicated to the many anti-war movements across the entire globe. Propaganda posters were shown from many different countries denouncing the American occupation in Vietnam. There was also a section outside that showed some of the war atrocities that occurred in prison, as well as the torture that was used against prisoners held by the U.S. The second floor showcased pictures of some of the effects of the war, as well as the aftereffects of the U.S. use of "Agent Orange," a chemical defoliant used to destroy the landscape in Vietnam. Because the chemicals had high levels of an extremely toxic type of dioxin, many people were maimed, killed, and/or also gave birth to a new generation with extreme birth defect and deformities. There were numerous graphic pictures and stories of children born deformed, and the hardships they face everyday. It was very depressing to see... There was even a display of preserved fetuses that were affected by the chemicals. Quite a shocking exhibit, but still something everyone should be educated and aware of.

At the end of the day, we went to the Green Jade Pagoda and also decided to get massages and eat some street food near our hotel. I was finally able to try the balut (fertilized duck) eggs, but I was surprised that they also had fertilized quail eggs! I've tried balut eggs in the States, but never quail eggs! They pretty much tasted the same as the balut. Very delicious, but I was unable to finish the whole plate.

We leave tomorrow for Thailand, before heading to Cambodia to see Ankor Wat...

Our tour guide "Jackie" showing us a model of the Cu Chi Tunnels

An example of some of the camouflaged traps used by the VC. American soldiers who fell in the trap probably wouldn't die from the fall, but would probably be trapped there, thus bleeding to death or shot by the VC.

An example of some of the hideouts used by the VC to attack unknowing American soldiers.

Different booby traps created by the VC

Jackie demonstrating for us the "Sticking Trap"

Firing an AK16 at the shooting range - Notice how natural it is for me to hold it, so don't trust me with one.

Crawling through the first set of "tourist" tunnels. I wish I had some pictures of the actual tunnels...

A photograph of a prisoner after being released.

Photographs of deformed children due to the use of chemical warfare.

Preserved and deformed fetuses due to the effects of Agent Orange

Street Food! (Sorry for the juxtaposition of this photo with the one above)

Balut and Quail Eggs

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