Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cu Chi Tunnels

The government placed a shooting range within the War Memorial Park at the Cu Chi Tunnels. The sound of gunshots assaulted my ears and made my stomach hurt. The constant gunshots felt crushing. I’ve never heard so many shots so close. As we came closer to the range, the kids covered their ears and tried to escape the sound—even my over-militarized boys. They don’t know that you can’t hide from aural assault. The jungle has grown back sufficiently that the guns and shooters remained invisible until we were right at the edge of the firing range—the disembodied sound is indeed uncannily powerful. (note to musicologists, Carolynn Abbate is spot on) Whoever thought of including a shooting range, complete with Vietnam era weapons, as part of the tourist attraction was either a sadist or a brilliant sonic artist. For a couple of bucks you can shoot an AK 47 and lots of people apparently do. It made the whole thing that much more real.

When we decided to go to Vietnam Manuel immediately said he wanted to go to the Cu Chi tunnels. I have to admit I knew the name but had no recollection of what they were. Thanks again Google and Wikipedia. I was born in 1968, the year the Tet offensive launched from the Cu Chi tunnels. This makes me a little too young to remember the war but old enough to have it as a pivotal moment for people just slightly older than me and, of course, my parents’ generation. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot that year, and anti war protests were on the rise. It’s a strange year to have been born in. When I went to Brown my freshman hallway had seven people on it who were born in October or November of 1968 and whose fathers were born in November or December of 1942. Our parents had been against the war, and our fathers all got the last paternity deferments. And while in college we learned about the Vietnam war as history and we learned that for the most part that the working and impoverished citizens took care of the messy jungle parts of the war (My uncle was an exception; he enlisted). Amy Carter was a class ahead of us and hung out on campus with Abby Hoffman, and students born in the sixties attempted to reenact the decade of their birth protesting everything.

So on Saturday morning we piled into a mini van with Manuel’s high school chum Juliet and her two kids. Our guide, Mr. Trunh, was a very friendly 38 year old who looked to be about 24. We learned at the very end of the day that his father had lived in the tunnels. The entrance was full of tour groups; not many Americans but lots of Foreigners. Guides quickly ushered visitors into a ditch to watch a documentary film. I couldn’t see any of it, but I hear it was black and white and grainy featuring B52 bombers going off, villagers running for cover, and Viet Cong fighting bravely. The narration came straight out of the Cold War and said things like “Cu Chi, the land of many gardens peaceful all year round under shady trees until the American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside.. “the crazy devils fired into women and children” “Cu Chi will never die.” At some point we began to wonder if any of this was appropriate for the children; though, as it turned out the gritty black and white texture combined with 1920’s style sound rendered the whole thing largely incomprehensible to them. The little kids (two four year olds and a two year old) got a little bored so I turned on the panda cam on my ipad, which made quite a visual, aural, and cognitive dissonance. Just outside the trench theater guards in green fatigues lead tourists through jungle trails that would seem rugged if you didn’t live in the jungle. (to us they seemed tame) Very real automatons dressed in black trousers hang out making weapons, holding Viet Cong flags and generally adding to the scenery.

The site marks a central spot on Vietnam’s war tourism map; in the last fifteen years the Vietnamese have apparently begun marketing the gory past, and it comes off as an eerie combination of capitalism and propaganda. One of the official websites about the tunnels. says this “system of “fighting tunnels”, the inheritance is crystallized from spirit, power, will, intelligence, creation and efforts of Cu Chi military and people as well as soldiers from everywhere in our country living, fighting and devoting thoroughly 30 years in the fierce battle. The purpose is also to propagate, educate revolution traditions to Vietnamese youths and foreign travelers visiting and researching. .”

The Cu Chi tunnels comprise a seventy-five mile maze of tunnels that at their peak housed sixteen thousand people, ten thousand of whom died during the war. Tourists can now explore a small portion of this. The guides all emphasize the cleverness of the Vietnamese people and state the gruesome parts with a disaffected bluntness. The kids were taken with the idea of camouflaging air holes with fake anthills and termite mounds. They know exactly what a jungle termite hill looks like now. The systems for bringing food and water in and out during the night come across as ingenious games if you let your mind wander from the horrors of it all for just a moment.

Our guide pointed out that they didn’t have enough food, water, or air and that thousands of people died of malaria because of mosquito infestations. We were all fascinated with the exhibit of traps which the guide set in motion—trap doors which trapped enemies in spikes, a folding chair that ended in a spite necklace etc. Like the torture museum in San Gimangiano, it’s oddly and sickly fascinating. Automatons inhabited multiple ditches eerily and repetitiously making weapons. They were by far the most realistic automatons I’ve ever seen. To be honest, from a distance they didn’t look that much different that the identically clad real live people making rice paper.

Various points on the trail feature opened entrance holes which visitors can lower themselves into. Picture a hole that is barely wide enough for most Western Men’s shoulders to fit through. The guy who tried just before Manuel got stuck and it took two people to pull him out. The kids all panicked when their parent went in. (Manuel and Juliet did it; I didn’t) The kids couldn’t wait to explore the three levels of tunnel open to tourists. But the first time Manuel, Juliet and the kids four and over tried to go down to a level two tunnel a few of the kids panicked. Jonathan, Rebecca, and Eli all went down to the second level of tunnels and went through about 40 meters. I’m just claustrophobic enough to be very grateful that Juliet’s two year old needed someone to hang out with on the outside. At the second attempt all the kids went in. Manuel reported that while the westerners all went on hands and feet the guide walked in the tunnel in a squat. He experienced it as a low place to walk and they experienced it as a place to be horizontal; bipedal v. quadrapedal. Given that I couldn’t even make myself go down for five minutes I cannot begin to fathom how anyone lived there for a decade. And it makes the war that much more incomprehensible from the vantage point of history. If people were willing to live in those conditions how could anyone possibly beat them. And certainly bombing the hell out of the ground above would not do much damage.

As always taking the kids to a site that is hard to swallow makes the whole thing all the more surreal. The big kids wanted to know who won the Vietnam war. We said the Vietnamese did. They wanted to know why Americans went there in the first place. How do you explain that to eight year olds? The four year olds obsessively reminded us that the guns were fake like toys. And because they are four we did not contradict. We told them that lots of people died here a long time ago but now no one does.

We all wondered at various points during the day whether bringing the kids there was a good thing. In the end I think it was good or irrelevant. Certainly the War Remnants Museum would not have worked--parts of the tunnels seemed like a game to them and that’s probably fine. What little kid doesn’t fantasize about a secret world that adults are basically too big to inhabit? But there was enough reality to it to make at least the older ones understand that something very bad had happened there and that no matter how much they like games from, guns are scary and war is complicated. As a parent I struggle often with how to teach kids about hard things. Obviously, we don’t completely shelter them or we wouldn’t be here in the land of staph infections, massive rural poverty, safety norms that would send a lot of Americans running.

They know what the Nazis were and they know at some level that their Grandfather and his sister fled them when they were small children. They know that the Nazis killed lots of Jews. But we have decidedly not shown them pictures of concentration camps or taken them to the Holocaust Museum. Likewise, I saw no reason to make our trip to Vietnam a gut wrenching study of the war. Without kids we would certainly have explored more of that side of Ho Chi Min City. But I also saw no reason to completely shield them from it. War is ugly, and they need to know that. But they need to know it in a way that leaves them still feeling safe. One message we have al received loud and clear during our time in Asia is that safety in all forms is a privilege. But it’s a privilege I need my kids to have.


  1. We went on this tour too back in 2002 and I remember it being really fascinating and powerful and how I felt vaguely guilty as an American being there. We went into the one that they allow tourists into, apparently it had recently been widened to allow the um, more portly Americans in because a heavy man had apparently gotten stuck and then claustrophobic and had a heart attack as they had tried to get him out. I remember coming out first and turning around to watch as Brian emerged but seconds after he came out, so did two bats.

    Also, seeing the traps they used to maim and kill the soldiers was also nausea inducing.

    It is really amazing that they made those tunnels so functional for so many with sections for cooking, etc.

  2. The thing that you have to remember about the Cu Chi complex is that it was in an area that the US military thought they controlled for much of the war.

    I have read a number of accounts of US soldiers in fire bases in the area who report NLF attacks where large units appeared from nowhere and simply disappeared.

    Despite all the US activity above the tunnels, the complex as a whole was never compromised. It was a stunning military/political achievement that demanded unbelievable sacrifice to create and maintain.

    Thanks, Bonnie, for this account of your visit.