After a bad day we can easily forget the hope that a new dawn brings. However, it’s a sobering visit to the Cu Chi tunnels, where 3,000 Vietnamese lived and hid from bombs during the Vietnam War, that makes one truly appreciate the real significance of seeing the light of day.
In order to experience this historic site we first had to circumnavigate the traffic of Ho Chi Minh city where 7.43 million scooters transport 8.43 million people around each day. Scooters travelling in different directions met in the middle of intersections like a swarm of bees. We rode alongside them in our tour bus, across highways and into suburbia where a few locals waved to us from their scooters. It was hard to believe that these people endured a war and yet remained peaceful and happy.
But they knew how to survive and smile. With air strikes and cluster bombs falling on Cu Chi in the South on a daily basis during the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese living there dug a sophisticated tunnel network system – stretching 270 kilometres – to hide and live in. The tunnels offered very little in the way of air, space and natural light but they were the only chance of survival for the villagers, who’s average height was around 151 centimetres (5ft), who hid in them.
The Viet Cong 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.
A 100-metre makeshift tunnel on site gave tourists an idea of what it was like to pass through the tight narrow space in complete blackness with no air. Feeling claustrophobic I opted out of the guided tour. Instead I watched a brief video showing life in the tunnels and how they were built, and how shrapnel from bombs and leftover ammunition were used by the Viet Cong to make explosive booby traps or punji stick pits. Other resources included termite mounds with carefully disguised holes to allow the tunnel dwellers to breathe fresh air during the day time while US forces looked for them.
After that sobering visit, we headed back to Ho Chi Minh city in rush hour scooter traffic. We arrived back at our hotel two and a half hours later, feeling emotionally heavy from the day’s experience. But it showed what people are capable of under fire and seemed to prove English philosopher Bernard Williams’ famous quote that “There was never a night or problem that could defeat sunrise or hope”.
The tunnels were also a reminder that what we do today will echo in eternity. And a visit to the Vietnam War museum in Ho Chi Minh city brings this to life in a way that leaves nothing to the imagine. No matter how many films you have watched about the war, the harsh reality is here in this building.
The first floor shows how the War began. A glass case housed the official US government notice declaring that America was intervening in the civil war with military force against the communist Viet Cong forces. Next to that were letters of support from political parties in hundreds of countries claiming solidarity with the people of Vietnam against the unlawful invasion.
War does not determine who is right - only who is left
Photographic evidence showed the full impact of the war. In the two years from 1966-1967, each year, 155000 soldiers were sent to the south on average, equivalent to nearly 13000 soldiers per month, to drive out the communist government allies of North Vietnam. The number of US soldiers in South Vietnam was 181,000 on January 1st 1966, and 497,498 by December 1967. 58, 220 of them died. The average age of a US soldier during the war was 18.
The number compares with three million Vietnamese, including two million civilians, who died. One of the photos on display told of an eyewitness account of a women cowering outside her village home shielding her children from US soldiers. The eyewitness recalled how seconds later the woman and her children dropped to the ground like dominoes after being shot in cold blood.
In another photo, a group of US soldiers posing next to dead bodies that were blown apart by bombs and machine guns. A caption described the futile nature of the soldiers’ predicament: “The above picture shows exactly what the brass want you to do in the Nam. It’s up to you, you can put in your time just trying to make it back in one piece or you can become a psycho like the Lifer (E-6) in the picture who digs this shit”
However, the guns and bombs were only part of the impact. Photos depicting the effects of nerve agent, or Agent Orange drove home the brutality of the Vietnam War. One of them was of Tung (pictured below), a nerve agent victim who could not speak and could only eat and drink with the help of others. Yet, observed the photographer Doan Duc Minh, his eyes gleamed with the thirst for life of a normal person. There were important lessons to be learned about life from what could be seen in his eyes, said Minh. Sadly, the agent not only impacted the war victims themselves. It’s latter effects on the gene pool are an uncomfortable reminder of humankind’s destructive history and how what we do today will have an undeniably visible mark on the future.
And after that reminder, we left the museum, feeling as though someone had switched the lens and we were seeing an alternate version of reality from someone else’s perspective. And perceptions can change in an instant when you are seeing the world through another person’s eyes and living in his skin. No matter what we think we know about the Vietnam War it’s story needs to be told over again for future generations. That’s because we can only move forward once we’ve seen it from the perspective of the locals and can accept the discomfort that that perspective might bring.