70 kilometers outside of Ho Chi Minh City sits Cu Chi, a rather nondescript village that is famous for one reason: it was home to the Communist guerilla resistance to the American occupation during the Vietnam War. The resistance in this area vexed the American military to such an extent that the whole province was declared a “Free Fire Zone,” and bombers returning to Saigon after a mission were allowed to drop their remaining ordinance indiscriminately over Cu Chi. Unsurprisingly, this led to massive destruction, and the area was almost completely defoliated by the end of the war.
Today, the fighting around Cu Chi is commemorated at a strange tourist area focused on the centerpiece of the resistance: a vast system of tunnels that sheltered fighters, served as a strategic headquarters, and protected civilians from bombing runs. In his excellent book on modern Vietnam, Shadows and Wind, Robert Templer describes Cu Chi as “Cong World”: an amusement park dedicated to the memory of the legendary Viet Cong guerilla fighters. Templer couldn’t be more right.
The experience begins with the viewing of an incredibly propagandistic video that exalts the people of Cu Chi, while demonizing the American military. The narrator talks over Images of peaceful, verdant Cu Chi, before quickly changing tone after the arrival of the Americans, while the video changes to scenes of napalm strikes and carpet bombing. Two fighters, in particular, were praised with the title of “American Killer Hero,” which they recieved after the war. What were the requirements to garner such an illustrious honor? The man apparently single-handedly destroyed three tanks and killed 16 men, while the woman used her peaceful appearance and wily ways to shoot many soldiers.
Feeling rather discomfited after the movie, we continued on to see some of the holes used by guerillas to enter the tunnel system. This is where things started to get strange. A large group of Korean tourists, every one with a huge smile on their face, was taking turns going into the hole, cheering rioutously every time another person made it out without getting stuck. This completely ruined what, I think, should be a much more solemn experience; it was akin to laughing in a pillbox on the beaches of Normandy.
Next up was a row of several of the fiendishly clever traps deployed by the VC to deter American soliders from entering certain areas. Our tour guide proceeded to describe the traps as if he were selling household appliances: “This model of the Clipping Armpit Trap ensures that your American will have steel rods rammed into his chest, ensuring that he will die the most excrutiating death imaginable.” And so on. Behind the traps sat a mural depicting soldiers being maimed by the traps; a macabre version of “It’s A Small World” if I ever saw one.
To add to the strangeness, there were life-like models of VC fighters going about their daily chores: cleaning weapons, listening to the radio, etc., which most of the people in the group took terribly inappropriate pictures with. Hey kids, don’t miss this one of dad drinking coffee with Nguyen and his AK-47!
The most disturbing part of the tour, at least for me, was the destroyed American tank. Blown in half by a land mine, the charred tank serves as a graphic reminder of the brutality of war. In fact, three American soldiers died in the tank. However, instead of respecting the site, tourists are allowed to climb on top of it like it’s a jungle gym and sit on the gun barrel like it’s one of those horses outside of grocery stores that children like to ride. Once again, I felt like I was in an amusement park, not a historical battlefield.
After seeing the tank, we went on to the on-site gun range, which has a downright carnival atmosphere surrounding it. Cheesy souvenirs are displayed in glass cases, while the stand that sells the bullets used in the guns beckons. You can almost image the man standing behind it shouting “Step right up, folks! Get your bullets for your high-powered automatic rifle, and see if you can beat the VC’s score!” The ear-splitting rifle reports were an unwelcome reminder of what happened in Cu Chi 40 years ago, although many people seemed to enjoy blasting away at the targets downrange.
The last part of the tour was one of the famed tunnels, and this was the only authentic experience of the day, since a tiny underground hole is hard to ruin. (That being said, the tunnels have been widened, as they were dug by tiny Vietnamese men, not six-foot tall Westerners.) The pitch-black tunnels, brightened only occasionally by lamps, are incredibly claustrophobic. The air is damp and dusty, and you can’t be in any position other than bent at the knees. By the time I emerged from the tunnel I had gained a profound respect, both for the VC fighters that lived in the tunnels and for the American “tunnel rats,” soldiers who went in with nothing more than a flashlight and a pistol to hunt down guerillas. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have to hide in the tunnels while a B-52 unloaded its bombs directly above you; or to go in, crawling on your hands and knees, nothing more than the beam of a flashlight illuminating your way, constantly wondering if you were about to fall into a deadly trap or run into a more aware enemy.
Despite the strange nature of the day, the tunnels did make the trip to Cu Chi worthwhile. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just visited a war-themed Disneyland. The laughing tourists, light-hearted displays of cruelty, and machine-gun fire did not fit with my knowledge of the war. This is far from a perfect comparison, but you don’t see people lying in the bunks or turning on the gas at Auschwitz. If you want a solemn reminder of the Vietnam War, go to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. If you want a less serious experience, go to “Cong World.”