Ancient battlefields beneath our feet.
It might have been something in the oppressively stale air of the tunnels, but it was probably the special “treat” of local food at the end of our ordeal—fresh (tasteless) tapioca plant. Whatever it was, I began to break out with hives, starting in my armpits, which then worked their way forward on the underside of my arms. Eventually my feet and ankles were drawn into the attack as well. Just what I needed as I approached the chaos of Tan Son Nhut Airport in a cab, soon to be stressed over getting my ticket for my flight to Hanoi.
But hives are a minor discomfort, considering what life must have been like in the system of remarkable tunnels that the Viet Cong created to thwart the American and South Vietnamese armies. It’s not so surprising that the tunnels of Co Chi are a popular tourist destination just outside Ho Chi Minh City.
American soldiers used the term "Black Echo" to describe the conditions within the tunnels. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, soldiers would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops, or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds
There’s something cool about underground bunkers and caves. For centuries people have been drawn to visiting the catacombs outside Rome. The fact that they were secret hiding places besides being burial chambers made them more alluring to experience and explore.
The complexity and the scope of the tunnel system is extraordinary. Hundreds of miles of tunnels were built, along with special sleeping rooms, work rooms, kitchens, strategy rooms, and weapon-manufacturing rooms. They had ventilation shafts, invisible entrances and exits, and a series of deadly boobytraps that maimed and killed soldiers who came close to discovering them. The tunnels were used to move troops, launch attacks, build and infiltrate weapons. The US military tried every conceivable tactic to find and destroy the tunnels and their occupants—including defoliating the jungles where they were built with Agent Orange---but they were unable to eradicate them. When part of the system was destroyed, it would be secretly rebuilt, with new branches. The tunnels were a major factor in the ultimate victory over the South Vietnamese and the Americans.
As I observed in other parts of the city, the Vietnamese are successfully using their war victory to bring tourist dollars to the government. There were dozens and dozens of tourist busses at the tunnels, and I wondered as I approached with my own small tour group of about 10 how all the people in those buses would be able to experience the jungle site. Not to worry. When we entered, there seemed to be only a few people there, but I gradually realized that there were probably multiple routes with the same features, and each route could easily swallow up significant numbers without crowding. In fact, it all looked the same, and this being my first real jungle experience, I could see how easy it would be to get lost in it.
Our guide started us off with a viewing of a propaganda film about the tunnels made in 1967. It had all the crudeness and bias of a stereotypical propaganda documentary. It was in English, and I’m not sure who it was meant for in those days, but it certainly took you back to that world and that war in a very real way. It also was a good introduction to some of the features we would be seeing first-hand a few moments later. Our guide was young—I’m guessing about 21 or 22---and with the war over 42 years ago, the closest he may have come to it was hearing the stories of his grandparents, since his parents were probably just children at the time themselves. He was a nice guy and seemed a gentle soul, but his presentation was sometimes a little too flippant for my taste. When he was showing us the hidden pits that were lined with deadly, hardened and sharpenedbamboo sticks designed to impale the soldier who accidentally fell into it, he made a few too many jokes. But I wonder if that’s what war tourism does to you. A few years ago I invited a Vietnam veteran to speak to the students in the residential college I directed, and he told them that his experience of the war had been more horrific than any war movie he had seen. And he also said that he was sometimes offended by the war games that young people played online or on their PlayStations because for him war could never be a source of entertainment.
After viewing different features of the tunnel system in the jungle, we finally were given the opportunity to actually crawl down into one. You had a choice of short, medium and long stretches, and choosing to be a hero with the other men in the group, I opted for the longest version. Halfway through it I was thinking that I was an idiot. You had to bend down to near-hands & feet crawling-position (probably 3 ½ feet high by 3 ½ wide), and my back was frequently scraping along the top of the tunnel. They installed a few lights down there, but you would turn a corner and the light would be nearly non-existent and there would be two or three dim options in front of you and it was sometimes unclear where to go. The air was stifling and moist, and a few times there was no one visibly in front of me and that’s when I felt a slight sense of panic begin to grow. I mean, there were people ahead and behind me and I’m sure I would have been fine, but I could see someone becoming paralyzed down there if they had even a slight fear of claustrophobia.
It must have been an extremely scary life for those thousands and thousands of guerillas who necessarily had to live in that underground world for months. And even so, they were not always safe. When their opponents found tunnel entrances they tried to poison the oxygen-poor tunnels with deadly gasses, or they tried to bomb them out. Of course the tunnels were also deadly for the American and South Vietnamese armies. They never knew when an ambush could come out of one of its thousands of hidden ‘foxholes’ or elaborate traps. It was a poor nation’s attempt to defend itself from rich nations’ wars, and you have to give them credit for enduring such harsh conditions to reclaim their independence. Their own countrymen in the South Vietnamese army lacked such fanatical devotion to their cause, and of course, they lost the war.
So much about the war seems so clear now in hindsight. When the US entered into alliances with reigning powers in Vietnam in the 50’ and 60’s, it professed to be saving the world from the domino effect of communist socialism and its authoritarianism. With Vietnam and the Koreas, we thought we had to draw a line to hold back a surging tide. At least that was the argument that most Americans heard. But taking the long view of this people and their history of being dominated by external powers, it seems that we should have understood that it was up to the people of the country to choose how they wanted to be with one another, and under what kind of a government. We send our young men and women to fight and kill one another, and most have very little idea what the ‘argument’ is really about. Put them together in a soccer or basketball game, and let a nation’s pride work itself out on the game court rather than on the bloody battlefield.
The group who toured the tunnels with me were an interesting mix. There was one American from California, who had been teaching English this year in Thailand. There was a South African middle aged couple who were touring Southeast Asia like myself. There was a young couple from Germany (boyfriend and girlfriend), a couple from Sri Lanka, and a young man from Australia. I think we were all duly impressed by what we saw, and during a brief respite together (eating the dangerous tapioca root), we reflected on the meaning of patriotism in our own nations these days. There seemed to be a consensus that it is important to be proud of your heritage and your national story, but that in our present world we have the opportunity as never before to be united as family and neighbors around the world.
Our trip home inside the van was quiet, as we watched the chaotic traffic swirling all around us. I remember having a similar feeling leaving the battlefield of Gettysburg, wondering about all the particular human beings who had lived and died on that land, all their family members who lives were crushed at what had happened to them there. Probably everywhere we walk these days, there are ancient battlefields beneath our Nikes, and enduring molecular evidence of the spilled blood of unknown ancestors.
The hives finally abated when I remembered that antihistamines are often a solution. There were a few hours of very uncomfortable itchy and burning sensations on my arms, hands, feet and legs. But the drug finally kicked in, and my discomfort quickly was forgotten.
On to Hanoi, once the capital of the French colony of Southeast Asia.