Given our nationality and the fact that the Vietnam War ended just over 30 years ago, we were surprised that Vietnamese people showed us no animosity or resentment. In fact, when we told people that we were from America, they very often smiled – and genuinely so. We'd score even more points when we mentioned that we used to live in California, home to a large Vietnamese community. Cynics would argue that the Vietnamese are shrewd businesspeople, but we're certain that our treatment wasn't all about business.
The American War or Vietnam War?
It's all about perspectives. The Vietnamese call it the American War. We felt the presence of its history more in the central and southern parts of Vietnam than in the north. Remnants of American military bases and battle sites are still visible in places like China Beach, outside of Danang. Victims of land mines and those affected by agent orange walk the streets. Tourists sites remark about unexploded bombs that still mar parts of the interior Vietnamese landscape. Southern Vietnamese seemed more open, or perhaps able, to talk about the war and the division that occurred within their country. As you move south in Vietnam, you'll also find more people whose relatives escaped as “boat people” through airlifts to the United States in the mid-1970s.
Although not as pleasant as exploring food markets and new neighborhoods, we spent two mornings at war-related sites to see the Vietnamese perspective on the War. We left with a greater understanding of how hellish it must have been for all involved. And we still can't tell you exactly why it started or why it lasted so long.
War Remnants Museum
US military planes and tanks adorn the garden of the War Remnants Museum in HCMC. The exhibits here offer a sobering look (and albeit lopsided one…victors write the history books and build the museums) into the horrors and aftermath of the Vietnam War, from the immediate loss of life (estimated at 4 million) to the effects still felt today of chemicals like Agent Orange that were used during the War. The photos inside the exhibit are sad, ghastly and numerous. The point about the insanity of war is well made. We've visited various genocide, war, and oppression sites around the world and this one left us particularly devastated. Unless you don't have a pulse, you can't help but feel a bit discouraged about humanity and what people, regardless of their stripe, can manage to do to one another in the name of war.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Located about 40 kilometers outside of Saigon, the Cu Chi region was the site of a 200-kilometer network of tunnels. These tunnels provided a way for people to navigate the area without being seen and to live underground. Tunnels were complete with kitchens, bunkers, factories, and clinics. The persistence and ingenuity of the fighters was impressive, particularly as they scavenged metal from downed aircraft to create medical equipment and build booby traps.
Our tour began with a North Vietnamese propaganda film praising the courage of the Cu Chi fighters. It was another example where we learned more from what was *not* said.
The hole seen here is an example of a hidden entrance to the tunnels. Someone could drop down into the tunnel system to disappear or pop up above ground to lay a trap and then disappear again. If you compare the size of the hole compared to the shoes, this shows how small the entrances were. Even though a section of the tunnels was widened to enable tourists to crawl through, the tunnel was still barely navigable and prompted almost instant claustrophobia.
We can’t imagine what it must have been like to live in the tunnels, sometimes for days on end, during heavy bombing. Of the 16,000 original Cu Chi residents, only 4,000 remained at the conclusion of the war.
When you're finished with these sites, head to someplace pleasant and happy – like a soup stall – and marvel at the fact that we can somehow happily co-exist, even after our countries' governments pointed guns at one another just over three decades ago.
Arranging a Cu Chi Tunnel Tour
- Cu Chi Tunnels: Although tours can be irritating and include bathroom stops conveniently located at handicraft shops, the easiest and cheapest way to view the tunnels is by booking a tour in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Basic tours cost around $4/person and include transportation and a guide for the tunnels. Entrance fees to the tunnels are additional.
- War Remnants Museum: 28 Vo Van Tan, Q3, Ho Chi Minh City