Saturday, April 15, 2006

Incredible Cu Chi Tunnels

Saigon, Vietnam, March 20, 2006

The Cu Chi Tunnels (pronounced 'Gucci') are a series of tunnels that were dug by the Vietnamese people over twenty-eight years, from 1946 to 1975. They were built as a secret base so that the Vietcong could fight the French, and later to fight the American Army. The tunnels run for seventy-five miles and were all dug by hand. The tunnels made the Vietcong virtually unbeatable in war.

This is our guide; Chaquie. We call him Jackie Chan, after the Martial Arts Movie Star. I think he looks like the actor and has his same sense of humor. He was an interpreter for the South Vietnamese army up until 1975 when the U.S. surrendered. He is passionate about his history. He's not bitter. He just wants us to understand what the War was about. He said that at 11:30 on April 30th, 1975, just before Vietnam was declared one country again, there were many people he knew, who put guns to their heads. This was a Civil War. It was neighbor fighting neighbor. In the end, there were many people who could not live with what they did in the War. And there were many who could not reconcile their lives to the new Order.
It's very hard for me to write about Vietnam because I feel very emotional about my trip here. It is a country of breath-taking beauty and yet the scene of a thousand years of horror. Please forgive me if I seem to make light of the heroic and tragic scenes I witnessed. But this is what the Vietnamese do themselves. They are a people who have survived everything that could possibly be thrown at them, and they have overcome and thrived.

As our tour bus took us to the site of the Tunnels, I was adopted by a class of Filipino students who are studying in Saigon. The girl on the far right, Mertle (who is not actually part of the class but joined them for the day), asked if I could take some photos of their group because they lost their camera on a bus trip a few days earlier. The woman next to Mertle is Michele, who is one of the teachers. We all arrived at the Tunnels in that bus behind them. The Cu Chi Tunnels are just north of Saigon.

This is Mertle, showing us one of the secret entrances to the tunnels. The Vietcong had hundreds openings like this one.

This abandoned U.S. Army tank has become a playground for children. I have a movie of the kids shrieking and laughing as if they are on a swing set. It's been thirty-one years since the War ended, so these kids only know this machine as a great place to play. All day I found my heart torn between the fun we were having and the monstrous events that took place here.

This is one of the booby traps the Vietcong devised. They would hang it up in a hut so that it would release and swing into a soldier when he came through the door.

The U.S. dropped thousands of bombs on the Tunnel locations to try to destroy them. Many of the tunnels were thirty feet underground and were able to survive the blasts. And when a bomb failed to explode, the Guerrilla soldiers were carefully take it back to the tunnels and cut it open to build different bombs. Many of the discarded U.S. munitions were recycled and used against them.

It was like the whole day challenged my sense of how to act in a politically correct fashion. Right here at the Tunnel location, there is a rifle range specifically set up so that tourists can have the experience of firing an AK-47 Assault rifle. After Mertle posed for this photo, I shot ten rounds of ammo at the target. They gave prizes for good shooting. I never hit anything. This is the first time I ever fired a gun. There are so many ironic experiences in this day that don't know how to really start expressing them.

After target practice, our guide took us down the tunnels.

Mertle was right behind me as we crawled through. I took this photo in pitch black darkness but my flash picked her up great. couldn't even see her. There was one section of the tunnel where I actually started to feel claustrophobic, which is saying a lot for a guy who used to dig tunnels in the back yard for fun. (But I've stopped doing that now Mom). There are three exits from these tunnels. I went the full 100 metres of this run but many people (wisely) got out early. My friend Ted told me that a few weeks before, one man fainted inside the tunnels and they had to haul his unconscious, two hundred pound body back out.

This is the place where we exited. The walls and floor are a slimy clay. It is really hot today and even though we are underground it's still very warm in there. People actually lived for years under there. It makes me shake just to think of the courage and determination it must have taken for the Vietnamese people to have been willing to stay down there.

This is one of the kitchens they used to make the meals, when they did have a chance to go outside.
Jacquie told us that the reason it was impossible for the American Army to beat the Vietcong was that they never could identify them. He said that the Vietcong soldiers were just ordinary people who worked as lawyers or teachers in the day and then quietly slipped away at night to the Tunnels to fight the American troops. You could have a neighbor next door to you who was a Vietcong Guerrilla and you would never even know it. That's why the American troops were never safe. They never knew who the enemy was.

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