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Saturday 20 Jul 2013
Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Tunnels of war

We joined a coach trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels, a couple of hours outside Ho Chi Minh City.  I didn't have breakfast, which turned out to be a big mistake as there was no lunch stop.  On the way there, we stopped at an artisan workshop, where disabled workers made a variety of lacquerware pictures, inlaid with egg shells or mother of pearl, pottery and sculptures.  The only food here was ban mee, a small baguette filled with chicken salad.  The French influence has left a strong bread legacy here in Vietnam as well as Laos and Cambodia.  I had to make do with a mango smoothie.

Our tour guide was a slightly bonkers Filipino man who had actually fought in the Vietnam war on the side of the Americans.  He had some interesting stories to tell, but instead of using a microphone on the bus he simply stood at the front and talked in his normal voice, so it was very difficult to hear him past halfway back.

At the tunnels, we were led into one of the sunken bunkers to watch a video on the Cu Chi area.  It was a black and white propaganda film, depicting the idyllic farming life of the area before the evil American ogres invaded.  Even the guide got fed up of it and turned it off after 15 minutes bemoaning how biased it was.  Instead, he showed us a map of the area with the tunnels marked in.  There are over 200km of tunnels at different depths allowing the Viet Cong fighters to move around and ambush the American soldiers.  They could also live underground undetected using clever tunnel techniques, such as having five separate smoke chambers between the kitchens and the chimneys, to release the smoke a very long way from the fire itself.  The tunnels were designed for the small Vietnamese soldiers with guns, rather than big American soldiers wearing body armour and equipment.  Tunnels narrowed into squeezes so that if a tunnel entrance was discovered, the Americans would be unable to give chase underground without becoming a sitting target. 

We left the bunker and walked along the narrow jungle trails to a clearing.  Our guide showed us a small hatch hidden under the moss and leaves, no bigger than an aeroplane tray table.  Underneath there was an oval shaped hollow where a Viet Cong fighter could hide and wait for an American patrol to walk past.  They would be able to lift the hatch, shoot and be hidden from sight before the soldiers could spin around.  A few people had a go at squeezing in and closing the hatch above them, including Carl.  He was able to fold himself in, but I caught a brilliant photo of his expression as he tried to get back out again.  We passed more tunnel entrances, trenches and B52 bomb craters.  Our guide demonstrated some of the booby traps the Viet Cong used: sharpened bamboo sticks in the bottom of man traps; rotating barrels with sharp metal spikes so the soldiers would fall into the pit and be skewered from both sides; frames covered in spikes that would swing down from the ceiling when soldiers kicked open doors - the soldiers were prepared for this and would have their guns out to block the falling frame, but the bottom section was hinged and would therefore swing up and hit the soldier in the thighs.  Again, man's imagination and capacity for inflicting harm on others never ceases to amaze and disturb me.

The tour was made interesting by the fact that our guide had experienced much of this firsthand.  He stressed many times that he felt no animosity toward the Vietnamese despite being shot three times.  He discussed with his platoon leaders the reasons why the Americans couldn't win.  The Vietnamese had been at war with the French for ten years before the Americans officially joined in, so their soldiers were experienced, prepared and fighting on home turf.  By contrast, the Americans were young and inexperienced, with no idea how to fight in humid jungle territory.  The Viet Cong were used to sitting on their haunches for hours on end, waiting for the opportunity to catch a patrol unaware before disappearing back underground.

We passed a rusted old US tank riddled with bullet holes, reminding me of a defeated Dalek after an encounter with Doctor Who.  All the while we were in the jungle and hearing the awful stories of war, we were accompanied by a soundtrack of gunfire in the distance.  This was explained when we reached an AK47 shooting range and tourist shop.  Carl and Jon went off to get their Rambo fix, but I again found it hard to see the attraction after what we had just learned and seen.  In fact, I sat there flinching at the gunshots and tried not to think about it.  Rather than picturing how it must have been for both sides in the war, I thought about the current gun ownership debates in the US and how terrifying it must be to hear gunshots like this in your school or university.  I know there's more to the debate, but it seems like an easy decision to me...

The next part of the Cu Chi experience is a 120m section of tunnel preserved for those brave enough to try life underground.  Every 20m or so there is an exit, so people who feel claustrophobic in the tunnel can make a hasty exit.  I wasn't convinced I would make it all the way through, but I wanted to try it.  The entrance was in the corner of a bunker, a sunken room with a thatched roof.  The corner dropped away into a deeper hole with the tunnel leading off it.  Once I saw the tunnel entrance, I could feel my stomach get tighter, but I was determined to do at least the first 20m.  I asked Jon to go after me and give me a little bit of room, so that I wouldn't feel too crowded.  In fact, the tunnel was not quite as small as I had expected.  It was no more than three feet high, so even I still had to bend down, but I could move along in a crouch rather than having to crawl.  There are no lights in the tunnel, the only illumination coming from the exits every so often.  I was more concerned about concentrating on where I was going in the dark bits, in fear of getting lost down a side tunnel, to realise that these were actually the exits.  This meant I got to the squeeze point about two thirds of the way through without even thinking about getting out.  At the squeeze point, the ground sloped downwards and the roof of the tunnel got lower, so the only way through really was to slide on my bum.  Thankfully, the tunnel opened back out again on the other side so we could keep going on our feet again.  I don't think I would have made it through if it hadn't.  The squeeze was too similar to the abseil into Waitomo Caves in New Zealand and made me very nervous, but there was actually only one more section of tunnel before we reached the bunker at the far end.  I'd made it the whole 120m!  Josh was the only other one of our group to make it right through. 

Back in Ho Chi Minh, we followed our hungry bellies to a very late lunch - Simon and I to a Pho shop for more delicious beef noodle soup (a Vietnamese specialty, a beef broth with rice noodles, slices of beef and served with a plate of raw beansprouts and assorted herbs which you add as you eat) while the boys went next door... to KFC!  Heathens.  Later on, we tried a street cafe just a few doors up from the hostel.  There were a lot of local people packing the small tables and enjoying their food, always a good sign, and the food was great.  Josh and Jon did tried their luck at getting into the sky bar a few blocks away, but were turned down - unsurprisingly given they were wearing the regulation backpacker uniform of flip flops and beer vests.


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