To all my history buffs/nerds out there (Hi Dad!), today’s blog post should tickle your fancy. Today was another day trip day, this time to the Cu Chi Tunnels which is an underground system of tunnels and rooms that the Viet Kong used to be the “Ghost Army.” These Viet Kong soldiers used the tunnels both to help keep themselves safe from American attack , as well as to help further their guerrilla fighting capabilities. After all, they were Northern supporters living in the South, they needed ways to give themselves an advantage in their war efforts. These tunnels form an enormous underground network where a whole group of people, for a period of time, actually lived. Seeing and hearing that these small tunnels used to be homes, hospitals, war planning rooms, etc. is pretty mind boggling, thats for sure!
In order to experience the tunnels fully, a small village town with mannequins is set up on the ground, to simulate the actual village that would have been over the tunnels, since the tunnels were not used in an isolated fashion, but rather worked as an underground / safety shelter space for an already existing town. We were able to see how the town was small but self sufficient, and also how it protected itself from invasion. This protection mainly came in the form of booby traps, such as trap doors with pointed bamboo spikes beneath.
After touring this fake village, we were also given the opportunity to crawl through some of the tunnels, which had slightly varying lengths and widths but were overall incredibly well preserved. Encountering a bat in a dark tunnel wasn’t really on my bucket list, but I can now say I’d be able to check it off!! Also, these tunnels also made me pretty happy to be so short, because they were pretty tight, I’m talking about 3 feet tall. I’m not claustrophobic at all, but I shudder at the thought of personally having to spend any extended period of time in them. Like the town, the tunnels were also protected from detection by having trap door lids to the entrances that blended in with the ground and could also easily be covered by a layer of leaves. Not only that, but since the Americans had never fought or lived in these tunnels before, the Viet Kong would’ve had a distinct advantage fighting have occurred within the tunnels. Overall, crawling through these tunnels and experiencing them first hand made their very existence and past use all the more fascinating.
In between all of this, we sat for a short period to watch a propaganda film. It can be said that, “History is written by the victors,” but I think your perception of history is also incredibly influenced by the country you come from. Naturally, the war is portrayed by the government as a great Vietnamese victory of resilience and gumption over a world super power who embodied tyranny and evil. Don’t quote me, but I’m pretty sure they referred to American soldiers at one point in the film as evil devils or evil demons. As an American, it was a little jarring to hear the other side, but I do realize that since America was the enemy and was killing Vietnamese citizens and causing a lot of destruction in their wake, the government will have a more than negative opinion of the army/soldiers. It also makes sense the communist government would be extra harsh in their description of the Americans, because communism was the very institution America was trying to eradicate during the war. Equally, it is advantageous for the government to present the War in such a manner because it evokes a strong sense of Vietnamese nationality and pride that they beat a country much more powerful than they (like the Revolution invokes American pride), and in a one party communist system, national pride can be manifested as party/government loyalty.
Though this is the official party line, talking with normal Vietnamese people about the War, you’ll get a much less severe reaction. They don’t hold any grudges about the war, even only 40ish years later. One of our lecturers even went out of his way, when discussing the war briefly, to emphasize that the American Army was in Vietnam and fighting the war, but that the American people were at home and had no support for the war. Though the lack of at-home support for the war was more of a protest of Americans dying / the government lying to the people, the Vietnamese are able to interpret this lack of support as a lack of support for killing Vietnamese citizens and destroying their land, so they do interpret it that way. I’m not sure if this nonchalance about the war was a natural occurrence, or if it came about after we became their largest economic supporter and our government’s had more friendly relations. This more laid back and forgiving attitude could be a societal effect of Vietnam’s entrance onto the world stage and the U.S.’s subsequent involvement in the country.
After the Cu Chi Tunnels, we visited the Vietnamese Cemetery for their fallen soldiers. The cemetery was beautiful, and is the Vietnamese equivalent of Arlington. There, alongside the UEF students were gave incense as an offering both to the main monument and to some of the soldiers. It was in this cemetery that it really struck me how there are no real winners in war. Yes there’s a tactical, maybe a political winner – some group / country who gets their way at the end. However, war in general with its massive amounts of destruction and death also means that both sides lose. Life as normal citizens have known it gets altered irreparably. Whether the historical narrative cares to emphasize this or not, both sides are human (not demons) who never get to go home to their loved ones.
This historical stuff is what my family always does for vacation (we’re too antsy to sit on a beach all day), so this day’s activities felt normal to me despite also being fascinating and thought-provoking. This day was more somber than some of the other day’s I’ve visited war memorials and cemeteries, but it was an amazing day and an experience i’ll never forget.