Today took a lot out of me. I woke up this morning thinking I was ready for the hard day ahead but the facing a reality of the effects of the war was heartbreaking and frustrating. I say “a reality” because the reality of the war is different depending on whom one might ask. But the reality is that no one “won” the Vietnam war, there were only losers. I want to say to anyone continuing to read that this is difficult material to get through as an American, but I think provides an important contrasting perspective on what we call the Vietnam War, but what the Vietnamese call the American War.
Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnel System felt like entering an alternate version of history. Myself and the Pitt and UEF students visited the set of tunnel systems that are set up for local tourists and Vietnamese student groups, rather than the set designed for foreign, especially American, French and Australian, tourists. This difference is small but important. The point of view that these historical and government run sites give is drastically different for each audience. The American set of tunnels is given in a more digestible way as to not upset those who visit and learn from the country that was the enemy.
The site we went to on the other hand, is designed for Vietnamese audiences and pulls no punches. We arrived at the tunnels and were greeted with tanks and planes from the war, pretty standard to put alongside this tour. Moving forward, we came to smaller weapons cases filled with rifles, machine guns and RPGs from the war. After that was the video presentation. Sitting for 20 minutes and hearing about the “American-killer Heroes” made me wildly uncomfortable. As the video went on for what felt like hours, and I learned more of how the people of Cu Chi rallied together to fight off the “American Devil,” it really hit me as to how ignorant we, as Americans, were to get involved in Vietnam. I know that some of it is government propaganda, and completely ignored the blame that the North Vietnam had to share in terms of having the conflict, but it still resonated with me because of its objection to much of what I learned in american school.
Once the video finished, we took a tour through the actual tunnels that the Viet Cong used to hide live in during the war. Because of Cu Chi’s proximity to Saigon and the Ho Chi Minh trail, (a supply route used by the North Vietnamese) it became an easy target during the war because of its geography in between the two. During the war, the citizens of Cu Chi had to uproot their lives and live underground to avoid artillery bombings from South Vietnam and the US.
These tunnels are a modern marvel of low tech engineering. Using only hand shovels and baskets, the tunnels were dug by hand and supported with local materials. With the intricate 3-layered design, the tunnels went down as far as 10 meters (30 feet) into the ground at some points, and were equipped with air holes and river escape tunnels. Most of the entrances to the tunnels were maybe 1 foot wide and covered with leaves and foliage to completely hide them. In the tunnels I had to duck walk to get through between rooms, and at some points I even struggled to get through.
The perspective seeing those tunnels gave changed how I viewed the American involvement in the Vietnam. Before I thought some misguided opinions and misinformation lead to escalation and we got too deep and could not realistically get out without causing more harm, but now I feel that from the second the first Marine landed in Vietnam, every minute we were doing more harm than if we had never landed there in the first place. Lives were changed, ruined and ended because of US involvement, and we can never take that back.
Break time: Lunch was really good and the view over the Saigon river was breathtaking. A much needed decompression after getting slapped in the face with a lot of new information.
What really hit it home for me though was the 15 minutes we spent in the Martyrs Cemetery in Cu Chi. 6000 Vietnamese fighters are buried there who were killed between 1945 and 1975 in the First and Second Indochina Wars. As I walked through, I could only think about how many lives were cut short and how many more were ruined because someone lost a father, brother, sister, daughter, or son, all of whom laid down their lives defending their country from a foreign invader. I even noticed a set of brothers buried next to one another, with pictures of them put on the graves in order to remember what they looked like. America hasn’t had a war fought on its soil since we tore ourselves apart in the Civil War, and no one else meddled in our internal issues. The Vietnam War was their civil war and we thought we had the right to come in and say how it should end. I had to take a moment to sit down in the cemetery to gather my thoughts and process the amount of damage that the US did to tens of thousands of innocent people.
After a long bus ride back to district 1 of Ho Chi Minh City, I thought the hard stuff was done, but it was time to go to an craft production store where everyone who works there is a victim of Agent Orange side effects. Some were definitely old enough to have been alive during the war, but many also had birth defects from the genetically altering properties of the chemical. These people, despite their ailments, made beautiful art and I bought a lot from them to help support a small piece of the mending process. No pics of the art because a lot of it is gifts for people, sorry.
But after taking all of today in, I am definitely a more aware person of the effect the US has had on the world, and I cannot help but think about all the effects our country has caused all over the world. Today was difficult, but worth the struggle to come out the other side of the tunnel a more informed and empathetic person.