To say today profoundly moved me would not be enough.
My original interest in coming to Vietnam, outside of my desire to travel the world, stemmed from the impact this country had on my Grandpap when he served during the war. Not only was he impacted mentally and physically, but genetically as well. His exposure to Agent Orange lives on inside of me, as it passes down through many generations. Today, I finally got an opportunity to explore that connection.
Moments after I stepped into the thick jungle I immediately started to reach a level of understanding that can only be attained through first-hand experience. The heat was overwhelming, the greenery so thick it can’t be seen through, and worst of all, the deafening sound of bugs. I’m not even exaggerating, I could not hear the tour guide over the sound of these insects. It was so unbelievably loud and something I had never even considered before.
All I could think of was my pap and the tens of thousands of other young people drafted like him. I was uncomfortable with the setting and I was literally only visiting for fun (and educational purposes). There were paths carved and people all around. I kept trying to envision being dropped in this place, when there were no preexisting paths and safety features, and left to fight for my life. I barely made it two hours. I truly cannot comprehend how anyone could think clearly in that environment, let alone survive there for any prolonged period of time.
I’m not going to lie, it was a bit odd hearing everything told from the Vietnamese point of view. My pap is a hero, and I have never seen him as anything other than that. Vietnam, however, obviously considered the American soldiers the evil enemy. These words flew so casually, which blew my mind. All I could think about was the torture my pap and many others had to go through in those conditions alone. Then considering all of the other aspects of war, which are exponentially worse, on top of the physical atmosphere, I had my first and honest-to-god realization. I only caught a glimpse of what soldiers like my pap experienced and I already understood how that changes someone at their core, forever.
Quickly I came to the conclusion that I would never ever have been able to make it if I were in the shoes of one of those American soldiers. The bugs alone would have driven me over the edge. Vietnam Veterans deserve SO much more respect and gratitude for their incredible sacrifice. I wish everyone could witness what I did today.
The point of our trip was to explore the intricate Cu Chi tunnel system, which was built by the Viet Cong soldiers. They lived in these tunnels, completely underground. We saw everything from meeting rooms, to bathrooms, to hospitals. Entire communities existed throughout different levels of the earth, starting at three meters below the grass. They even built complex escape systems, circulation measures, and the technology to prevent cooking smoke from giving away their position. These tunnels, despite the fact that they were dug essentially by hand and with small shovels, gave the Viet Cong an incomprehensible advantage.
We were given the opportunity to go through multiple different tunnel systems. I am not a fan of small, dark spaces or creepy-crawlers of any shape, color, or size. However, these fears didn’t stop me from shimmying my way down into the shoe-box sized holes in the ground. The actual tunnels themselves were not that much wider, until of course they opened up to the larger rooms deep down in the Earth. It was a bit scary, as the tour guide informed us that one wrong turn and we could end up in Cambodia. Also, the entrances were excellently camouflaged, making them almost impossible to find.
Everything I have described so far attributed to the struggle of the Americans. Not only were they completely unfamiliar with the terrain and climate, the Vietnamese were so intelligent and sly they could not be beat my guns alone. I am truly impressed by the dedication and work they put in, not just to build the tunnels, but to live their entire lives inside of them. I spent a total of maybe 20 minutes underground and that was enough for me.
If there is anything I have learned from today, it is that winners do really write history. Vietnam won the war, so they are able to interpret the story however they see fit. Interestingly though, other than in direct context of the war today, I have not heard nor sensed any ill will, feelings, jokes, comments, or thoughts toward anything/anyone American in my time here. Even today, it seemed much more factual than emotionally charged. The official position the government takes on the war is definitely not in tandem with the general mentality of the people. It was a painful time in the history of the country, but the people do not hold anything against the US. In fact, the Vietnamese, especially the younger population, openly embrace everything Western, from investments to pop culture to relationships. This just goes to show that the people of Vietnam value the future of their country far more than any past transgressions. I have experienced the living proof of the unofficial development motto that was shared earlier in my studies here: look back, but always keep moving forward.
My eyes were profoundly opened today in so many ways by so many things. I finally got to fulfill some of the soul-searching that led me to Vietnam. I cannot even put into words how it feels. Although I never truly will understand to the full extent or even anywhere near, now I know I am as close as I can get to this significant piece of my pap. Although we were not here at the same time, or for the same reason, we will forever be connected by this place.
Today was far more than just a day trip for me. I have been able to tether the missing link in my family history and my own personal journey. My whole world has changed. This is exactly what I came to Vietnam for, and now I will be leaving with more than I ever could’ve imagined.
I am so proud of my pap and I can’t thank him enough for everything he has done and everything that he is.
Pap, if you’re reading this, I love you.